Letter to the Editor: The case for more than a history initiative

Your Feb. 15 article (“Inclusive History initiative unearths complicated legacies”) revealed months-long advocacy by the Ad Hoc Committee of Black and African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AHC) underlying the initiative’s launch, and led to inquiries about the AHC. The Bradley Administration’s announcement of the archivist’s two-year study (outlined in the Inclusive History initiative) of Vassar’s white supremacist history fails to acknowledge the AHC’s advocacy from May 26, 2022 to embark upon a much more comprehensive project. Moreover, it further delays reparative action, distracts from our deeper concerns and conflates the anti-Black racism of Vassar with its discrimination against other non-white groups.

Who comprises the AHC?

The AHC is comprised of almost 90 African American and Black alums of Vassar, from the classes of 1970 through 2022. All are members of AAVC (Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College) and AAAVC (African American Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College), and many have had leadership roles as Vassar students and as AAVC and local club members. The AHC includes multi-generational legacies, fund chairs, class and club officers, donors, former college trustees, a former AAVC president, past AAVC board members, former Vassar College staff and former Vassar Student Association leaders. Many of us are Black Studies (and later Africana Studies) majors and minors.

Why was the AHC created?

The AHC was created to flag and check the growing disrespectful and dismissive reactions that administrators have displayed toward Black alums’ efforts to move Vassar forward. We wondered whether the administrators’ effrontery could be a vestige of Vassar’s abiding history of anti-Black racism. Happily, the AHC’s activism has grown into more and has helped lead to the launch of the Vassar Inclusive History initiative—although there is much left for Vassar to do, and we must wait to see if Vassar’s product lives up to the initiative’s hype.

What does the AHC want?

It’s been over 50 years that self-identified Black Vassar students and alums have been challenged daily with what the Vassar experience has been (and continues to be) for them. A retrospective look at these years exposes promises made but unkept, and disturbing regression from what modest progress was achieved. And modest progress it was. The risk that students took, which led to the 1969 Main Takeover, remains a “sting” in the hearts of those who are still alive as alums and remember their Vassar experience. In this era of unleashed white supremacy, where does Vassar fit? What role will Vassar have in moving forward in the 21st century and catching up to our peer institutions? As Coretta Scott King has said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.”

An unpaid debt remains, and the AHC has urged the College to seriously consider, dialogue and implement the following nine issues, in the best interest of Vassar College today and the future.

  1. Establish and fully fund an Africana Studies Department with dedicated tenured faculty lines at the Associate Professor level and above, and fully disclose all bequests, donations and funds designated for Africana Studies.
  2. Recruit, hire and retain more African American administrators, counselors and tenure track faculty, in all areas of the College, including into an Africana Studies Department.
  3. Significantly increase the number of African American first-year enrollees.
  4. Provide the names and contact information for all self-identified Black and African American matriculated students to the AAAVC to ensure accountability, transparency and open communication. Should any student not wish to receive communications from the AAAVC, then the student may easily opt-out.
  5. Grant the Co-Chairs of the AAAVC voting and all other rights as full AAVC Board members, without diminishing the membership of other AAVC Board members who identify as Black or African American.
  6. Comprehensively research, document, publish and commemorate the contributions of Black people from the African Diaspora to the building of the academic, artistic, cultural, social and community life of Vassar College.
  7. Adopt a comprehensive statement acknowledging Vassar’s anti-Black history and support of segregation, and unequivocally declare that Vassar will not tolerate anti-Black racism and white supremacist ideology on its campus in any form, including under the guise of academic freedom and expression.
  8. Require all students, faculty, administrators and staff to abide by Vassar’s statement renouncing anti-Black racism and white supremacist ideology and make attendance at elimination of bias educational programming mandatory.
  9. Develop and implement an ongoing Collective Racial Healing, Truth and Reconciliation Program that includes an opportunity for current students, alumnae/i, faculty and administrators to safely share their experiences of anti-Black racism on campus and beyond; mediation and counseling; meaningful acknowledgment; grief and trauma healing; and amends.

As we looked at the wide array of Vassar’s peer institutions, we noted that many Africana Studies curricula were granted Department status immediately or over time. Even now, peer colleges and universities are creating departments or transitioning to departments. We could not understand why the Vassar administration drew a line in the sand, denying our students/scholars a full department. We wondered if they knew that they were even more firmly adhering to an historic practice of institutional racism. And so we concluded it would be best to provide the Vassar community with what we entitled “A Brief History of Anti-Black Racism at Vassar.” (Go to http://bit.ly/3Z5N4dJ) This brief but illustrative document contextualizes Vassar’s refusal to transition the Africana Studies program to a department, Vassar’s limit of 1.5 Africana Studies faculty slots and having those slots devoted solely to carceral studies, and the disdain that the President, Board Chair and Dean of the Faculty have displayed to the AHC.

The Dean of the Faculty utters the canard that in advocating for an Africana Studies Department, the AHC is disregarding the faculty prerogative of designing academic areas of study and their curricula. What we did was ask the Africana Studies faculty for an audience with them to engage in an open exchange. The Dean intervened and blocked it. What is our liberal arts college if not a place where such dialog about advancing learning is welcomed? Peer and preeminent institutions have found great value in establishing Departments of Africana Studies or elevating their programs to Department status. Vassar deserves an inquiry to discover why. Vassar’s claim that it has spoken to some of our program faculty and the faculty don’t want a department, is a natural answer to a pretextual question, “Do you want a department?” Current faculty have their own home departments and don’t need another department. We have no quarrel with that. The real question should have been: “Would you feel any impediment to teaching your course if it were cross-listed in a department rather than in a program?” Regardless, asking the right question does not undermine Vassar’s governance.

We have spent countless hours over almost nine months communicating concerns about entrenched systemic anti-Black racism at Vassar in email exchanges with the President, Board of Trustees, AAVC, Faculty Dean and FPCC (Faculty Policy and Conference Committee), with copies to leaders of Black student organizations, the only students we could access by email. We urged Vassar to remove barriers it has newly erected to AAAVC’s ability to contact current students and recent alums. (https://bit.ly/AHCofVC2a) If the AHC did not comprise many members who have demonstrated their commitment to making Vassar better, this relatively fruitless pursuit would have been abandoned in frustration months ago. We will not abandon our commitment to “Vassar for a lifetime.”

The AHC began these exchanges respectfully, intentionally and with hope that introspection and recognition of inherent bias would prevail among Vassar leadership. Instead, we were met with closed minds, defensiveness and denial, leaving us no choice but to speak publicly.

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