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Challenges and Responsibilities

April 11, 2014

Dear members of the Vassar community, 

I have heard from many of you, on campus as well as alumnae/i and parents, who are concerned, as am I, about campus tensions stemming from different viewpoints about Israel and Palestine. I know that people have very deep feelings about these issues and emotions can be raw. While there are people who have been working hard to further understanding on campus, we are a community very diverse in thought. Some feel very clear in their views, while others are conflicted.  Some are frustrated and feeling unheard when opportunities for discussion are organized, while others have said they are uncomfortable publicly expressing their views. Still others are unengaged with the issue. 

There is no way to make the challenges or the frustrations surrounding these issues just go away, nor do we want to do that. What I believe we in the Vassar community can contribute to these discussions and any other set of complicated and contentious issues is a way to talk about them with intellectual discipline and mutual respect, even in the face of heated disagreements. 

There is no more natural home for this process than at Vassar. We welcome the multiple differing opinions we have among our faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, and families on these and many other issues. And this is especially important during a time when we see a lack – at times almost a complete absence  -- of civility and engagement within our political system and in our media. With our multiplicity of backgrounds and opinions comes the challenge of figuring out how to have difficult discussions in which everyone involved has a chance to be heard without interference, certainly without derision. We need to treat each other civilly and with respect.  If we don’t, we shut down and shut out important voices. People may then withdraw from the discussion. This is a loss of ideas and perspectives.

Translating powerful principles into our behavior day-to-day is a challenge and a responsibility we all share. We have to be willing to participate in the difficult conversations, to commit to listening to what other people have to say, speak our minds clearly, critically analyze what we’ve heard, and consider a different perspective. It can be messy and we will not always get things exactly right, as has been the case over the last few months, and some of this will, as it has, become the center of attention in blogs and other outlets that have specific viewpoints. 

Some people will argue that action and protest are the only way to effect change at a particular moment in time at a particular place, that discussion will have little impact.  At times that has and certainly will be true.  But at Vassar our greatest strength is in the power of argument and reason. If we don’t start there when difficult issues arise, we are not living up to our mission.

We can look to core Vassar principles that guide our community. Our mission statement says that “the College makes possible an education that promotes analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship.” Among other things it calls for “a community diverse in background and experience, and a residential campus that fosters a learning community.”
Our Statement on Civility and Responsibility in an Academic Community, in stressing the importance of both free speech and an environment “free from intolerance, disrespect or harassment,” ends with the powerful statement that “genuine freedom of mind is not possible in the absence of civility.”

The college has clear policies against discrimination and harassment that the entire community must abide by, with carefully developed procedures for investigating and adjudicating alleged infractions that protect the rights of all involved. Sanctions are imposed in those instances when any member or members of the community are found to have violated the policies.  We have confidence in these policies and procedures and have used them to guide our responses in difficult situations. As an educational institution, our responsibilities include preparing our students to be active in important issues in their communities, the country, and the world after graduation. Our policies and procedures are designed to educate, in addition to holding people responsible for their actions.  

There have been several campus events over the past couple of weeks that model productive discussions. Our faculty, with Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette and me, devoted its entire meeting in March to discussion of how we carry on respectful conversation about contentious issues. Not surprisingly, a spectrum of views was expressed, and discussions will continue, including on the balance between free speech and civility, and the possibility that notions of civility itself can be a means of silencing some voices. 

Faculty also have addressed difficult topics in smaller gatherings, notably in a recent open conversation to consider the pros and cons of academic boycotts, particularly the boycott of Israeli academic institutions called for by the American Studies Association (ASA).  Faculty and administrators strongly in favor of and opposed to the boycott, as well as others who were there to listen, came together with the deliberate intent of sharing information and viewpoints. These discussions have been impassioned, but respectful. 

Two weekends ago we had a two-day retreat involving nearly 50 of our students and a number of administrators and faculty to discuss activism historically in the United States and on campus today. All accounts suggest that the weekend involved the kinds of interactions and discussions that we aspire to – engaged, passionate, attentive to individual voices. 

There also have been campus lectures on various sides of the issues related to Israel and Palestine in the past few weeks that happened with respectful disagreement but without disruptive conflict. I encourage members of our community to invite speakers to campus who represent the range of opinion on difficult issues and to have open discussions.  This is how we will help our students learn not only about the issues themselves but, equally important, how to learn about the issues. 

Our International Studies course, the Jordan River Watershed, that included a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, provided an opportunity for deep engagement and learning around some of the most contentious issues of our time.  While there were and continue to be discussions on campus about what kinds of trips take place, I have been moved by comments from the students and faculty who made this trip. Instead of the monolithic opinions some expected to encounter among many in both areas, they found instead a range of viewpoints. Our students and faculty witnessed diverse groups working through intense, difficult discussions to find some understanding and even common ground.  There can be no better learning experience.  I hope that difficult conversations on campus can have the same impact on our students’ lives.

I am cautiously optimistic and encouraged by these and other events. As a community we are taking very seriously our responsibility to prepare Vassar’s next generation to speak confidently, listen respectfully, and act responsibly and effectively. Most importantly, drawing on language long associated with our college, we are working to live up to the call to “educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others.”  

Catharine Hill