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Update on Initiatives Aimed at Strengthening the Campus Community

Dear colleagues and students,

      As we approach Commencement, when over 600 of our students will be graduating, and as we look forward to getting to know the members of the class of 2019, who were recently admitted, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the work of so many of you in supporting the college.  During this year, in collaboration with many of you, the college has been able to undertake a number of important initiatives aimed at strengthening our campus community. I want to report on what we have accomplished, as well as note some plans for the future.

  • We can all take pride in Vassar’s being awarded the inaugural $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The prize was awarded to Vassar for its commitment to attracting and graduating low-income students. It is the country’s largest award recognizing a college’s efforts toward achieving an economically diverse campus. We will apply the funds to programs for lower-income students, “first generation” students, and undocumented students, or “DREAMers.”  Specifically, this will include increased support to the college’s “Transitions” program, greater support for summer internships for students who can’t presently afford to take advantage of valuable unpaid experiences, and increased financial aid for undocumented students, whose status precludes eligibility for government support.  We look forward to using the funds for these purposes over the next few years.
  • An important initiative during this academic year has been the review of our Safety and Security protocols and procedures by the consulting firm of Margolis Healy.  Their report, with short and longer-term recommendations, is available on the Strengthening Vassar website,http://president.vassar.edu/strengthening-vassar/.  We know that central to all of the improvements in this area is the appointment of a new director of Safety and Security. That search is well under way, with a very strong pool of candidates. On-campus interviews with the finalists are currently taking place, and we expect to announce the new director very soon. Details about the job description, the search committee, and search process are also available on the Strengthening Vassar site.
  • The college has taken steps to require all members of Safety and Security to have annual diversity and inclusion training. This training has been coordinated collaboratively between the Office of Campus Life and Diversity and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.  In addition, all new hires in Safety and Security receive a full orientation prior to beginning their employment. As part of the restructuring of Safety and Security, including the hiring of our new director, professionally facilitated workshops will be provided at a full-day retreat for both diversity training and team building prior to the start of the academic year.
  • Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Africana Studies, and Mia Mask, Associate Professor of Film, have been working with the senior administration on issues of race and inclusion. Among their work has been research on the best model for senior-level leadership for institutional diversity and inclusion at Vassar, to help ensure that our campus is welcoming and free of discrimination and harassment. Approaches to this leadership at other colleges and universities have ranged from chief diversity officers to diversity councils. Mia and Zach have held multiple discussions for faculty and administrators this semester, as well as some initial conversations with students, to hear opinions on the most appropriate approaches to this work at Vassar. Early in the fall semester they will sponsor a panel of representatives from other colleges that have had either (or both) a chief diversity officer or a diversity council, to discuss the benefits of each.  We would then expect to make a decision next year on our approach.
  • While these conversations continue, we believe the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) has played and will continue to play an important role in promoting an inclusive campus.  They have made progress on a set of recommendations for next year that they are sharing with both the broader community and the administration this week.  Next year, the committee will continue its work, including shepherding discussion and implementation of its recommendations from this spring.
  • In December, several positions that had been academic-year only were increased to full-year. These positions in the Campus Life and Diversity area included the directors of the ALANA Center, the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers, the Office of Health Education, the coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program, and the Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life. In addition, all house advisors will be full-time, full-year within residential life, resulting in increased student support resources within each residential house.
  • I am pleased to report that Rabbi Kerry Chaplin has accepted the position of Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and we look forward to working with her when she begins her duties in mid-August.  Unfortunately, we will miss the services of Luz Burgos-Lopez, Director of the ALANA Center, and Julian Williams, Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX Officer, who have accepted positions at other institutions.  Luz will be Assistant Dean of Students for Intercultural Affairs at Goucher College, and Julian will be serving as Vice President for Compliance, Diversity and Ethics at George Mason University.  The search for an ALANA Center director is currently under way, and the search for the Title IX officer will take place over the summer. We are very fortunate that Kelly Grab, who has been a house advisor and Assistant Director of Residential Life, has accepted the new full-time position of Title IX Investigator and also has agreed to serve as Acting Title IX Coordinator, effective June 1, while the search is being conducted.
  • Staffing has been increased and all positions are now filled in the Counseling Service, with the hiring of the assistant director, an additional psychological counselor, and the creation of a permanent post-bac fellow position. As was reported previously, we have established a Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund to eliminate any financial barriers to students for accessing services on and off campus.
  • This spring Vassar conducted a first-time survey of all students concerning sexual misconduct, dating violence, and stalking on campus.  Our goal for the survey is to gain institutional self-knowledge about student experience related to these critical issues. The survey was designed by representatives from roughly 15 selective, private colleges, including Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Williams, Tufts, Connecticut College, Trinity College, Wesleyan, and others in addition to Vassar.  The representatives included institutional research personnel, those formally administering Title IX regulations, campus personnel charged with sexual assault prevention and adjudication, and campus mental and physical health services staff.  Our response rate was strong, with about 45 percent of the student body completing the survey. Most schools are reporting final response rates in the range from 25 percent to 35 percent. The data collected by the survey will be analyzed over the summer, and findings presented to campus during the fall semester.
  • During this academic year the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program facilitated several hours of bystander intervention training for students, as well as training for faculty, staff, and administrators interested in being trainers for the Mentor In Violence Prevention (MVP) program.  Our intention is that with additional trainers we can have more frequent bystander workshops beginning in the fall.  We also have approved two work-study positions to support peer bystander training for the coming academic year.
  • SAVP and the Office of Health Education also facilitated workshops on alcohol and consent for student fellows and house teams.  As part of orientation,staff are bringing in a new group called "Speak About It" to present to the incoming class. They are a diverse group of five performers who will primarily address issues of consent, sexual assault on college campuses, and being an active bystander. Following up on that presentation, volunteer peer educators will facilitate small group discussions about bystander intervention.  Additionally, 269 members of the faculty attended workshops on the College’s Title IX commitments; these were completed just prior to the winter break.
  • There have been a number of campus conversations as part of the overall efforts to strengthen community. In late February, Board of Trustees chair William Plapinger, along with several other trustees, met with about a dozen student groups to hear their concerns and their ideas about improving campus life. All trustees engaged in related conversations at the February meeting, at a plenary session and at the meeting of the student affairs committee. Faculty will have the opportunity to discuss how to foster inclusive classrooms at their retreat later this week titled “Beyond Access: a Tool-Kit of Inclusive Pedagogy.”
  • Dean of the College Chris Roellke and I continue our discussions with small groups of sophomores.  These conversations are wide-ranging, including any topic that is on the students’ minds.  To date we have had over thirty of these gatherings and every member of the sophomore class has been invited to engage in these discussions. Vice President for Finance and Administration Bob Walton and I also have been continuing our small group discussions with administrators and staff across campus. This is our second year of hosting these conversations, and I am pleased that we are now on our second round of reaching out to all of these employees.
  • I would end by encouraging individuals and groups to take advantage of the Dialogue and Engagement across Differences Fund that is available from the Office of the President, thanks to the generosity of a donor. We have used the fund this year to support talks and panels on a range of complex subjects, http://president.vassar.edu/strengthening-vassar/dialogue.html.  Looking ahead, I would ask the community to consider ways to use the fund for activities that highlight and support multiple perspectives on difficult issues.  This is our real challenge: to meet the growing need to hear from several voices on tough issues. To that end, we will soon be issuing clarifying guidelines for the fund. We have asked Professor Mampilly and Professor Mask to play a role in developing and approving proposals to the fund next year and will request that the VSA nominate a student to participate.
  • I would like to highlight one event supported with Dialogue and Engagement across Differences funds that will continue to have importance for the campus going forward. In January, 28 faculty, administrators and students participated in a two-day pilot workshop on leadership and dialogue around difficult issues conducted by the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI). NCBI is an international leadership development network dedicated to the elimination of racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of oppression. The goal of the workshop was to train an initial group of people on campus who can then work with others across multiple constituencies. Funds now have been approved for NCBI to build a Campus Team featuring a series of workshops in the fall of 2015, expanding the number of people in the campus community trained in effective techniques for dialogue. Those who receive the training can then employ their skills on campus and also train others within their organizations and groups.  Senior officers will be among the first group to participate. Planning for next year’s workshops has begun and will continue through this spring and summer.

      I quoted New York Times columnist Frank Bruni at Convocation, and I think his message is worth repeating. In his recent book on college admissions, he commented on the value of a diverse college community by saying that “[w]ith exclusivity often comes sameness, and there’s an argument that college shouldn’t take you out of the real world, but thrust you into it, exposing you to places unlike the ones you’ve already inhabited and people different from the ones who’ve surrounded you thus far.”  By doing this, we enrich the educational experience at Vassar and prepare our students to be effective advocates for greater justice and opportunity in the world after graduation.

Catharine Hill