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Community letter from President Hill, Sunday November 29, 2015

Dear students and colleagues,

In the midst of much turmoil and pain in the world and on college campuses because of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination, I believe that progress toward creating the kind of communities and campuses we want requires commitments and actions from all of us. These actions can be small or far-reaching but need to be rooted in respect and empathy. Many of you are deeply engaged in this work; I know some have been doing it over a long period of time. I am grateful for all that you do.

Last year, the college set out goals addressing issues of diversity, equity, public safety, sexual assault, and other problems. Since then, we have made a number of changes at Vassar. We have added new people and new initiatives in order to make significant positive changes in our community. What follows below is a progress report addressing those activities from many areas of the college. Please know these are highlights about work currently underway; this is certainly not a comprehensive list of contributions.

We know there is much more work ahead of us. I am committed to continuing this work, and I welcome all of your thoughts and suggestions for additional ways we can improve our community. Please contact me, any of the senior officers, or others involved in this work, with your ideas. I believe we are on the right path and am optimistic that with your insights and initiative, we can continue to build a community that supports everyone here.

Catharine Hill

Campus Leadership

  • Over the past several months leaders in crucial areas of building community have joined the college:
    • Rabbi Kerry Chaplin is the Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life, providing religious, spiritual, and cultural leadership. She also provides interreligious leadership in her role as Assistant Director, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
    • Bethel “B” Nathan, the Director of the Campus Life ALANA Center, is providing support for students and working with others on diversity across campus.
    • Arlene Sabo, Director of Safety and Security, brings experience and commitment to the fair and impartial operation of that department. She also is heading up the work of addressing recommendations of the Margolis Healy report on Safety and Security. For example, Arlene and B have collaborated on providing continued diversity training to officers in Safety and Security. Training has taken place this semester and more is planned for the spring.
    • Rachel Pereira, Vassar’s new Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Officer, will begin her work in January. She is currently the Title IX Coordinator and Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity Officer at Drew University. We are thankful to Kelly Grab for serving as the Acting Title IX Officer during the search process. With Rachel’s arrival, Kelly will return full-time to her role as Title IX Investigator.
  • Additionally, several key members of our staff directly supporting students are now working full-year schedules, allowing them more time for program planning and collaboration, a change we instituted last December. Those include the directors of Jewish Student Life, the ALANA Center, the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers, the Office of Health Education, and the coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program.
  • In an effort to provide more culturally sensitive support, the Counseling Service has increased the number of staff from under-represented groups.
  • In addition to the staffing changes, the Counseling Service now has a Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund to reduce financial barriers to services, both on and off campus, including resources to cover transportation and co-pay expenses.
  • Residential Life has adjusted responsibilities of House Advisors to allow house teams to give more time and focus to supporting students in the residences.
  • Several people on campus, with additional expertise from outside the college, have been assessing different approaches to senior diversity leadership, with the goal of determining the best approach for Vassar.
    • Mia Mask, Associate Professor of Film and Advisor to the Class of 2018, and Bert Lott, Professor of Greek and Roman Studies and chair of the Faculty Policy and Conference Committee (FPCC), are co-chairing an ad hoc group of faculty, staff, and students to lead this work.
    • Other members include Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science, Director of the Africana Studies program, and current chair of the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE); David Bradley, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and incoming CIE co-chair (along with Erendira Rueda, Associate Professor of Sociology); Ed Pittman, Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity; Art Rodriguez, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid; VSA President Ramy Abbady; VSA Vice President for Finance Josh Tempro; and two additional faculty still to be appointed by the Committee on Committees.
    • The group has been charged with making a recommendation to President Hill this spring.
    • Earlier this fall, the college hosted two diversity officers, Michael Reed from Dickinson College and Crystal Williams from Bates College, as part of that consideration, to learn what chief diversity officers and diversity councils each can contribute to the college.

Addressing Title IX Issues

Sexual assault remains a serious problem on the Vassar campus, as it is at schools across the country. Staff in a number of offices, as well as faculty and students, are continuing to build on Vassar’s commitment to education and prevention.

  • With leadership from the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program, New Student Orientation provided enhanced sexual assault prevention education and bystander intervention training at orientation for first-year students in August.
    • New Student Orientation included several programs to promote inclusive and respectful learning and living environments. Among them are I am Vassar, which addresses questions of identity and community through storytelling and facilitated discussions with new students, and Speak about It, a performance-based program on consent, sexual assault and confronting gender-based violence. In January Unpacking Vassar will reconvene first year students for art-based performances and workshops to follow up on issues presented during orientation.
  • In line with new state legislation, the SAVP program staff and student interns have provided education on affirmative consent to the leaders of all student organizations and to all varsity athletes. Vassar's policy on consent had already been in line with the new law; the legislation called for additional training for students, which the college completed for this year in the fall.
  • The Title IX Survey Oversight Group, including Director of Institutional Research David Davis-Van Atta; SAVP Coordinator Charlotte Strauss Swanson; Kelly Grab, Title IX Investigator and Acting Title IX Officer; and Hannah Matsunaga ’16, last year’s VSA Vice President for Student Life, is finalizing the analysis of the results of the Title IX survey that students completed last spring.
  • The Survey Oversight Group has recommended that in order to include our new Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Officer Rachel Pereira and Dean of the College Chris Roellke, who has been on medical leave this semester, in the important campus discussions about the survey findings, they are scheduling the release of the findings and related events for the beginning of second semester. An email to campus will confirm dates/times and provide locations for all events.
  • The Title IX survey results, the survey instrument, and related information will be posted on the Institutional Research website on Tues., Jan. 26. Three open campus meetings with the oversight group and other key members of the community available to answer questions will be held Mon., Feb. 1, at 7 pm; Thurs., Feb. 4, at 5:30 pm; and Tues., Feb. 9, at 7 pm. Additionally, shorter presentations will be made at the administrative forum and the faculty meeting on Wed., Feb. 3.

Continuing Committee Work on Equity and Inclusion

  • Vassar's Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) meets weekly in response to reported incidents and proactively to discuss concerns relating to campus climate. In November, the web-based incident log was launched to update the campus community on bias incident reports. BIRT, along with Campus Life, Campus Activities, and other offices also will sponsor Privilege Campaign III, a photographic exhibit and education initiative on privilege and social justice, in April.
  • Last spring, Vassar was awarded the first Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence. This award of a million dollars is the largest in the nation recognizing a college making strides in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to graduation. The college is using these resources to support undocumented students at Vassar, to strengthen further our Transitions program for low-income and first-generation students, and to supply internships for lower income students. Some funds have already been expended, and others are awaiting further recommendations on their use, in particular from the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence subcommittee on historically underrepresented students. These funds will be used to pilot programs that can then be incorporated into the ongoing budget.
  • In addition to following up on recommendations from last year, the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) has established five subcommittees this year for the study of priority issues, outlined below. CIE will host a meeting to solicit feedback and advice regarding these and other issues in February. In addition, the meeting will offer an opportunity to hear updates regarding the implementation of recommendations put forth in last year's report.
    • The Historically Underrepresented Students subcommittee, led by Luis Inoa, Director of Residential Life and Assistant Dean of Students, is conducting a study of the experiences of undocumented, low-income, and first-generation students; will identify faculty and staff support for undocumented students; and consolidate resource information for underrepresented students at the college.
    • The International Student subcommittee, coordinated by Andrew Meade, Director of International Services and Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Diversity, is studying peer schools on their strategies and resources for international students; will track efforts to improve curricular and campus access for international students, especially non-native English speakers; improve understanding about financial aid resources; and examine college policies around international experiences for these students.
    • The Diversity Statement subcommittee, coordinated by Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy David Bradley, is continuing to work on the drafting and adoption of a new diversity statement for the college.
    • The Campus Wide Study, coordinated by Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman and Associate Professor of Sociology Erendira Rueda, will examine existing campus survey data and assess the need and feasibility of additional campus climate surveys.
    • The Social Justice Requirement subcommittee, coordinated by Associate Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn, and a joint effort with the Committee on Curricular Policy (CCP), is examining similar requirements at other institutions and assessing the possibilities of establishing a requirement at Vassar.

Campus Dialogue and Education

  • Education about how to navigate different viewpoints, especially on complicated topics where beliefs can be very strong, is one of the most important things we can do as members of a college community. Last year 28 faculty, administrators, and students participated in a two-day workshop on engaging controversial issues facilitated by the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), an international network dedicated to the elimination of racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of oppression. In August, President Hill and all of the senior officers participated in another NCBI workshop focused on working through differences with people of various backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs. These sessions were organized by the Campus Life and Diversity Office.
  • Students have reported that in their classrooms differences among students not only add value to their learning, but also can result in a breakdown of communication and understanding. Microaggressions in the classroom are harmful and painful. In order to create environments supportive of all students, faculty have participated in and are planning discussions and workshops on making classrooms more inclusive and affirming.
  • Building on the successful faculty retreat last year, this spring’s retreat will again focus on inclusive pedagogy, with students helping to inform the planning and content by sharing their experiences. Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, and a scholar of a wide array of issues in African-American history, including African-American migration and women and girls' history, will facilitate the retreat.
  • Other faculty discussions have included a focus on inclusion in the STEM fields and a workshop on mental health issues and inclusivity. Upcoming in early December is the Penn Summit on Responding to Racism on College Campuses, a virtual summit on issues of race, racism, campus climate, and inclusive pedagogies, to which our faculty and senior officers have been invited. The summit will be conducted by Shaun Harper, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • A number of departments, programs, offices, and student organizations have developed or sponsored programming in recent months that offers constructive approaches to important issues. Many of these programs have had support from the Fund for Dialogue and Engagement across Differences through the President’s Office. Thanks to a generous alumna, these funds continue to be available for the coming semester and next academic year. Recent programs have included the following:
  • Last Sunday, the Vassar Jewish Union hosted an afternoon of intra-group dialogue facilitated by “Resetting the Table” for over 20 students from different Jewish backgrounds and differing connections to Israel and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Resetting the Table works with Jewish young adults to transform dominant norms of communication on Israel from avoidance, intimidation, and antagonism toward exploration, empowerment, and collaborative deliberation. This fall’s program with Resetting the Table builds on the group’s visit to campus last February for a similar workshop.
  • Two weeks ago a moderated campus conversation on Israel/Palestine, led by the Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Diversity and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, featured Professor Yehezkel Landau and Imam Abdullah Antepli. Yehezkel Landau, a Jewish educator with dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship, has worked for over three decades in Israel and the U.S. in the fields of interfaith education and Jewish-Arab peacemaking. Abdullah Antepli is chief representative of Muslim affairs and adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies at Duke University and the founder and executive board member of the Association of College Muslim Chaplains. Following this dialogue, the focus of the speakers’ three-day stay on campus was interreligious discussion and activities for students, administrators, and faculty. These included Jummah prayers and Shabbat services, each followed by dialogue and a shared meal, which welcomed people of all backgrounds and practices, including community members from neighboring mosques and synagogues.
  • Earlier this month social justice educator Sheltreese McCoy was on campus for a week-long residency organized by several offices and academic departments and programs. She is the president and founder of Change the Field, a Queer People of Color social development firm, and coordinator of the award-winning Crossroads Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She held sessions on community-building and collaboration for students, faculty, and administrators focusing especially on support for LGBTQ students and students of color.
  • An October 1st workshop introduced 30 students, administrators, and faculty to Nonviolent Communication (NVC). As developed by Marshall Rosenberg, NVC guides people to listen to the underlying values or needs expressed by others, even when expressed in difficult or hostile ways. The approach then builds on the new connections and understanding that arise to explore solutions and strategies that address the needs of all involved. NVC is being used in conversations, conflicts and settings worldwide by communities and organizations, activists, leaders, parents, educators, doctors, social workers, and managers. Plans are underway for a second NVC training in the spring, hosted by the Carolyn Grant '36 Endowment Committee.
  • A campus conversation in September, “Bridging the Racial Divide in the College Classroom and Beyond,” provided an opportunity for members of campus to engage with a small group of scholars and alums on race, equality, access, and privilege. Panelists included Ivory Toldson, the deputy director of the White House initiative to increase the number of young black men in higher education: Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University scholar of African American History; Indiana Garcia ’11, a trainer for the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles; Shaka King ’01, a filmmaker and recipient of this year’s W. K. Rose Fellowship; and Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Africana Studies program. Associate Professor of Film Mia Mask served as moderator. Leslie Offutt, Associate Professor of History, and Miriam Mahdaviani-Goldstone, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, coordinated the dialogue.
  • Upcoming so far in the spring semester are Dialogue across Engagement and Difference-funded lectures by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, February 15, who will speak on “Demanding More from College,” and by journalist, author, and host of On Being Krista Tippett, who will speak on “Creating Civility” April 12.

Please continue to use the Strengthening Vassar website for updates on initiatives and events.