March 27, 2017
Dear Campus Community,
For several years, many members of the Vassar community have pursued efforts to help our campus become more fully a place where our diverse and multi-talented students and employees feel they belong and can flourish. Recently, we have sought to galvanize these efforts by articulating an ambitious vision for the College that would be worthy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support and might serve as an example for other institutions with similar aspirations.
Today I am proud to announce that Vassar will commence a $1.6 million, four-year initiative to advance our vision of a more inclusive and affirming residential learning community for today’s students. Generously supported by an $800,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, supplemented by donor gifts and institutional support, the program is titled “Engaged Pluralism: Belonging and Thriving at Vassar College.” It will focus on enhancing equity and student success through a comprehensive climate assessment leading to a plan for structural improvements; campus-wide capacity-building; curricular and residential life innovations; and strengthening programs that foster meaningful community where all students feel supported, engaged, and empowered to thrive. The “Engaged Pluralism” project will span nine semesters, beginning in fall 2017 under the direction of principal investigator Candice Lowe Swift, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Liaison to the President and the Senior Administration for Race and Inclusion. As a co-author of the plan, I will also be involved in guiding its implementation. More detail about the plan and grant.
This project represents an exciting opportunity, setting forth a vision supported by resources to ignite lasting change on our campus.
Student voices played a key role in developing this vision. Professor Lowe Swift held meetings with students who lead identity organizations, and she arranged several dinners at my house where we heard a range of suggestions to enhance the sense of belonging and the opportunities to thrive at Vassar.
One suggestion was to hire Post-Baccalaureate Fellows – recent graduates whose shared experiences with current students prepare them to help realize visions of inclusion grounded in students’ needs and expectations. Students, with the assistance of Post-Baccalaureate Fellows, will work with the ALANA Center and other Campus Life and Diversity offices to organize events, lectures and workshops, support for religious practices, and further initiatives to develop a stronger campus culture that fosters the conditions in which they can thrive.
In a recent dinner with leaders of the Asian Students Alliance and the Southeast Asian Students Alliance, a student spoke movingly about the internment of her Japanese-American grandparents during WWII and about her wish that the history of Japanese-American internment, so much a part of her family's American experience, were better known by students of American history.
At a December dinner with leaders of Black-identifying student organizations, students made suggestions related to campus facilities and services, anti-bias training, and the development of more inclusive pedagogies across the curriculum, with a special emphasis on the STEM disciplines.
All the students with whom I have met expressed a desire to see a better representation of people like them, with their history, culture, and identity reflected in the classroom, in campus programming, and even in the decor of campus spaces.
These conversations have not always been easy, but they have been informative. And they are by no means over. Discussions like these will be an important part of how we design the roadmap for the next four years of this ambitious project.
When negative incidents happen on our campus, I am often the one to report that our faculty and administrators have been meeting with students to hear their concerns and provide counsel. And, truth be told, occasionally people respond “That's great - but what does all this listening and talking accomplish?” Well, sometimes the honest answer is “not as much as we'd like.” Today, however, I am honored to report that the listening and talking have helped us sketch out a bold plan to enact authentic, positive change.
It is with tremendous personal enthusiasm and anticipation that I look forward to continuing the conversation.