October 26, 2023
Two weeks ago, I wrote to the campus that we will not tolerate discrimination or harassment based on religion or national origin. More specifically, I will always speak out against antisemitism, or anti-Israeli or anti-Palestinian prejudice on this campus. As President, my goals are to support all students, protecting students’ rights to have political speech while creating an environment in which students are free from hate and harassment, particularly on the basis of religion, race/ethnicity, and national origin—all pertinent here. Sometimes, these goals can come into conflict, and yesterday was such a day.
Yesterday, a group of students—including leadership from various student organizations—held an unregistered protest on Library Lawn and then marched around Main and close to other buildings to advocate for the freedom of Palestinians in the context of historical oppression and violence against them. The protesting students did not block entrances, exits, or block traffic—and disruption to Vassar functions was limited.
At the same time, the students acted with the knowledge that their words, phrases, signage, and chants may cause harm to other community members. The students made an attempt to mitigate harm caused by their chants through introductory statements. These introductions, however, were lost as the march proceeded around campus. I want to be clear: the speech used during the protest is protected. At the same time, when heard without these introductions, the antisemitic connotations of some of the chants hurt members of our community. The protesters may not have intended harm to the Vassar community but the harmful impact nonetheless has been significant. Within hours of the event, I received multiple inquiries from faculty members, employees, and students—who have expressed feeling unsafe and/or highly upset by the protesters’ actions.
Addressing campus safety, the protest was peaceful. We were fully prepared to limit any physical harm. We had a strong campus safety presence, multiple administrators present, and clear protocols to follow to ensure campus safety throughout and after the event. No person was ever in physical danger on this campus.
Given their decision to not register their event as defined by college policy, event organizers will go through the Community Expectations process as well as the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) process, as bias incident reports have been submitted. These two processes are educational ones and are intended to lead to deeper discussion and learning. Real learning about these issues happens in community. We look forward to and encourage students’ participation in the Restorative Response Group’s initiatives forming this semester.
As the horrifying loss of life in Gaza and Israel continues to grow, their realities serve as a reminder of the urgent need for understanding and peace not just within our community, but globally. On this campus, let us listen more, ask more questions, consider multiple perspectives, and engage in meaningful dialogue that illuminates our collective humanity and sustains our community.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604