Vassar Inclusive History Initiative
I am writing to announce the launch of the Vassar Inclusive History initiative. The goals of the work are to engage our community broadly to research, document, and make publicly accessible the history of Vassar with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Such an effort will take time, involving multiple topics of inquiry, and require both faculty and institutional leadership.
To implement the work of the Vassar Inclusive History initiative, I have created a Commission. I am thankful to five scholars, who have agreed to lead the Commission, based on their roles: Director of Engaged Pluralism and Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn; Director of Africana Studies and Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford; Chair and Professor of History Mita Choudhury; Dean of the College and Associate Professor of Sociology Carlos Alamo-Pastrana; and Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History (and College Historian, as of July 1, 2023) Ron Patkus.
The Commission will have additional membership, including the President of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College; representatives from the Vassar Libraries; the Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement; the Vassar Student Association Chair of Equity and Inclusion; and the Chair of the Council of ALANA Seniors. The Commission will also seek faculty representatives from American Studies; the Asian American Studies correlate; Jewish Studies; Latin American and Latinx Studies; Native American Studies; and Women, Feminism, and Queer Studies. Additionally, the Commission will identify and include other areas of focus integral to the work.
Other institutions of higher education have undertaken similar efforts to examine their histories. I am grateful for being guided by a strong External Advisory Committee including Andrew Delbanco, President of the Teagle Foundation; Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; Sarah Barringer Gordon ’82, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania; Bill Jeffway, Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society; and Mike Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College.
I want to invite the entire Vassar community to participate in this effort to evaluate, reckon with, and engage Vassar’s history. The Commission will convene listening sessions with the broader Vassar community including alums, faculty (including emeriti), students, administrators, staff, community-based organizations, and community members in our region and identify a set of areas to research in the first two years of its existence. We expect multiple intensives, courses, research projects, internships, community partnerships, and other events to emerge from this work, as, collectively, we learn about and integrate Vassar’s institutional past into our current work for a better, more equitable and inclusive future for Vassar. One of our goals is to share the results of this work in public forums, including on the Vassar website. The Commission will also seek to establish a system for check-in and evaluation that solicits reflections about how the work is being implemented and its impacts to help promote transparency and inclusion. The Commission will synthesize learnings in an annual publicly available report.
Although additional areas of focus may be determined by the Commission through their deep engagement with the community, I have requested that they begin with the topics of Blackness and African American experiences at Vassar and Native American indigeneity at Vassar. As Vassar is an institution of higher education in the United States, both of these are critical areas of inquiry. Some specific questions might include: What was Vassar’s role in abolition and slavery? How has minstrelsy been practiced at Vassar? How are we to understand Vassar’s resistance to racial integration in the first half of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s direct criticism of Vassar’s policies on enrolling Black students? Moreover, what has been the experience of being Black at Vassar? How were Native Americans removed from the land in Dutchess County? How did the land on which Vassar stands change hands from the removal of Native Americans to the ownership by Matthew Vassar? How has the College represented, misappropriated, and engaged Native American communities throughout its history? In confronting all these questions, I expect that the Commission will remain committed to examining and honoring the intersectional complexities of identity and experience that emerge.
In his book Where Do We Go From Here?, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “No society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay.” King’s words underscore the importance of evaluating and reevaluating our history and, then, asking how that history should move us to act today. His legacy is clear: A society will not achieve justice unless it is committed daily to evaluating itself and working on ways to respond with greater equity and justice. The work of Vassar Inclusive History aspires to be an important step in evaluating our institutional history and working on ways to respond with greater equity and justice. While the Commission will begin by examining Blackness and African American experiences and Native American indigeneity at Vassar, we expect many more topics will come into focus.
I am deeply thankful to the many efforts in the past by alums, faculty, students, administrators, staff, and community members on whose shoulders this work stands. Activism and energy put forth for decades has been vital to coming to this place for launching the Vassar Inclusive History initiative. To name a few such efforts—the Buildings and Belonging project created by members of the AAAVC; the Native American Advisory Committee working on our land acknowledgement and repatriation efforts; the Black Students’ Union, which was integral in the creation of the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives; the Latinx Student Union, which created the Latinx Student Sarape Ceremony; the Vassar Asian American Student Working Group (VASAM) advocating for an Asian American Studies correlate; the conference “Smashing History: 150 Years of LGBTIQA Vassar,” sponsored by the Women, Feminist, and Queer Studies program; and the Engaged Pluralism Working Group “Race and Racism in Historical Collections”; and many others—have all contributed momentum to this important work.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604