To Alums: Campus Update

May 8, 2024

Dear alums,

I am writing to update you on our campus climate and to share information about how we are addressing the current moment. As I write, the campus is quiet; the students are finishing their finals, and seniors are preparing for Commencement.

As you may have heard, students at Vassar demonstrated by encamping on the Library Lawn last week. Although the protest was largely peaceful, on Wednesday afternoon, students chanted and marched. In particular, for some Jewish students, the demonstration was a source of fear and intimidation from the start. Over time, we grew increasingly concerned about the safety and well-being of all—the students who felt intimidated and disrupted, as well as the students who were demonstrating. It was also apparent that people who were not affiliated with Vassar—with unknown agendas—were joining. We were eager to secure a prompt and enduring end to the encampment.

On Saturday, after much thoughtful discussion with members of the administration and among themselves, the students voluntarily removed their tents. We were grateful that, together and with dialogue, we were able to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. I appreciate that the students were willing to engage meaningfully and consider possibilities.

As we have all seen, campuses that have invited forced removals by police have faced new encampments, building takeovers, more anti-Israel sentiment, faculty unrest, and greater anger among students and members of the campus community. Therefore, it was clear to us that voluntary removal, if it could happen promptly, was the preferred path.

I understand full well—especially because so many of you have written to me directly, eloquently, and passionately—that there are a variety of perspectives on the demonstration and the terms by which it ended.

I want to be clear that the College did not agree to boycott, divest, or sanction (BDS) Israel. We directed students who want the College to consider divestment from military investments to the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), as is entirely consistent with our Governance, which allows students to make proposals to the relevant committee. If CIRC agrees, the proposal will be passed to the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee and ultimately to the Board of Trustees for a decision, also consistent with our Governance.

I have also heard concern about the lack of apparent consequences for the students who put up tents. Let me assure you that reported instances of bias, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim sentiment from last week are currently going through our established review processes. If found responsible for antisemitic, Islamophobic, or other discriminatory speech or acts, students will face consequences that, as set forth in the College Regulations, range from warnings up to expulsion, depending on the circumstances.

In a message to the campus community on May 4, I detailed several next steps. We will establish a faculty and student working group to consider curricular innovations in the area of Peace & Conflict Studies and/or Middle Eastern Studies. And we will open our doors, as possible, to displaced scholars and students, and support student fundraising to benefit refugees. In that letter, I also acknowledged that we have work to do to address bias on this campus. While we have been vigilant about all forms of bias and discrimination, we will be redoubling the College’s efforts. This summer—beginning with our senior leadership team—we will invest in training and education on antisemitism and how it may manifest at the College. This will augment our routine training on discriminatory harassment of all kinds.

As we return in the Fall, we are eager to initiate more dialogue between and among the many student organizations most engaged and affected by this moment. Some students across these groups have expressed a desire to talk with each other and understand what causes harm and why—and work to limit such harm. It is inspiring to see students’ commitment to learning, and I believe that with the help of restorative practices, we can sustain a positive campus climate and strengthen the social fabric of our community, which has been stretched thin in these contested times. We will not rest until we have exhausted every effort to ensure all our students feel safe and are able to flourish at Vassar.

Let me reiterate from my communications last fall that I remain horrified by the actions of Hamas on and since October 7. The killing of Israelis by Hamas is unfathomable, and our daily fear for hostages living under threats of rape, torture, and murder—as well as the rising antisemitism in the United States and around the globe—are, at times, too much to bear.

At the same time, I am horrified by  the crushing number of deaths in Gaza, the 1.7 million people displaced, and the widespread starvation. The killing of Palestinians by Israel’s military response, the continued  decimation of homes, schools, hospitals, and families in Gaza, and rising xenophobia in the United States and around the globe are also unbearable.

These are profoundly challenging times. As a college community, we are learning how to cope with the daily news of this horrendous conflict. While we are a community of myriad views and experiences, let us be united by a common commitment to patience, empathy, and compassion towards each other as we each navigate these painful times.

Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604