What Happened at Vassar this Spring

As students depart campuses for the summer, this is a serious and reflective moment. Colleges and universities have been through a lot this year—more than at any other time since the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.

Between a conservative Supreme Court’s decisions to radically change race-based admission practices (PDF), new laws targeting choice and reproductive health, and escalating student activism around the Israel/Hamas conflict, our communities were deeply challenged—affected and critiqued by internal and external forces in what at times felt like a proxy war for larger global conflicts.

As students across the nation encamped, expressing their rage at the atrocities in Gaza, some colleges called on police to remove encampments. Because this did nothing to address the underlying rage over the ongoing horrors in Gaza, invoking the police often amounted to a pyrrhic victory. In many situations, encampments returned, or buildings were then occupied, and splitting of the college community continued without resolution. These wounds will undoubtedly persist.

A handful of colleges, including Vassar, the small, liberal arts college at which I am the president, chose not to use police. Rather, we engaged students directly to both reduce safety risks associated with counter protests and to deepen understanding on all sides—including what encamped students were experiencing and wanted to express, what students who felt unsafe around the encampment were experiencing.

At the heart of liberal arts education is the ability to use ideas, evidence, and persuasion to be always in pursuit of greater understanding. This also allowed us to find common ground on feeling both empathic and helpless in the face of the violence and on wanting to do what we could to educate ourselves and to support the innocent victims of violence.

After hours of discussion with multiple constituents, some recurrent themes emerged. First, encamped students were passionate about elevating awareness of and taking action to address the abject suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians. They described watching the devastating plight of Palestinian civilians under fire and wanted to force a conversation about ways to help.

Second, students who felt unsafe around the encampment also said they wanted to express grief and support for innocent victims of violence, including hostages, and wanted to be able to freely express—without social stigma—their support for Israel as a homeland for Jews.

Third, the college wanted to support peaceful protest, which has been integral to social progress and is core to democracy; it wanted to avoid having students, faculty, and administrators split under the duress of external forces that may seek to quiet dissent; and it wanted to ensure all students could thrive educationally.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we did not regard these as competing interests. And despite this tumultuous time, and the tremendous messiness of learning, we still don’t.

Ultimately, satisfied that we as a college would open opportunities for students to better understand Palestinian and Israeli experiences as well as take some action to help Gazan college students and scholars, and receive their proposal to divest from military investments, encamped students voluntarily removed their tents.

Similarly, some students who had feared the campus would not continue to be safe for them established a working group that is open to engaging in dialogue with the encamped students, using restorative practices that might heal the wounds from this semester.

And the college will be convening faculty and students to discuss curricular innovation in the area of Peace & Conflict and/or Middle East Studies, as we strive to stay in pursuit of greater understanding.

Throughout the conflict, external, illiberal forces i.e, those that are opposed to freedom of thought or behavior, sought to split us from ourselves. Some of these forces, including some in our college’s wider community, argue that leadership “caved” to student activism when we should have called the police, condemned the encampment, and suspended or expelled students; others criticize the college because we have not condemned Israel’s policies.

The din is sometimes too much to bear—until we remember that such illiberal forces are working to split us, working to force us to take absolute sides, and to dehumanize “the other.” We refuse to do so. College campuses are places for exchange of ideas—all ideas—in the service of fostering sustained public discussion about important issues concerning our lives together.

This practice—of convening and discussing ideas and experiences—is fundamental to living in a pluralistic society, to democracy and to the creation of knowledge in the service of building a more just world. It will never not be hard. But it is why we are here.

Bradley is the president of Vassar College.

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