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A Quest for Racial Justice: We Must Do More

The late, legendary Civil Rights icon John Lewis spent his life and career fighting to oppose systemic racism.  As this past year has shown, the wheels of progress turn agonizingly slowly. “Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change,” Lewis once said. “Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once.” Such transformation requires a community. As President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Sherrilyn Ifill ’84 has said, “It takes an entire ecosystem to make transformational change.”

A student writes a simple message during Vassar’s recent Community Care Day.Photo: Karl Rabe

Vassar has long appreciated the richness that diversity engenders, and has often had deep involvement in movements for social change. Over the years, often due to activism by students and alumnae/i, Vassar has made efforts to increase racial diversity and equity in numerous ways including the establishment in 1969 of Black Studies (now Africana Studies). More recently, the College has: made commitments to meet full demonstrated financial need, to attract a diverse faculty and student body, and to diversify the Board; implemented the Grand Challenges program, developed the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI), expanded staffing for the affinity centers, established the Native American Advisory Committee, created a tenure track position in Asian American Studies, hired a tenure track professor in Africana Studies who focuses on critical carceral studies, appointed a Special Advisor on Inclusion and Engaged Pluralism to the College’s senior leadership team; and made permanent the Buildings and Belonging project, and much more.

“Vassar as an institution with more than 150 years of history has been part of a nation that still grapples with racial and social inequity,”said Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley. “Our institutional history related to race is checkered, with some discreditable events. But change is possible. I am grateful for the openness of colleagues to considering how they as individuals and we as a collective can create a community where we fully engage the diverse backgrounds and cultures we all bring to the College.”

Last year’s incidents of race-based violence and injustice in communities across the country highlighted the need to accelerate our efforts to promote racial equity. Over the last several months, the senior leadership team and the Board of Trustees have been immersed in discussions to examine how institutional structures and practices may contribute to differences in opportunities and outcomes based on race and on the intersection of race with other facets of identity, including but not limited to gender and disability. We have been tackling the question of how we can better prepare students, our community, and ourselves to address the historical, social, political, and economic underpinnings of systemic racism and to mitigate its effects, on campus and beyond.

We are aware that addressing systemic racism is not a project with a finite timeline but rather a way of life, and requires an ongoing commitment. Understanding the identities and issues that have been marginalized requires continuous work. We recognize that the work of redressing racism and white privilege is a collective responsibility. Our goal is to work to eliminate or minimize the influence of racist structures and practices. We aspire to foster and sustain inclusive and equitable institutional cultures.

Vassar already has outstanding academic programs and faculty that address race and racism beginning with Africana Studies founded more than fifty years ago, and including more recent additions to the curriculum of Latin American and Latinx Studies, Native American Studies, and Asian American Studies. To amplify our extant efforts and continue to promote racial equity and justice, the College is undertaking the following:

  • The creation of five new tenure-track faculty positions in the area of race and racial justice, across multiple departments and programs, are designed to help further augment the course offerings and prompt additional innovative curricula to meet the moment. The searches will be launched in fall 2021 with the new cluster of faculty positions to begin in fall 2022.

    Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes said the idea for creating a new “cluster” of faculty positions had been developing for many years but began to take clearer shape following the murder of George Floyd last May and the resulting calls for racial justice last summer. “A lot of us at the College did some serious soul searching about our own history and the culture and structures at Vassar that require serious reflection and change,” Hoynes said. “We needed to figure out what we could do to promote racial justice and fight systemic racism in the everyday experience of students and employees at the College.”

  • The establishment of the Olive Thurman '48 Endowed Fund for Racial Justice, an $800,000 endowed fund for Africana Studies from an anonymous donor. This fund is intended to help eliminate institutional racism in the United States and prepare students who would continue this work in the legal and or the socio/political realm.

  • Members of the Board of Trustees and the senior leadership team have embarked on an initiative designed to raise their own awareness of racial inequity in their own lives and as relevant to the Board. The senior leadership team including the president have been meeting every two weeks to identify, discuss, and start to mitigate the structural sources of racial inequities. Last year, members of the Engaged Pluralism Initiative conducted a workshop for the Board and this past fall, President Bradley joined Board Chair Anthony Friscia and Wesley Dixon, Special Assistant to the President and Board Secretary, facilitating a conversation about sources of structural racism pertinent to the Board for committee chairs of the Board.

    Friscia said the workshop had been eye-opening. “It was extremely worthwhile to participate in our Board discussion on racial justice,” he said. Philip Jefferson ’83, a participant in the first trustee workshop, agreed and added, “How could we ask the Vassar community to embrace the work necessary to becoming an anti-racist learning and working environment without engaging in this work ourselves?” The trustees who engaged in the training will lead subsequent conversations for other Board members throughout this year.

    Meaningful dialog about institutional racism has been ongoing at many levels throughout the campus for some time, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana said. Since last fall, he noted, he and the other senior administrators had been engaging in workshops aimed at identifying their own biases, using storytelling techniques. “Using this as a springboard, we are collectively developing priorities that will enable us to make significant headway with respect to racial justice at the College,” Alamo-Pastrana said.

  • Enhancement of Vassar’s human resource practices--including recruitment, on-boarding, professional development, benefits design, and employee engagement—to better support an inclusive institutional culture.

  • A set of efforts led by faculty, students, and administrators to research and re-tell Vassar’s history including the history of its land, using resources recently re-discovered in the College’s archives and other resources.

    One such examination began after the digitization of approximately 3,500 images in the Special Collections’ Glass Plate Negatives collection. The photos, taken between 1904 and 1935, captured much of campus life during those decades. As the images were being catalogued, an archivist noticed troubling images involving members of the Vassar community in black, brown, and red face.

    “This prompted a conversation among the library, the library committee, and faculty about how to thoughtfully explore this aspect of Vassar's history and approach it in a way that was both respectful—understanding the impact that these images have—and critical so as to better comprehend Vassar's history,” says Andrew Ashton, Director of the Libraries.

    A similar review of holdings is being conducted by Vassar’s Native American Advisory Committee (NAAC). Formed in the spring of 2020 to enhance the College’s efforts to build and sustain relationships with Native communities and to support opportunities for Native student and faculty leadership on our campus, NAAC has been central in College efforts related to Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) compliance, policy development, and working with representatives from Native communities on these efforts. NAAC includes student members of the Native American Indigenous Student Association (NAISA).

    Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative, first led by Professor Candice Lowe-Swift and now headed by Professor Jonathon Kahn, will play a part in this examination. “What EPI does well is the practice of convening in ways that offer a place at the table for everyone involved.” Although exact plans are still developing, Kahn says EPI is embarking upon multiple projects to “create the space for our entire community—faculty, students, administration, and staff--to examine Vassar's history.”

  • Alumnae/i-Inspired Programming

    The Buildings and Belonging project, undertaken by the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC) and made permanent this year, documents the presence of African Americans who have passed through Vassar. It highlights 13 campus buildings and sites where African Americans have contributed to the physical, cultural, academic, and sociological history and development of the college.

    On Mattering is a collaboration among AAAVC, AAVC, alumnae/i, students, faculty, and the administration. This collaboration draws upon Vassar’s own resources, primarily its vastly talented pool of alumnae/i. A space is being created for the Vassar community to come together to discuss critical topics while showcasing the vast excellence among Vassar’s Black alumnae/i population.

  • Other Programming

    The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (FLLAC) has expanded its efforts to promote equity and inclusion in its operations, audience engagement, programming, communications, acquisitions, and exhibitions. "We are striving to better serve our communities by working continually towards dismantling systemic racism and discrimination and increasing transparency and accountability," said FLLAC Director T. Barton Thurber. He added that new partnerships with campus-wide initiatives and local organizations--such as Vassar College's Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education and the Celebrating the African Spirit nonprofit group--have led to enhanced collaborative displays and activities aimed at raising awareness about, and addressing issues of, social justice and racial inequality.

    The Hidden History video series, debuting last month on the Vassar homepage, examines aspects of history that may not have been taught or may have been modified or erased. The series explores discriminatory voting, banking, and housing policies—which have kept African Americans and others disenfranchised. The stories describe how these disparities are woven throughout the systems that structure our society including, but not limited to, health care, education, criminal justice, housing, and employment among others.

    "It reveals, for example, the discriminatory voting, banking, and housing policies that have kept Blacks and others disenfranchised,” said Vassar Communications’ Elizabeth Randolph, who created the series. “These types of historical injustices are implicated in current disparities in everything from health and financial outcomes to the criminal justice system.”

    The Vassar Grand Challenges program, in its third year, aims to engender institutional change by fostering inclusive excellence in STEM education. At the heart of the Grand Challenges vision is a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive STEM community. Recent projects include establishment of learning communities focused on addressing common societal challenges, support for faculty development in anti-racist practices, creation of leadership pathways for student catalysts to build community, and forging partnerships with allied offices and initiatives.

Expressing her excitement about the importance of the new tenure track position in Asian American Studies, Grace Yang ’72, the founding president of what is now the Asian Students Alliance, feels it will be impactful for all students, not just those within the curriculum. “The more we know about history, about American history, and we are all a part of that, the better,” said Yang.

Given the weight of the last few years with the pandemic, national politics and issues of race highlighted by Black Lives Matter and Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes, she says only by understanding and learning can we put injustices and injury into perspective, adding “I think we have all seen that an injury or injustice to one is really an injury and injustice for all.”

Senior Associate Dean of the College for Professional Development (former dean for campus diversity and founding director of the ALANA Center) Edward Pittman ’82 said he had witnessed Vassar respond to racial crises with initiatives on campus throughout his 30-year tenure at the College. He recalled that following the social justice protests in 1991 triggered by the Rodney King beating and subsequent police exoneration in Los Angeles, Vassar secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to implement changes in the curriculum that focused on diversity. “All social movements since then have moved onto our campus, and Vassar has used these events to teach our students and the broader community,” Pittman said.

Dean Pittman said he was optimistic about the direction Vassar is taking to address issues of racial inequality and social injustice, but he stressed there is lots more work to be done. “A generation from now, we will be judged by the efforts we undertake today,” he said. “This is truly an opportunity to really get it right.”

Students have often led the way in the College’s journey toward racial equity. This photo was taken after students took over Main Building in 1969.Photo: Courtesy, Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries⁠