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The following is from a letter sent to the alumnae/i of Vassar College and to the parents of the students currently attending the college from President Catherine Bond Hill prior to a discussion to address “…current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This writer is taking no sides in the current debate (yet), but feels that all sides require an airing out, since constructive engagement is clearly the only thing lacking at this juncture. As such, in the words of Shakespeare, “Judge when you hear”:
Vassar has as an abiding principle of “going to the source.” As you likely know, it comes from history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon, who at the turn of the 20th century encouraged her Vassar students to use primary sources to do their research. With so much being written in the media and on social media about these issues at Vassar, much of it without the benefit of primary sources at the college, we want to provide our alums and parents the opportunity to hear what is really happening on campus.
I would suggest that the op-ed about Vassar earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal fell far short of the principle of going to the source. It would have been useful for the authors to come to campus to find out for themselves what is actually going on before writing the piece. I have extended an invitation to them both to come to campus next week to meet with students, faculty, and members of the administration during our annual All College Days.
If they accept, they will see a vital community, grappling with some of the toughest issues of our time. Activist students, supporting a variety of issues, are not necessarily committed to dialogue. And, encouraging balanced programing and opportunities for discussion has been difficult. But, we are making some progress.
Earlier this week, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and political analyst, spoke out against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to a supportive audience. Late last month our Jewish Studies program sponsored a lecture by anthropologist Aomar Boum, who discussed his research at the United States Holocaust Museum detailing a partnership between North African Jews and Muslims to fight racism and anti-Semitism.
In late January, with support from my office, the elected leaders of our student government, the Vassar Student Association, along with members from a variety of student groups with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attended a training provided by the National Coalition Building Institute on addressing difficult issues. These kinds of events make us hopeful for even more productive and respectful exchanges.
This is not to say that we do not face difficult issues, we absolutely do. And, this includes incidents of anti-Semitism. Such incidents are in violation of our college regulations and policies and we do not tolerate them. We denounce them. A recent e-mail I sent to the community denounced anonymous anti-Semitic comments on the social media platform Yik Yak, and our Dean of the College emailed students this week, urging them to treat each other with the respect that is called for by, and is central to, our code of conduct as a community. I have called on our students to think about the impact of their actions on others in our community. I also have asked our community to call out actions that offend and harm others.
The recent speaker to campus who has attracted so much attention has also spoken at Harvard, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Wellesley to name only a few institutions both in the United States and abroad. As academic institutions, we must be committed to academic freedom and free speech. Just as I objected to the call for the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I will defend the faculty’s right to bring speakers of their choice to campus. I also will let the faculty who invited the recent lecturer speak for themselves.
Along with many others in the Vassar community, I am dissatisfied with the range of perspectives being presented on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are working to fill this gap. While many people on campus work hard to do this, the megaphone effect of those who think they know what is going on but really don’t, damages those efforts. As I have said before, Vassar deserves, and demands, better.
The real tragedy here, of course, is that Vassar College needed to have this conversation at all. But it is foolish to assume that in the great halls of academia where freedom of thought, inquiry and opinion reign that prejudice does not exist. It does. It always has and it always will. Perhaps some important perspective will be found in the days and weeks to come and perhaps not. One thing is certain. A great institution of higher learning has some explaining to do. Such explanations, however, will do little if people of good will are unwilling to listen. This is essential as listening is the foundation of understanding. It is necessary as understanding leads to healing.
We must remember, however, that bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism are intolerable in a civilized society. As such, if there is a cancer in this place which so many of us love, it must be cut out, as surely as if were afflicting our own bodies. But a biopsy must nevertheless be done to determine how extensive the problem is. Is it a powerful malignancy comprised of many or the benign idiocy of a few? This we will determine. Some have suggested the patient is already too far gone; that we should now turn our backs and focus our efforts on those still worth saving.
I defy this notion.
Until Vassar College is dead and relegated to history, I, for one, will not allow those who seek to rip us apart because of our religious beliefs, who want wholesale bigotry to define this community, who have already decided that it is an irretrievable cesspool of prejudice or want only their side to be heard and no one else’s any semblance of victory of comfort.
We are Vassar. We are many and we are strong. Do not fuck with us.
It’s never a good or noble thing to be perceived as self-indulgent, arrogant or snobby. Having said that, I recently have found myself feeling slighted and even a little guilty at having what I consider a great education. I really have no right to feel this way but I do. Maybe a little venting will help.
This past February, an old friend remarked to me that one of her children, then a junior, had received admission materials from my alma mater, Vassar College, and was absolutely delighted with the place! A potential early decision candidate, I thought. Her mother, who I have known for over 30 years and absolutely adore, asked if there was there a way to attend for the same overall cost as the local state institution, the University of Colorado. I now must assume that the question posed was purely tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, I responded as if it were an honest inquiry. I said he short answer was no but I did qualify my response by saying it was by no means impossible and that I would be delighted to discuss attending the College with the prospective applicant and the family at her mother’s discretion.
Needless to say, the now senior high school student will not be a part of Vassar College Class of 2018. To be honest, under the circumstances I strain to imagine the student even submitting an application to Poughkeepsie. I suspect her mother was simply asking humorously, as it is my belief that the family’s lifestyle would be, shall we say, cramped by a child attending a Seven Sisters college. However, it still bothers me for some reason. What is truly more relevant: an Education of Great Value or an Education at a Great Value? If this young person was as qualified as I was told, admission would not have been any real problem. That having been said, in the interest of full disclosure, I offer a comparison between the schools courtesy of CollegeData. To wit:
University That Shall Remain Nameless: Public, comprehensive university.
US News & World Report National University Ranking: N/A
US News & World Report Regional University Ranking (West): #22
Entrance Difficulty: Moderately Difficult. More than 75% of freshmen were in the top 50% of their high school class and scored over 1010 on the SAT I or over 18 on the ACT; about 85% or fewer of all applicants accepted.
Cost for Attendance for Out-of-State residents: $33,477
Payment Plans: Credit card (no, really…it officially lists “credit card” as the payment plan, I kid you not)
Vassar College: Private, liberal arts college.
US News & World Report National College Ranking: #13
Entrance Difficulty: Very Difficult. More than 50% of freshmen were in the top 10% of their high school class and scored over 1230 on the SAT I or over 26 on the ACT; about 60% or fewer of all applicants accepted.
Cost of Attendance: $61,860
Payment Plans: Installment plan, external finance company
The rub, of course, is the cost. That’s legitimate but only to a point. According to the University That Shall Remain Nameless, on its own website, it prides itself as “affordable…a top value in education”, which I suppose is a polite way of saying “we don’t cost much and if you stick us on your credit card you can file for bankruptcy later and still keep the diploma”. Well, good for them. But if cost is the only factor in choosing higher education for even well-to-do families, then I’m in the wrong line of work. Perhaps I should start my own university and charge half of what the students pay at even the most “cost-effective” institutions. How hard can it be to convince the U.S. Department of Education that my new institution can offer a truly effective and quality education? If Oral Roberts could pull it off in Tulsa, I could certainly do it. A person could become rich beyond their wildest dreams of avarice.
In all seriousness, I know what upset me about this. The “ha-ha-no-we’re-only-kidding” approach to even asking me if your child could attend my alma mater on the cheap. Don’t even ask if you know in your heart of hearts that there’s no way you’d surrender your 4-car garage and the condo in Vail with college costs often being what they are. Frankly, if you really want to save and get a great education about real life, have your child join City Year or the Peace Corps. By the way, never mind the bothersome scholarships, grants and yes, student loans which I myself used. How much do they help the rich? Quite possibly as much as any other student regardless of financial background. Was it difficult paying for school? Of course it was. My mother had all 4 of her children in college at one point but we made it work. “A great value” or not, I’ll stack the quality and long term usefulness of my education against the University That Shall Remain Nameless any day of the week.
Except in football…