Vassar College Students Protest as National, Campus Issues Mount - Higher Education
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Vassar College Students Protest as National, Campus Issues Mount

by Catherine Morris

Hundreds of Vassar student surrounded and occupied Main Building last Friday, spurred on by a series of revelations about the college’s administrative response to allegations of sexual assault and racial profiling on campus. Protestors called on the administration to do better.

The Vassar protests were framed by the larger national debate sparked by Ferguson and the lack of indictment in the Eric Garner case.

“It was a rally for sexual and racial justice. It was a peaceful one, wonderfully coordinated, with speakers and so on. We value that at Vassar. We value the opportunity for folks to say what’s on their mind,” said Dr. Christopher Roellke, dean of the college.

On campus, complaints relating to sexual assault, racial profiling and mental health came to a head last week in a confluence of events resulting in the protests.

A current Vassar student published an open letter to the administration in Boilerplate, a student blog, on Dec. 1, recounting her experience of an alleged sexual assault as a new freshman at Vassar.

The college is also in the process of investigating its Safety and Security operation. In recent years, there have been a series of allegations that campus Safety has engaged in routine racial profiling. Margolis Healy, a Burlington, Vermont-based consulting firm, was tasked with evaluating Vassar’s Safety and Security and offering recommendations for improvement.

A day after the student’s letter was published in Boilerplate, Steven Healy, the managing partner of Margolis Healy, presented the firm’s preliminary findings to hundreds of students, faculty and staff in an open meeting on campus on Dec. 2.

According to The Miscellany News, which bills itself as the Vassar student paper of record, the report found that there was a lack of written standard operational procedures that Security officers might use to guide their responses to situations.

For example, a number of Vassar community members have said that Security officers stop individuals and ask to see their IDs with seemingly limited cause. Such practices have led some community members to believe that the Security officers are engaging in racial profiling, particularly if they are stopping individuals of color.

Kiese Laymon, a Vassar professor, published an opinion piece in Gawker on November 29, detailing his experiences of racial profiling as a Black professor on the Vassar campus. He wrote that he was routinely asked to show his campus ID to security, even in his own office.

“There’s some things I would change in that article, because that happened, and I had a lot of run-ins with Security, but I’m not trying to isolate Security,” Laymon told Diverse. “I think Security is often doing what it’s been trained to do, and when you don’t have — and this is all of us — if we don’t have significant education or training around issues of gender, most of us, those who identify as men, are going to be crazy sexist. So I think the same thing holds for them. They were doing what they were trained to do.”

According to The Miscellany, the Margolis Healy report did not attribute Security officers stopping community members to racial profiling, but rather to unclear internal procedural directives. Nevertheless, the report did find that some in the Vassar community believe that Security officers engage in routine racial profiling ― suggesting that the Vassar administration must work to correct this problem of perception.

The report, which is still in its preliminary stages, is not yet publicly available, according to Roellke. A Margolis Healy representative said that the company could not comment on client affairs.

“There have been concerns raised over the years that there may be race-based kinds of interactions on campus that are problematic,” Roellke told Diverse. “We hadn’t had a study done on Safety and Security for more than a decade and that, coupled with the retirement of the director of Safety and Security, along with five other officers during a recent very early retirement incentive, suggested that this was a really great time to take a whole look at our Safety and Security operation.”

Dr. Leonard Nevarez, a professor of sociology at Vassar College, wrote an op-ed in the Miscellany last week that he has “never felt so demoralized at this institution,” as in the past several weeks.

“It’s possible the administration thinks this is just the general noise of being an administrator, so I just wanted to make clear that, no, that this is a particularly serious moment, that they need to heed the students’ issues,” Nevarez told Diverse ― alluding not just to the perception of racial profiling, but to problems with sexual assault and inadequate mental health resources.

In response to the protests, the president’s office issued an email on Dec. 10, listing the initiatives the college plans to implement to address student and faculty concerns. The college plans to create a senior officer position to oversee institutional diversity and inclusion, and two current faculty members have been named as the new advisors to senior administration on issues of race and inclusion — among other measures.

“A lot of the things that they’re suggesting now are good things, but they’re things that a number of us proposed years ago,” Laymon said, adding that two years ago a committee he was involved with had submitted a revised action plan for Safety and Security.

Roellke said that the college will continue to make changes. “We’re still smack in the middle of the process of studying ourselves,” he said.

Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diversseducation.com.

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