Clearly, something has gone very wrong at Vassar.
Our post, Anti-Israel academic boycott turns ugly at Vassar, exhaustively detailed the fury directed by Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine at two Vassar professors teaching a class that involved travel to Israel and the West Bank.
That fury erupted in an Open Forum organized by the Vassar administration at which those professors together with Jewish students were heckled, jeered and belittled in such a frenzy that it shocked even Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss website, who himself is anti-Israel and was present at the event.
The accuracy of our reporting was confirmed by the two professors involved, as detailed in The Anti-Israel Cultural Revolution at Vassar.
Now the two professors have written a lengthy column in the Vassar student newspaper detailing their experience. They specifically address how this incident fits into the perceived climate of fear at Vasssar. Here is an excerpt (emphasis added):
One especially vexing aspect of the criticism leveled at us is that it has been racialized. In early February, SJP students picketed our course causing some of our students to express feelings of harassment and intimidation upon entering the space of the classroom. We objected to the picket because of its negative effect on those who already felt beleaguered by ill-informed criticisms across campus for enrolling in the course. Discussing the picket during class, our students asked us to relay to administrators in the Dean of the College office and the International Studies program the request for a facilitated discussion between them and SJP members. Despite our repeated requests for such an intervention, none transpired.
Since then, our objection to the picket has been characterized by some members of the Vassar community as our use of white privilege to target students of color. If we and our students had been consulted before this conclusion was drawn, listeners would have learned that our students—many of whom belong to racial and ethnic minority groups—were as surprised as we were that the group of SJP protesters were characterized as being “of color.” Furthermore, it would have become clear that we supported the right of SJP students to protest in any number of ways, including ongoing tabling in the College Center, but not inside an academic building at our classroom door. If anyone had thought to speak with us before stereotypically labeling us, multiple competing narratives would have emerged. For example, while the two of us have indeed benefited from the privilege of being seen as within the white majority in our society, we are at the same time in sympathy with the concerns of SJP.
Many Vassar students and faculty have expressed their concern that over the last several years, a climate of fear has descended on campus. This fear was confirmed for them during the spectacle at the Open Forum that was held on March 3.
In our opinion, the rage unleashed disrespectfully at us at the forum has a gendered as well as a racial dimension. Perhaps one way to begin countering the climate of fear is to work harder campus-wide to engage one another with intellectual openness, listening to the multiple narratives that emanate from the Vassar community. A jumping-off point for this endeavor might be to engage with any one of the 28 breathtakingly thoughtful students who devoted their spring break to the study trip. Though some might caricature these students as having been greenwashed by the two of us or by our itinerary, such spurious depictions underestimate the intelligence of the diverse group of students whom we have been privileged to teach.
—Jill Schneiderman is a professor of earth science & geography at Vassar. Rachel Friedman is an associate professor of Greek & Roman studies at Vassar and Jewish Studies.
Clearly, something has gone very wrong at Vassar.
Update: We have received a copy of the following Statement from Vassar president Catharine Hill issued April 11, 2014, which reads in part:
Dear members of the Vassar community,
I have heard from many of you, on campus as well as alumnae/i and parents, who are concerned, as am I, about campus tensions stemming from different viewpoints about Israel and Palestine. I know that people have very deep feelings about these issues and emotions can be raw. While there are people who have been working hard to further understanding on campus, we are a community very diverse in thought. Some feel very clear in their views, while others are conflicted. Some are frustrated and feeling unheard when opportunities for discussion are organized, while others have said they are uncomfortable publicly expressing their views. Still others are unengaged with the issue.
There is no way to make the challenges or the frustrations surrounding these issues just go away, nor do we want to do that. What I believe we in the Vassar community can contribute to these discussions and any other set of complicated and contentious issues is a way to talk about them with intellectual discipline and mutual respect, even in the face of heated disagreements.
There is no more natural home for this process than at Vassar. We welcome the multiple differing opinions we have among our faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, and families on these and many other issues. And this is especially important during a time when we see a lack – at times almost a complete absence — of civility and engagement within our political system and in our media. With our multiplicity of backgrounds and opinions comes the challenge of figuring out how to have difficult discussions in which everyone involved has a chance to be heard without interference, certainly without derision. We need to treat each other civilly and with respect. If we don’t, we shut down and shut out important voices. People may then withdraw from the discussion. This is a loss of ideas and perspectives….
Our Statement on Civility and Responsibility in an Academic Community, in stressing the importance of both free speech and an environment “free from intolerance, disrespect or harassment,” ends with the powerful statement that “genuine freedom of mind is not possible in the absence of civility.”
The college has clear policies against discrimination and harassment that the entire community must abide by, with carefully developed procedures for investigating and adjudicating alleged infractions that protect the rights of all involved. Sanctions are imposed in those instances when any member or members of the community are found to have violated the policies. We have confidence in these policies and procedures and have used them to guide our responses in difficult situations. As an educational institution, our responsibilities include preparing our students to be active in important issues in their communities, the country, and the world after graduation. Our policies and procedures are designed to educate, in addition to holding people responsible for their actions….
Our International Studies course, the Jordan River Watershed, that included a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, provided an opportunity for deep engagement and learning around some of the most contentious issues of our time. While there were and continue to be discussions on campus about what kinds of trips take place, I have been moved by comments from the students and faculty who made this trip. Instead of the monolithic opinions some expected to encounter among many in both areas, they found instead a range of viewpoints. Our students and faculty witnessed diverse groups working through intense, difficult discussions to find some understanding and even common ground. There can be no better learning experience. I hope that difficult conversations on campus can have the same impact on our students’ lives.
I am cautiously optimistic and encouraged by these and other events. As a community we are taking very seriously our responsibility to prepare Vassar’s next generation to speak confidently, listen respectfully, and act responsibly and effectively. Most importantly, drawing on language long associated with our college, we are working to live up to the call to “educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others.”
Catharine Hill President