Vassar Student Association

VSA Council passes memorandum on curricular response to economic crisis

On Sunday, Nov. 29, the VSA Council unanimously passed a memorandum to explain and contextualize its earlier endorsement of a letter written by a campus group:


From: The Vassar Student Association Council

To: The Board of Trustees and Students of Vassar College

Cc: President Catharine Hill, Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette, Dean of Planning and Academic Affairs Rachel Kitzinger, Dean of the College Christopher Roellke, Vice President for Finance and Administration Elizabeth Eismeier, Vice President for Development Cathy Baer, Vice President for Computing and Information Services Bret Ingerman, Vice President for College Relations Susan DeKrey, Chair of the Faculty Policy and Conference Committee Steve Rock

Date: November 29, 2009


We, the VSA Council, wish to elaborate on our 11.22.09 endorsement of the Campus Solidarity Working Group’s letter to the Board of Trustees. The letter, written by Adjunct Associate Professor of English Judy Nichols, was presented to Council by a group of five students. After a heated discussion of nearly four hours, Council voted 15-6 to endorse the document. We seek here to frame this endorsement in the context of our nuanced discussion.

Ms. Nichols’ letter—the second in a series of similar documents—criticized the reductions in tenure lines, adjunct and visiting faculty members, and course sections as a result of the financial crisis. The document demonstrated a clear concern for the long-term health of Vassar’s multidisciplinary curriculum, our flexible course offerings, and our retention of excellent scholars and teachers. The Council voted to endorse this letter because we believe these are core properties of a Vassar education that our constituents value deeply.

Our endorsement of this letter was, to some extent, a reflection of the mood of the student body. Council is comprised of 24 full-time students. We study in every academic department. We compete on varsity athletics teams. We do research with our professors, learn from the life experiences of our staff, and benefit from the multifaceted diversity within our own student body. Council’s views on Vassar parallels the views of our 2,450 constituents. Many Council members felt that they lacked accurate financial information; many felt unsure of the future of their department or their favorite professor; many felt annoyed that, while members of the Executive Board are routinely consulted on confidential financial planning, the broader student community is left in the dark until after decisions have been reached. These feelings, reflected by our 15-6 endorsement, are all reflective of broader concerns on campus.

We also respect the student contingent of the Solidarity Group who attended our meeting. We are their representatives, and it is our responsibility to channel their feelings to the College’s decision-making bodies. Even if we disagree on policy and approach, we applaud these students for caring about our College so deeply. Indeed, a consistent frustration among Council members is that surprisingly few constituents come to us with institutional concerns—unfortunate, in a financial climate inevitably filled with such concerns. We are often discouraged when students are apathetic about the state of the College, and do not seek information easily available through campus-wide e-mails, our VSA site, the Economy site, or The Miscellany News. We admire the commitment of the students in the Solidarity Group and appreciate their efforts to make Vassar a more conscientious, egalitarian institution.

Nevertheless, we harbor no unrealistic expectations that Vassar can remain unchanged. In this economic climate, the VSA Council is fully aware that the curriculum we all value must shrink. So too must our teaching staff. However, as members of the community, we cannot help but feel saddened when our teachers are let go. And as representatives of the student body, we cannot help but agree with the Solidarity Group’s sincere concern for the effect of the financial crisis on academic life and on the lives of community members.

Beyond these sentiments, which earned the support of the majority of Council, we feel it is our responsibility to acknowledge some of the many inaccuracies within Ms. Nichols’ letter. In its accusatory and hyperbolic tone, the document presents a problematic interpretation of Vassar’s careful financial planning. We seek to highlight just some of the instances where the letter marshals false or incomplete evidence to make its case.

The letter makes several inaccurate claims about the staffing and curricula of specific departments. Computer Science will actually be teaching four more course sections next fall compared to this year. Film too will be one course ahead of the level of staffing they requested for 2010-11 because a new tenure-track appointee would have had a reduced course load in the first year. As for the languages, the Dean of the Faculty office has indeed asked that tenure-line faculty members engage in teaching at the 100-level on a regular basis. Students at the 100-level deserve and benefit from contact with our tenured scholars, and our tenure-line faculty benefit from regular engagement with the challenges and rewards of teaching at that level. We disagree with the letter’s implication that this trend is negative. Further, we take issue with the letter’s baseless accusation that the administration has illegally forced faculty members to retire. While the College’s financial situation has no-doubt resulted in some retirement-age faculty feeling pressure to leave the institution, we have no reason to believe that the administration is the source of that pressure.

Most significantly, beyond these specific points, the letter conveys both implicitly and explicitly that decisions have been made by a small group of administrators without regard to community input. This is misleading. While our Senior Officers (most of whom are also teaching faculty) have directed financial planning, students and faculty also had direct input into decision-making. Two elected students—the VSA President and VSA Vice President for Operations—sit as full members on the Priorities and Planning Committee. The members of this group sit as equals, debating the College’s many noble aspirations alongside its financial restraints. The students, faculty, and administrators come together with optimism for what Vassar should be and realism for what Vassar can be. Through this committee, we have had (and continue to have) substantive and specific input into the financial decision-making process. On curricular issues, the VSA Vice President for Academics sits on the Advisory Group for the Allocation of Faculty Resources (AGAFR) and the Committee on Curricular Policies (CCP), and is a vocal advocate for multidisciplinary programs, the reduction of administrative course releases, and the general maintenance of our broad and diverse curriculum. The letter fails to acknowledge the substantive input that students have had into the current financial plan through their elected representatives.

Moreover, the letter implies that Vassar’s financial planning was reached haphazardly—that the senior administration hacked away at the budget without care for the curriculum or respect for the College’s employees. In fact, we recognize that the process was thoughtful and deliberative. Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette has worked (and continues to work) with departments to ensure that we are making academic reductions in ways that will affect the broader curriculum as little as possible. We recognize that some members of the community, including some members of our own Council, object to staffing decisions in certain areas. However, the Senior Officers, CCP and AGAFR reached these decisions after long and careful consideration. This important work should not be dismissed.

We agree wholeheartedly with the document’s concern for the curriculum, and are pleased that since the Council’s endorsement, the most recent estimates suggest that the curriculum will lose only 10 course sections next fall, rather than the 30 previously estimated. It is important to realize that the damage done to the curriculum by these changes is not nearly as catastrophic as Ms. Nichols’ letter implies. By almost any measure, Vassar’s curriculum will remain flexible and diverse.

We would also like to clarify the conditions under which Council voted to endorse the letter. The members of the Solidarity Group told Council that Ms. Nichols planned to send her letter on Wednesday, November 25. As we later discovered, she did not plan to send it until Wednesday, December 2. This false date essentially prevented us from delaying the vote by one week to consider the motion in greater depth. While we do not believe that we were intentionally misled, this significant miscommunication put pressure on Council to act quickly. Many representatives saw this as a choice between “doing something” to advocate for the curriculum or “doing nothing.” Under this tight timeframe, the majority of Council elected to endorse the document. In some cases, this endorsement was more for the sentiments behind it than for the facts underlying it.

The feelings we express here are nuanced, but the issues facing the College are complex enough that such nuance is required. Unlike the Solidarity Group’s letter, we lack a unified thesis. We are instead left with competing and simultaneous thoughts—irreparable sadness for the loss of professors and staff, concern for our characteristically dynamic curriculum, profound respect for the College’s senior leadership, and a determination to mend our community and build an unshakable foundation for Vassar’s next 150 years.

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