There is no doubt that the major issues of the world have strong life on our campus. This has always been the case, and we want it to be so. Without this opportunity for intellectual, and emotional, exploration our students are not getting the education Vassar has promised. We are a diverse community grappling with complicated issues; that certainly is the case with issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These discussions have at times made members of our community uncomfortable. Part of our educational responsibility is to help our students understand the distinction between discomfort and threat. And we will continue to denounce speech and behavior that does cross that line, as the Vassar Student Association (VSA) president and I did recently in response to anonymous anti-Semitic posts on the social media site Yik Yak.
Because I see regularly the great vitality and positive energy of our student body, I am very concerned, and conflicted, with the fact that some of our graduates feel alienated from the college because of tensions on campus around challenging issues, notably those around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is distressing to know that these tensions have caused pain, even anger, for some of our alumnae/i for whom Vassar has for decades been a welcoming place.
Over the last few weeks, tensions on campus and among our alumnae/i around the conflict between Israel-Palestine have heightened. The most recent tensions have arisen over a pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) academic speaker who was invited to lecture last week by our American Studies Program, with the Jewish Studies Program and other departments and programs as co-sponsors. Some found at least parts of her talk offensive to Jews in particular, and others have found many of her writings highly objectionable. Our commitments to academic freedom and free speech demand that we not censor speakers on campus, however controversial. Censoring speakers cannot be the solution to our tensions, and jeopardizes the core academic mission of our institution.
Where I believe we have fallen short as a community is in not having adequate opportunities to hear and discuss multiple perspectives on these issues. We have encouraged the community to sponsor speakers and events where multiple viewpoints can be discussed and have had some tangible successes this year. I believe we can expand our programming further through new partnerships with our campus community. We know that many of our students would like to learn more from outside scholars about the complicated histories and politics of the Middle East, and I will encourage them, and our faculty, to propose people they would like to engage. We will then develop a series of six lectures or panels that span the topic, beginning this spring and continuing next fall. We don’t promise that these will represent every point of view, but they will hopefully contribute to more robust and open dialogue.
Tensions will continue on campus this spring. The advocacy of those who support the BDS movement is continuing, as is their right. We are hearing that students will bring a BDS proposal to the VSA for consideration in the next month. Some on campus are calling for more open discussion of the BDS movement. We support an on-campus dialogue looking deeply into both sides of this issue, and while we would like our students to be open to participating in such a dialogue, of course we can’t require it.
I have received many e-mails from alumnae/i deeply concerned about how the atmosphere on campus is being portrayed in online publications and through social media. These characterizations of the college simply are not accurate. I would encourage our alumnae/i who value their Vassar experiences to help us navigate these challenges and help us foster a campus climate conducive to open dialogue. Patterning respectful debate is one way to do this. Coming to campus and engaging constructively with our students is another. I know you will see that they are the vibrant, inquisitive young people you would expect to find at Vassar. They deserve all of our best efforts.