Freakout at Vassar College

Jon Chenette is the interim president of Vassar College. He is a little late getting in on the freakout act in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. He takes the occasion of Thanksgiving to make up for his tardiness. He treats the operative shibboleths and cliches as so much stuffing for this particular turkey. I thought that readers who have followed this series so far might find President Chenette’s message of interest as well:

From: Office of the President [email address deleted]
Date: Wed, Nov 23, 2016 at 2:18 PM
Subject: Message from Interim President Chenette
To: [addressee deleted]

Dear members of the extended Vassar community,

With the approach of Thanksgiving break, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the texture of campus life in the wake of the recent election. There can be few more interesting places to be than a college campus in the face of such major change in our nation, and few more important tasks than helping our students, regardless of how they voted, chart a way ahead that aligns with their deep commitment to a more just and sustainable world.

I have been heartened by what I have seen. Within hours of the election, students engaged in debate, informal conversation, critical analyses, and also protest, in response to the social and political situation in which we find ourselves. Many faculty have created opportunities in their classes for talking about the concerns on students’ minds, offering the benefit of their knowledge as scholars and, importantly, their support as mentors. Students have expressed a renewed commitment to standing up – with each other – for what they believe in and for what they desire and expect of our community and nation. In all of this, I see resilience, courage, and strength.

For two days immediately after the election, we were blessed by a residency from Ysaye Barnwell, until recently a member of the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Her Thursday night “community sing” had a filled Villard Room harmonizing in four parts to rousing protest and gospel tunes that had inspired and united the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, complete with instructions for adapting verses to the day – “ain’t gonna let no misogyny get me down…” Many other such serendipitous moments have graced our days these past two weeks.

Now, as the next chapter in our country’s history takes shape, many of our students, faculty, and staff have concerns and questions about the course the nation will be taking. And they worry about actions threatened, particularly against people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, and others. In this context, academic work and extracurricular projects have been infused with new meaning and energy, as you who know the college well would expect. But there is also confusion and anxiety, mirroring moods pervasive throughout our country.

As a college, a main source of our strength lies in our sense of community and in our commitment to having that community be as inclusive and empowering as possible. We believe strongly that people from all backgrounds and circumstances belong at Vassar. We commit whole-heartedly to the support and encouragement of our students, especially at a time when some in our country seem to be calling into question the rights of some groups to full dignity and respect.

We also have an obligation to speak out, and we are doing so. I have joined a group of more than 100 college and university presidents in writing to the president-elect urging him to condemn the hate speech and acts of violence being perpetrated across our country. It is a first step, one I know will be followed by continued debate, discussion, and activism on the part of our students, our faculty, and our staff.

I have also joined the historical Seven Sisters Colleges in an open letter to the president-elect’s appointee as chief strategist, who has a shameful record of homophobic and misogynistic statements and support for other hateful speech. And I have signed on to a statement calling on elected and incoming government officials to recognize the moral and societal value of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and to continue to uphold that program and expand it in the future. I have provided a link here to those documents.

As recent events make clear, much work lies ahead. But as this campus makes clear, there is much to be thankful for. I hope that all of you will find comfort and joy in your family and friends during the coming weeks. I hope further, for all of us and for those we care about so deeply, that as a country we can reaffirm our commitment to the rights of all people.

Best regards,

Jon Chenette
Interim President


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