“Vassar is a Corporation”: An Exposé on Institutional Logic

“Human Oil Spill” demonstration by members of the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign. Photo Credit: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BmfIlWAIUAAeAly.jpg:large

“Students are complaining,” read the deece napkin canisters circa 2012. Since August, this fact has only been reinforced. For years—decades—students, staff, and faculty on the margins of Vassar’s priorities have been fiercely working towards justice on this campus. They recognize that the college promises and purports much yet makes good on little. Since August, the efforts to hold Vassar accountable have coalesced and intensified, and resistance to intersections of oppression at Vassar have hit a powerful point of interference and collective reckoning. Yet, in many ways, the administration has remained steadfast in its ideals and practices, padded by calls for “discussion.” This is illustrated neatly by their behavior during the Protest for Sexual and Racial Justice (many of Main building’s higher-ups locked themselves into the computer center’s conference room as students flooded the halls of where they usually work) or in Dean Roellke’s now notorious handling of Ellie’s case. What is it that the individuals who make up Vassar’s administration are trying to protect? Whose interests do they prioritize? As a campus; a campus filled with rage, fear, and energy, we are constantly demanding an adequate response from the people who run this institution. So why don’t we get one?

In the spring 2014 semester, I was part of a research methods class whose collective project sought to understand the relationship between Vassar College and student activism/protest. For the sake of specificity, we chose to probe the divestment movement, because that was what the class thought was our most systematic and encompassing movement at the time. My specific charge was to interview members of the administration to ask how they think student protest should be conducted and what their thoughts are on the efficacy of divestment. I interviewed six administrators in total, most of whom provided answers that are salient to the struggles in which this institution is currently engaged. Because they never agreed to have their names included in any non-academic publication, I’ll have to withhold them in this article. I will say, however, that they are all top-ranking deans, vice presidents, and presidents—when “the administration” is referred to, it is in large part referring to these six people.

Often in my six conversations, I was explained to whom each administrator reported, or from which committee each administrator got the information that informed the decisions they made. Accountability is constantly displaced, mired in a vast collection of committee acronyms. For most students, this system is difficult to fathom. To us, “the administration,” “the institution,” are clouds, opaque and complex. We go about our lives filled with projects, activities, and errands, imagining the college in the way a student would—most of us don’t have the time or energy to comprehend Vassar’s bureaucratic structure. As such, the students (broadly) and the members of the administration (the “institution,” broadly) imagine Vassar with a fundamentally different logic. The decisions and policies that the campus’ organizers and activists are protesting are born from this institutional logic. What, then, does this logic look like?

*  *  *

“Vassar is a corporation.” I’m in an office in Baldwin–not on the student health floor but on the financial floor, two flights up. A finance administrator is detailing the functions of the finance department and the ultimate unfeasibility of divestment from fossil fuels. He explains that the purpose of the endowment, Vassar’s total investments, is “to maximize returns and not do social engineering.” Both he (Finance Administrator A) and another senior finance administrator (Finance Administrator B) maintain that many of Vassar’s investments are co-mingled in hedge funds, meaning that to actually divest Vassar would have to “fundamentally restructure” the way it invests. In other words, it’s complicated, and the divestment movement, to them, is a practice in ill-guided simplification of a complex issue. To them, Vassar is a corporation, an investor, a “seat at the table” of global financial markets, whose financial practices are dictated by experts. In their imaginations, only “institutional channels” exist for students to bring their suggested changes. And in using these channels, students would have to offer logical, data-driven arguments as to why something should change. In the eyes of Finance Administrator A, students have no legal control over Vassar’s investments, so their control comes through “influence and persuasion, not voting and power.”

In other words, student protest is futile. This administrator does not heed demands from protesters if their action is coming from “outside” the system rather than through institutional channels. To him, protesting lacks the potential to change institutional practices, because protesters are not making an educated and logical attempt to engage with the institution. “Without conversation and analysis,” he asserts, “students won’t be aware of how [the system] works.” Students mounting outside pressure are not allowing for “any exchange of data that is meaningful.” Finance Administrator A believes that, without exchange, they are “people I can’t reason with.” Because divestment does not make sense in these administrators’ logic, because students were going through “the outside” (even though they did attempt to simultaneously go through “the inside” by engaging with the college’s investment committees), the two financial administrators and another very senior-level administrator thought that the divestment movement was making a mistake in continuing their efforts.“It doesn’t address the issue” was a common assertion. Another was that students should take “personal responsibility” for their consumptive actions, with the subtext that real power comes from striving to effect individual rather than systematic change.

What followed five out of the six assessments of student protest was particularly important. Important in that it is an opinion consistent across the second and third floors of Main and Baldwin; in that the conceptions these administrators hold of student politics are laid bare; in that we see how their political logic is fundamentally inconsistent with ours as students. When asked “what is the role of student activism and protest at Vassar?” one senior administrator, a woman who often stands in for the whole administration, said that it is good practice for students.

Practice.

One of the finance administrators calls activism “a great educational exercise” through which students can learn about how higher education finance works, and states that our “job is to come here and experiment and debate.” Nothing further. Another administrator discusses “practice” in saying that there are “different contexts” for which a Vassar student can practice while attending this school. A senior-level dean labeled a controversial action taken by the divestment folks—a walkout of pro-fossil fuel propagandist Alex Epstein’s lecture—as “a marvelous learning opportunity.” These sentiments expose a troubling assumption held by the quoted administrators. By imagining student protest as “practice,” they situate Vassar outside of the “real world.” When Vassar is a site of “learning opportunity” and “experimentation,” any resistance to its practices is relegated to academic exercise. Rather than hearing protest as a public expression of real politics transcending Vassar’s institutional structures, these administrators instead categorize it as imprudent noise rife with potential for learning. We, as students, have yet to understand the delicate intricacies of Vassar’s corporate practices, so it is in the best interest of the institution to either help assimilate resistance through appropriate channels, water it down and slake the unrest, or dismiss it all together.

This brings us to today. The students, staff, and faculty protesting Vassar’s discriminatory procedures are not practicing. When students of color feel unsafe and ignored by this college, they are not presented with a “learning opportunity” to deal with injustice, they are experiencing oppression. When they protest, they aren’t practicing for the racist real world, they are feeling society’s racism as it is channeled through the exclusionary and false benevolence of this institution. When a survivor of sexual assault feels compelled to publicly speak out because their perpetrator still lives freely at this school, they are not practicing what it’s like to feel fear. Neither is that perpetrator’s act a “learning opportunity”–it is a crime. Yet a semester’s suspension (or no guilty verdict at all) seems like a mere practice in justice–a disciplinary “experiment.” If the institution assuages demands for justice because it is impossible to conform them to the institution’s “systems,” it’s not that the students protesting cannot understand the institution’s bureaucratic complexity, it’s that the institution’s channels are not equipped to reconcile Vassar’s own institutional sexism; its own institutional racism.

3 Comments

  • Anon. says:

    Boilerplate magazine is destroying our school.

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m writing as a student. Afraid of mountains of hate mail I’d otherwise inevitably receive, I’m to remain anonymous until the sufficiently skilled and incentivized among you eventually find me.

    Vassar College is a corporation, and is rightly so.

    Vassar also needn’t heed student demands. It’s not in Vassar’s mission to directly satisfy students’ wishes. The student government should try to make students happy, but administrators needn’t bother. So yes, protests could very likely be futile. But protesters should see this coming. There are two reasons for this.

    1. Colleges are trustee corporations, not shareholder corporations.

    Vassar leadership doesn’t need to answer to anyone but donating alums, paying parents and a select group of highly accomplished individuals from various fields. They certainly don’t listen to individual students for a living. Product and services companies, on the other hand, have to listen to consumers and Wall Street. So students would probably have better success protesting Nilda’s Bakery than Vassar College.

    This form of trustee corporation (a select group of administrators and advisors) was pioneered in the nonprofit sector by the Harvard Corporation (now the Harvard Fellowship since “corporations” started carrying negative connotations) and has proven generally effective in affecting the long-term growth of an institution. It is a prime example of a republican institution.

    This is true for almost every college, university and other nonprofits including your favorite hip environmentalist/human rights/animal rights/racial equality nonprofits that’s in vogue this week. How often does your human rights nonprofit make changes because you want it to?

    This system has its pros and cons, but like Churchill says about democracy (I don’t buy that for democracy but I do for this), trustee corporation is the worst form of college governance, except for all the others. In the end, because students don’t decide the future of the college, they are not all that crucial.

    The gist of the story is that don’t be disillusioned when they don’t always do what you want them to do, and saying they are corporations doesn’t mean anything: they are corporations, and are for the right reasons.

    2. Activism is effective in some circumstances, not others.

    Would you boycott Goldman Sachs? What actions would you take? Would you stop putting money in their ATM? But they don’t have ATMs! Would you stop buying their shares? Other people (including corporations) will pick them up.

    But if you boycott Nestle’s or Whole Foods’ oh-so-many-products-you-can-find-fault, their executives will stay up all night in a war room monitoring sentiments on Facebook, Twitter and in the press. You may never shop there anyway, but the leadership will shower marketing money on you regardless.

    Vassar is more of a Goldman Sachs kind of thing: it doesn’t sell you chocolates and infant formulae, so it doesn’t care if you don’t like the late Mr. Goldman or the similarly dead Mr. Sachs.

    It sells you education, sometimes for $0 or even negative amounts, effectively paying you to enjoy a valuable asset. Vassar’s not worried that you will abandon your education because you don’t like some of their less important policies.

    So yes, Vassar College, just like other colleges, is a corporation legally and functionally, and it’s rightly so.

  • Anonymous 3 says:

    The above anonymous post has it fundamentally wrong about what Vassar should be. Vassar is a non-profit organization. As a rule, non-profits’ primary purpose is to carry out a benevolent service for the target community. They achieve this goal in part by being financially sustainable, so that they can continue to operate and grow. But while this is an important aspect of their survival, it is only important in that it enables the institution to continue to serve.

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