During his freshman and sophomore years, Ross Goodman ‘79 had two surprisingly inspirational experiences. First, in the showers of Josselyn House he bumped his head, which got him thinking about campus facilities. Second, while out shopping, he began to suspect that Vassar students were overpaying for groceries. After comparing prices at various Poughkeepsie supermarkets, Goodman determined that the stores closest to campus charged significantly more for the same products than those farther away. “I thought, ‘hmm,’” he said, “’I wonder how else Vassar students are getting screwed.’ I said: ‘somebody should do something about this.’”
Friends and fellow Joss residents Michael Arachtingi ‘79, Keith Loris ’79, Jordan Meschkow ‘80 and Robert Walker ’79 agreed, and along came the first issue of Unscrewed, in October 1976. Its mission statement was direct: “UN-SCREWED is exactly what is intended by this publication: to present a comprehensive, intelligent, and unbiased consumer report on the Vassar community and its surrounding environment which will remove the screws of non- and mis-information from the pertinent questions of the time.” As Loris summed it up, the newsletter warned students: “don’t get screwed when you buy stuff.”
Funded by the Student Government Association (SGA), the publication initially appeared as a mid-length newsletter made of what the early editors recall as “hand-stapled steno bureau scrap paper.” Published anonymously, the first issue contained three articles: a comparison of local grocery store prices; a feature on alternative banking options; and a preview into a soon-to-be extended report on shower safety on campus. Vassar students reacted positively to the newspaper and soon began asking about the second issue, surprising the founders, who, Goodman recalled, thought “Oh my god! What have we done here?”
The publication came out bi-monthly for the rest of the academic year, exploring campus concerns such as waste disposal in Sanders Chemistry Building, catching a ride to New York City airports, Vassar fire safety, price comparisons of local pharmacies, evaluations of local car repair shops, campus security and summer storage, while creating an instant campus tradition: the pizza survey. For a brief period, Unscrewed also made it onto the Poughkeepsie radio waves—albeit on the Vassar station. Though initially presented as an irregular filler summarizing recent articles in a one minute smashed-down discussion, Unscrewed-on-the-Air occupied its own five minute time slot three days a week by spring 1979.
The newspaper piqued the interest of the campus community. “The students loved it,” Goodman remembered, “because it was really a student centered, student oriented, activist newspaper.” Walker also recalls one of his English professors—unaware that he wrote for the publication—telling him “Unscrewed is the only newspaper I read on campus.”
Despite the “no journalistic rules” style of the paper, the administration supported Unscrewed up until the publication, in May 1977, of “Bananas Breed Bananas: A Study of Administrative Growth,” an exhaustive analysis of Vassar’s expenses on the eve of pending tuition hikes. Since spring 1976, the faculty and student members of what was called the November 12th Coalition—a group working for greater political consciousness at Vassar—had led campus-wide debates about proposed budget cuts and tuition increases, arguing that the college should utilize its endowment rather than resort to cuts to balance its budget.
Unscrewed's logo suggested the paper's purpose.
Several members of the coalition also wrote forUnscrewedand used it as forum through which to criticize proposed cuts and tuition hikes. “Bananas Breed Bananas” appeared in conjunction with a limited circulation supplement that analyzed the college’s finances. TheUnscrewedstaff reported: “Whereas total expenditures increased 53% over the five year period [1968-1973], the tuition and fees increased 101%.” The report counseled: “An obvious way of relieving the students’ burden would be to increase the contribution of other sources, whether it be through increasing T.R.C. [Total Returns Concept, the methodology used to set endowment spending], increasing alumnae/i contributions or better use of Vassar’s profit-making operations.”
Directly questioning the administration’s transparency, the article asked why students, who supplied 65% of the college’s income, weren’t accorded more respect and granted “65% of the monetary power of the Board of Trustees.” Goodman—later, as Student Government Association president, the first student representative on the board of trustees—believes that this article helped derail the proposed tuition increase. He also thinks the newspaper’s influence and status as a forum for expressing student grievances and concerns “empowered [students and Unscrewed contributors] to have our own voice about what was happening to us in the community, both the college and the community at large. We weren’t beholden to anyone. We had no faculty advisor.” This, he reasons, set Unscrewed apart from Vassar’s traditional journal, The Miscellany News. Many students were dissatisfied with the Misc.’s coverage, according another Unscrewed founder, Keith Loris: “Not that it was, like, the anti-Misc. But we viewed it as the student’s perspective rather than the official perspective. It would be hard to imagine the Misc. running a story about how the tenure system worked. That probably would have been a hard story to run even if they wanted to.” Unscrewed analyzed the tenure process in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At the end of the 1976-77 academic year, with over 30 students on staff and eager to advise their peers on how not to get screwed, Unscrewed reformatted, trading steno scrap paper for professional production by the Southern Dutchess News and Printing Company. Its influence on campus affairs grew and matured accordingly, as it continued to focus on the most pressing social and political questions of the day. The publication maintained its breezy style with catchy headlines like “Whatever happened to Goober Pyle?” and “Pssst… Want a Good Drug Deal?” and with its recurring pizza survey, a popular, satirical feature.
Before the creation of the multidisciplinary program in Women’s Studies in 1978, feminism was one of the most hotly debated issues on campus, along with gay rights, according to Loris. “Conceptually we were sort of at the tail end of the sixties,” he explained, “and the sixties morphed into black rights, women’s rights… so that was the whole sort of ferment we were in.” Articles in Unscrewed discussed resources for pregnant students and those seeking an abortion, and it addressed rape, sexual assault and harassment on campus, urging female students first and foremost to “Stop rape, talk about it.”
By 1978-1979, the leading was opposition to apartheid and institutional divestment from corporations doing business with South Africa. Loris recalls that for many in Unscrewed—and in the wider campus community—the assassination of anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko on September 12, 1977, was the “catalytic event,” prompting a serious push for Vassar’s divestment. In October 1977, just over a month after Biko’s death, Unscrewed’s newly formed “Investment Committee” revealed that Vassar had over 14 million dollars invested in companies with “extensive financial holdings” in South Africa. In total, the committee found that 16% of Vassar’s endowment was invested in ways that supported South Africa and, by extension, apartheid. In a February 17, 1978, interview with Walker, then writing for The Miscellany News, Loris revised these numbers, reporting that roughly 22 % of the college’s endowment rested with companies with South African interests. Unscrewed not only provided an analysis of the relevant figures but also called for the student body to take action. In its January 1978 issue, the staff declared: “The Trustees of the college must be confronted by the social consciousness of the people on this campus if the pretention of ‘liberal’ education is to hold any merit at all.”
The Coalition for Social Responsibility took up this mantle. Consisting of nine Vassar and Dutchess County groups including the Feminist Union and an ad hoc Committee on South Africa, the coalition insisted that Vassar divest. Their first major protest on February 10, 1978, a gathering of 400 students and faculty members outside the President’s Conference Room on Main’s second floor, confronted the Board of Trustees and delivered their demands on divestment, calling out slogans such as “Don’t bank on death” and “We want out of South Africa now.” The entire student body did not support the coalition’s actions—one student wrote to the Misc. in February 1978 that the rally devolved into a display of “belligerence”—but most praised its concern for social justice in South Africa.
Campus protests culminated in a sit-in in front of the Students’ Building on October 21, 1978, during the trustees’ fall meeting. The trustees met in the dining hall for their regular session, while outside the coalition assembled a crowd determined to keep them there until they confronted the question of divestment. Harsh words were exchanged on both sides when the trustees attempted to leave and found themselves impeded by students. Ten of the 50-some protestors were detained, and were arraigned for “violating public order” at a hearing on November 15 before the College Regulations Committee.
Unscrewed had no formal association with the coalition, although one of its editors and two of its founders were at the forefront of the protest and among the ten charged students. Recalling the protest, Goodman said: “It certainly got the issue hotly debated on campus. I think all of that process started when the editors of Unscrewed took up the mantle and started raising the issue and raising it as an analytic—not only as: okay, is it the right thing to do morally and ethically, but [also] is it the right thing to do as an educational institution, and also, what is the economic impact?” The publication remained critical of the trustees’ final, unpublicized decision, a plan for divestment over a three-year period unless South Africa demonstrated “genuine progress” in ending apartheid. In their November 1985 issue, the newspaper’s staff wrote: “the trustee’s decision to play down Vassar’s plan to divest sets a bad precedent for what is a good policy.”
As early as spring 1978, Unscrewed had talked about a merger with The Vassar Chronicle and The Vassar Review. In an interview in the Misc. for the March 10, 1978, then Chronicle co-editor Avery Chenoweth ’80 outlined the plan behind the merger: a combination of “the investigate journalism of Unscrewed, the kind of journalism features, art reviews, literary articles, and artwork of the Chronicle and the fiction and poetry of the Review, with a touch of [the] undergraduate essay of the old Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies…. If we can combine these talents and potentials into a professional magazine, then we have established a high precedent for undergraduate publications. We can do it and will try.” The joint magazine was to be called Venture.
According to the Misc., on April 23 the Unscrewed staff voted “overwhelmingly” to enter into the joint project, but it soon became clear that the newspapers had different ideas about the merger than Chenoweth’s. In late April, he reiterated to the Misc. that the merger would result in one cohesive magazine that overrode the individual identities of the three publications while allowing the staff and editorial boards some autonomy.
This miscommunication between editorial boards led to an early dissolution of the merger and the idea of a joint magazine in December 1978. Unscrewed co-editor Pam Pearson (’79) declared: “‘Unscrewed is still an entity. We will still exist, and we’ll recruit a new staff.’” She and the prospective editors of Venture said the split resulted from “clashes between the staff members, production problems, and differences in editorial styles.” Unscrewed wanted to maintain its autonomy but autonomy also meant stylistic separation in the magazine, which Chenoweth and the Review’s editor wanted to avoid.
In the next decade, Unscrewed resumed its status as an independent investigative entity, declaring its renewed autonomy in its March 1979 issue: “We are not Ralph Nader, but we try, but [the alumnae/i] VassarQuarterly said that we are Vassar’s E.F. Hutton: ‘When Unscrewed talks, people listen.’”
Pizza ratings in Unscrewed ranged from 'gelatinous mush' to 'masterpiece.'
The newspaper maintained its initial consumer and campus-conscious focus, reporting on familiar topics like fire safety and the apparently indispensible pizza survey while also branching out to discuss topics such as mental health, condoms, sex surveys, incidents of racism on campus and a campus-wide push for co-ed housing.
The publication changed its mission statement slightly in the early-1980s. No longer primarily a consumer publication, its aimed “to present an intelligent political and consumer reports on the Vassar community and the surrounding environment.” The conservative publication, The Vassar Spectator, argued in its March 1983 issue that Unscrewed had fundamentally changed, and that, as a site for political agitation, it no longer deserved funding from the SGA, arguing: “In short, what is wrong is that Unscrewed has become the political voice of a group of students with liberal, if not radical views.” Considering the newspaper’s previous role in the divestment debate, this was not as radical a change as the Spectator implied, but the newspaper staff, self-proclaimed supporters of consumer campaigner Ralph Nader, was now reporting on foreign affairs, such as U.S. aid to Guatemala, as well as domestic issues such as the Solomon Amendment which penalized colleges and universities that impeded campus Armed Forces recruitment and ROTC and raising the drinking age.
As it neared the end of its almost fourteen-year run, a new publication, Leftof Center, first published in April 1988, accused Unscrewed of being too conservative, lumping it together with the Spectator and the Misc., which, the Left of Center staff argued, had contributed to the development of a “political monologue” on campus. Though this designation does not align with the newspaper’s content, Unscrewed did participate in an unlikely article exchange in 1988 when it published an opinion piece by then-editor of the Spectator, Marc Thiesson ’89 decrying “Vassar socialism” and advocating for free enterprise in campus dining.
By 1989, Unscrewed seems to have lost momentum. Topics in the issue for April 1, 1989—the only issue to appear that year and the publication’s last one—ranged from a recent march in Washington for women’s rights, the college’s accessibility to the physically handicapped and a retrospective look at Vassar’s early days of coeducation to a study of campus racism undertaken at Brown University, a student discussion on abortion and support for the Equal Rights Amendment. In “The Pizza Survey: A Slippery Voyage,” the staff found the “late arrival,” Provenzano’s pie, to be a “masterpiece…the pizza for Vassar.” A year later, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) deauthorized the newspaper because no issues had appeared over the course of two consecutive semesters. Although that decision was overturned later that month, Unscrewed never reappeared, ending its more than a decade-long run as Vassar’s pioneer consumer overseer and progressive reporter.
Unscrewed, 1 Oct. 1976 – 1 Apr. 1989. http://newspaperarchives.vassar.edu
Telephone interview with Ross Goodman. 22 Apr. 2015.
Telephone interview with Keith Loris. 17 Apr. 2015.
Telephone interview with Robert Walker. 15 Apr. 2015.
“TRC: Key to VC?” Vassar Chronicle, 1 Apr. 1976.
Hawkins, Nyoka. “‘Unscrewed’: Finding the Facts for the Vassar Consumer.” Vassar Miscellany News, 29 Oct. 1976.
Walker, Robert. “Protestors demonstrate concern: ‘Don’t Bank on Death.’” The Miscellany News, 17 Feb. 1978.
“Student Protest… A Second Look.” Vassar Miscellany News, 17 Feb. 1978.
Holsberg, Aaron. “Three Groups Ponder Merger To Form Monthly Magazine.” Vassar Miscellany News, 10 Mar. 1978.
Holsberg, Aaron. “UNSCREWED to Join CHRONICLE and REVIEW.” Vassar Miscellany News, 28 Apr. 1978.
“Letters to the Editor.” Vassar Miscellany News, 27 Oct. 1978.
Franklin, Alicia. “SGA Senate melts coalition funds.” Vassar Miscellany News, 10 Nov. 1978.
Belkin, Carol. “10 protestors indicted for violating public order.” Vassar Miscellany News, 17 Nov. 1978.
Chevlowe, Susan. “UNSCREWED pulls out of Venture merger.” Vassar Miscellany News, 1 Dec. 1978.
“‘Selective Justice.’” Vassar Miscellany News, 8 Dec. 1978.
“VSA Deauthorizes Unscrewed.” The Miscellany News, 20 Apr. 1990.
“Unscrewed Gets Unscrewed.” The Miscellany News, 27 Apr. 1990.
“The End of the Political Monologue.” Left of Center, 1 Feb. 1990.
“Telling the Truth at Unscrewed.” Vassar Spectator, 1 Mar. 1983.
“Punishing the Innocent: Justice Vassar Style.” The Vassar Spectator, 1 Sept. 1990.