I believe we’re facing a serious conflict in how we look for representation on our campus. I think in many ways the current incarnation of the VSA is looking to satisfy a lot of different needs and duties with representation among just a couple dozen individuals. It’s really efficient and also an easy way to split up voting into a set of groups, but it unfortunately ignores an important aspect of representative government.
I’m not criticizing the VSA—not by a long shot. I applaud the efforts of those who spend their days attending committee meetings, holding office hours, talking to constituents, and just caring about improving our campus. In addition, it’s important to note that, according to institutional memory, our current VSA structure is fiscally responsible, and does a good job of addressing concerns based on people’s current class year and area of residence. This is an effective way to ensure easy access, as well as effective communication between a constituent and the representative. Another great benefit in the current VSA structure is how well it allows classes and houses to hold events, receive funding, and show support for things that need to be done. We need class and house events, and we need a sense of camaraderie among these respective groups.
That being said, there is a serious deficit in value-based representation on our campus, and the manner in which we elect students to government seems to be denying an effective way for constituents to vote on values, rather than what the current process allows. Value-based representation is how you create a thriving government, as it allows people who align to certain goals, beliefs, and ideas to cast their vote not on a person with respect to where they live, or what class year they’re in, but instead how we agree or disagree with their values and feelings towards social, political, economic, and other issues that our campus faces every year.
But here’s the real problem: We need a government that is capable of having its cake and eating it too. House Presidents and Class Presidents are essential to keeping the gears turning through the events that are ran on campus, meetings held, and everything in between. Meanwhile, we need a way to elect people based on their values and beliefs with respect to campus issues. We need both flavors of representation, but only have so many seats in our government’s current form, and we need both of these necessities taken care of by our campus leadership.
So what is the solution? In the current form of the VSA, the most values-based structures seem to be committees. Committee seat-holders are right now the only individuals elected in a campus-wide manner with respect to their values. Committees like CIRC allow students to express their personal values, goals, and beliefs with respect to issues like financing, and the endowment, which the remainder of the VSA government doesn’t really address. Instead, elections for the most part devolve into arguments of whoever has the best ideas, whoever you think to be a better person, or who you just think would do a better job, without a strong understanding of their beliefs on issues presented to the VSA every week.
There is no solution, actually. Committees maybe could be given more attention; maybe we need a senatorial system along the lines of the one proposed by the VSA constitutional amendment from 2011; maybe we should abandon class- and house-based Council positions altogether. The point is that we are not addressing the biggest fluke in the current VSA structure: people are elected first based on the duties of their house or class, and second on their values. These are two very different jobs, and really should perhaps be two different jobs. The person who I think should be the VSA VP for Finance should be qualified in terms of their fiscal responsibility and expertise in handling our budgets. However, I also think that we need need to be aware of the dangers of prioritizing ability over values. Committees offer this space, but they have no voting power in a space of student government, and generally have more to do with our relationship with the campus administration. Our student government, which is in charge of financing, speaking as a voice of the student body, organization certification, and a myriad of other important student tasks, offers no dedicated platform through which students can represent based on values here on campus.
I think the most effective thing to keep in mind in the years ahead as we consider a restructuring of the VSA is to remember that we need both effective people for the jobs they are taking on, as well as people who can address a diverse set of values and beliefs. Doing this will allow for an effective government, as well as one that is actually invested in the big issues on both sides, be willing to debate it and discuss them extensively. Where the fine print lies in all of this is unknown to me, but these factors must all be accounted for in order for the product of restructuring to be an effective manner in governing, and something we can look back on and be proud of.
—Josh Sherman ‘16 is an English major. He is Assistant Opinions Editor of The Miscellany News.