VSA to create committee reviewing configuration of student government

This has been a challenging year for the Vassar Student Association. It began with a contentious fund application that brought up difficult but important conversations about power and privilege. Subsequent challenges that arose included multiple instances of hate speech in the houses, a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church, the resignation of two VSA executive board members, and the passing of a smoking ban. As the VSA struggled to respond to these complicated issues students reasonably began to question the VSA’s ability to represent the student body. A number of students, notably the Campus Climate Group, have responded with calls for a review of VSA structure and reconsideration of past proposals to restructure the VSA.

The Campus Climate Group website states, “an outside audit needs to be conducted to review how accurately, effectively, and successfully the VSA is representing the Vassar student body, and particularly whether there is equitable representation for students from marginalized groups.” Others have brought up concerns over the relative lack of student involvement on open VSA committees and at VSA Council meetings, the disconcertingly high number of uncontested VSA elected positions, the lack of value-based representation in the VSA Council, and dozens of other sources of apprehension with VSA structure and functioning.

These calls for a revision of VSA structure are not new. As recently as the spring of 2011, a plan to drastically restructure the VSA was presented to the VSA Council and then to the entire student body in the form of a referendum. The proposed changes included the formation of a “Residential Council,” a senatorial representative body with class senators and residential council senators among other new positions, and a council of organization leadership.

This upcoming year, as VSA VP for Operations, I would like to reignite conversations about how to improve students’ satisfaction with the VSA by carrying out a thorough audit of VSA structure with a committee and implementing suggestions that come from that audit committee. I would, however, like to avoid the outcomes of the 2011 restructuring attempt that resulted in a failed vote on the VSA Council floor and a failed campus wide referendum. Though the referendum for restructuring initially passed, the Judicial Board ruled it out after it was reviewed to have been out of line with constitutionally prescribed referendum procedure.

In order to accomplish these many tasks I propose taking a highly community-based and research-based approach. Despite the apparent simplicity of these goals, achieving these values will likely represent a significant commitment on the part of the auditing committee. In order to ensure a community-based approach, it is important that every step of the process be open to all interested students.

This, of course, means that once the auditing committee is formed it must have open membership. However, I believe that if we are looking for true community involvement, the auditing process must not only be open to all students but also must be intentional about and dedicated to bring in students and groups who have historically not been engaged with the VSA.

The issue of what ideal representation would look like is complicated and student complaints about the current structural failures of the VSA are diverse and difficult to properly address. To capture and organize the diversity of opinion it is important that the committee implement a research plan that will provide usable data that can inform future conversations about restructuring.

The VSA has had moderate success with these research-based projects in the past including the Campus Dining Review Committee, the Alcohol Task Force, the Student Space Committee, and Smoking and Tobacco Action Research Team. The VSA audit team can use many of the same research techniques of these committees including focus groups, small surveys, all-campus surveys, and town-hall meetings. When the audit is complete, it will be the results, the quantitative and qualitative data gathered, that will essentially determine the scale, scope, and form of any subsequent restructuring.

One concern that I have heard frequently about a potential VSA audit is about whether that VSA is most appropriate source to offer it’s own critique. In fact, the Campus Climate Group demands do not merely call for an audit but “an outside audit.” I think this is a completely reasonable concern. I feel this will in part be rectified by efforts to make the audit team community-based and by the fact that once the committee is chartered it will almost definitely be co-chaired by someone who does not sit on the VSA.

However, this may not solve the entire problem of impartiality in the audit. One proposal I have heard that may cut at some of these concerns is to hire an outside consultant. An outside consultant could provide an impartial and unbiased assessment of where improvements could best be made and hopefully an abundance of professional knowledge and experience.

Hopefully this can address some concerns about impartiality, though certainly these concerns will need to be revisited consistently throughout the auditing process. The ideas and concerns I have brought up here are far from an exhaustive list and none of them are set in stone.

It is certain every one of these ideas can and probably should change as we get more input from students. I encourage anyone who is interested in the auditing process to get involved. You can email the Operations email address listed on the VSA website at any time, including over the summer with ideas, criticism, cheerful greetings, etc. I truly hope that we can develop some substantive changes that can make the VSA into the student government that the incredible Vassar student body deserves.

—Alison Ehrlich ’15 is the incoming Vice President of Operations for the VSA. She is a Science, Technology, and Society major.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *