Last Saturday, Feb. 1, was the first Spring Leadership Conference (SLC) which was described as both a “refresher” and “mini-training” to complement the Fall Leadership Conference (FLC). I was optimistic that the conference would be more than the rehashing of Student Activity Resource Center (SARC) and finance procedures that is typical of the FLC, since the email describing the event included, “the [SLC] is to address concerns raised by the administration, various offices, custodial staff, faculty, organization leadership, and our fellow students. These concerns must be addressed in order to preserve the opportunities and resources that are available to the student body and VSA organizations.” Unfortunately, the event focused only on the issues ubiquitous to every conference, and was an attempt at addressing generalities that ultimately excluded many attendees.
For organization leaders who have previously attended a FLC, the SLC was incredibly redundant. It was both a waste for time for such students and a waste of VSA resources. Yet, for some reason, it was mandatory for all organizations. I would understand this if some important issue of campus climate was being discussed—which, given the events of last semester, might be appropriate—but it wasn’t. It was merely the same event planning information that I have listened to every year for the past three years (although I did not attend the most recent FLC). The fact that the event planning information and advice comes from a group that failed to provide adequate seating, started late and didn’t order enough food was also alarming.
The problems aren’t limited to redundancy, though. The reality is that most of the information isn’t even relevant to many organizations. Most organizations will never have to deal with contracts or using a sound system, but both were discussed at length.
Perhaps the people that benefited least were preliminary organizations leaders like myself. Preliminary organizations are barred from applying to Special Purpose Funds other than the Preliminary Organization Fund and can only apply for 100 or 200 dollars, rendering most of the finance and event planning information irrelevant. If a preliminary organization wanted to host an all-campus event, they could pay for two Buildings and Grounds workers to set up tables and chairs for two hours before running out of funds. The information about room reserving was equally useless since they do not have access to the Vassar Event Management System and have to follow a completely different process. I suppose they could co-host a large event, although other organizations would face little incentive to co-host since they would be ineligible to apply for the Collaboration Fund, Yet, preliminary organizations were required to attend or risk delayed certification.
The simple fact of the matter is that a one size fits all approach to training leaders doesn’t work. The knowledge required to run organzations like The Miscellany News and ViCE likely vary greatly and it would be impossible or at least incredibly inefficient to go through all the nuances relevant to each organization. As a result, conferences tend to concentrate on large events, perhaps because those are the events that Campus Activities has the biggest hand in planning. But I would venture to say that most organizations other than ViCE do very little of this type of planning relative to their total programming.
As such, the VSA should encourage organizations to train their own leaders in the practices that work best for that organization. By the nature of VSA elections, organization membership and leadership are much more stable than the membership of the VSA Executive Board. Yet, the mandatory nature of conferences act as a disincentive for organization leaders to not pass on information about best practices, when it would be most efficient for organizations to pass down the relevant knowledge for dealing with the Vassar and VSA bureaucracy directly.
Additionally, parts of the conference came across as patronizing. such as explaining the difference between debt and deficit. Furthermore, the claim that organizations are always responsible for their debt in the following year was particularly misleading. I don’t know if the VSA lacks institutional memory, was oversimplifying or changed their policy, but in recent years the Vassarion was bailed out of debt by the Dean of the College and Campus Activities (although they were supposed to repay it) and ViCE was allowed to spread its debt over multiple years. Additionally, in past years, the VSA has allowed organizations to apply for funds to cover debts that occurred because of mismanagement by seniors. This might be nitpicking, but I think this kind of nuance is necessary to a productive conversation and contextualized knowledge about finances and debt.
Moreover, the penalty for not attending seems harsh considering that multiple VSA Council members—including Executive Board members—failed to attend a VSA meeting last semester without a proxy. Yet it does not appear as though they have been fined in accordance with Article 2, Section 8 of the VSA bylaws. Their absences could be excused, but since Council must approve such excuses and there is no record of that (or the fact that it was discussed in a closed meeting) in the minutes it seems unlikely. The minutes the VSA posts on their website do not even state who was absent with or without a proxy (see the Misc’s blog for attendance records). I would have hoped the VSA would hold themselves accountable to the same standards to which they hold organizational leaders, especially when a theme of the SLC was accountability.
All of these problems considered, I think a few changes to these Conferences could make a big difference. First, I would change the tone of the Conferences. Instead of repeating information found in the Treasurer’s Handbook and SARC’s website, I would focus on having important dialogues. I recall a great conversation about micro-aggressions from the FLC in 2012. Council Members should be facilitators, not lecturers. Being the latter only makes the VSA Council seem more distant and rigid. These conversations could be made mandatory if necessary and should talk about the campus climate. The group of organization leaders is much more diverse than the VSA Council, which tends to be made up of very social and extroverted individuals. The Council’s decisions often reflect this bias. Almost everyone is in at least one organization, but not everyone has a line of communication with a Council member in both directions. Occasionally getting the input of organization leaders who also deal with a more diverse group of students may help to counteract this extroverted bias. Other events like finance and SARC presentations should be optional. There is great potential in these Conferences, but it will never be reached if they simply lecture on the same information time and again.
—Jessica Tarantine ’14 is an economics and Greek & Roman studies major. She is Co-President of The Vassar Croquet Association, a preliminary organization.