On Saturday, Feb. 15, several students gathered in UpC for the second installment of four planned meetings for the proposed Students’ Bill of Rights. These meetings were organized with the goal of producing a document that could be approved by both the Vassar Student Association (VSA) and the Administration, explicitly outlining the expectations and desires of the student body. This initiative originally came from the Student Life Committee of the VSA but has since become a separate project outside of the VSA Council context.
One of the voices behind the Students’ Bill of Rights initiative was President of Cushing and member of VSA Council Ruby Pierce ’16. Pierce spoke to how her own involvement with the Students’ Bill of Rights began, noting her role as a member of VSA Council. “In being new to the VSA this year, I noticed and experienced a great deal of confusion regarding the abilities and freedoms of students and the VSA. I was frustrated by the fuzzy definition of shared governance, and how it was up to individual interpretation,” she said.
She continued, “The system we work in now is easily abused. I see this as an opportunity to amend that.”
The actual Bill of Rights is a document that has been collectively written over the past two meetings. The bill is a Google document that is open to all for reading but can only be edited by Pierce and a few others. It features nine areas of concern with sub-sections that detail the rights with greater specificity. These areas of concern include such aspects of student life as: Safety and Security, Speech and Expression, Respect and Voice.
In describing the reasoning behind the Students’ Bill of Rights, Pierce expressed concerns relating to the students’ ability to negotiate and communicate effectively with the administration. She explained, “One of the largest concerns has been that [the students’] voices have been unheard or ignored, even in the organized form of student government. The College and the president have the power of absolute veto over any decision deemed a ‘substantial change,’ according to the handbook, and that could mean anything.”
She went on, referring to the apparent disconnect between students and the functions of the Administration. “Second, a huge concern is a lack of transparency by the college. Students are not told what decisions are being discussed, by whom, why, and what decisions end up being made and for what reasons. Cushing, at least, has expressed that they feel entirely in the dark about issues that directly affect their daily lives,” she said.
Adit Vaddi ’16, another student at the meeting on Saturday, echoed the concerns expressed by Pierce about student’s participation in the college’s decisions. “My biggest concerns about students’ voices and rights are that student voices are not being heard, with many important issues going unresolved,” he said.
He continued, “As students here, we have certain rights in regard to our safety, education, campus resources (such as Baldwin/Metcalf) and privacy among others and as it currently stands, there exists little or no basis for us to define the extent to which we are getting these rights, hence the Students’ Bill of Rights should act as a backbone to facilitate this,” Vaddi said.
Pierce also noted that most of Vassar’s peer institutions have Students’ Bills of Rights and that Vassar’s lack of one is actually rare. “Given the unending conflicts we have had on this campus, surrounding voice and communication, it is absolutely vital that Vassar writes and solidifies one,” she said.
Casey Hancock ’15 was also present at the meeting. Hancock is a member of VSA Council and spoke to the concerns students have expressed with regards to the interactions between the students and administration. “As it stands, many students feel that their voices are very quickly dismissed, especially when it comes to interactions with broader college structures,” he said.
Hancock went on, expressing his hopes that the process through which the Students’ Bill of Rights is being drafted can also be productive for students on campus. He said, “Even if this document is not formally acknowledged by the College, the conversations that students will have about what it means to be a Vassar student and how we think we should interact with each other are very important to me. It seems like students experience quite a bit of disrespect from many different directions and I’m hoping that we can work on making our community feel more like a community.”
Vaddi expressed hope for the initiative in the future, thinking forward to the Administration’s possible response to the initiative. “I hope very ideally that the Administration will accept the Bill of Rights with open arms and minds and accept the faults in the system,” he said. “I also hope that the Administration, using the [Bill of Rights] as a backbone, does start [affording] the students the respect, time and resources they deserve. But student proposals of this sort, in the past, have not had a very positive reception and have been dusted under the carpet without much explanation.”
Pierce echoed this optimism, reaffirming her commitment to the project and her desire to see the initiative follow-through with the goals it set out to achieve.
She continued, speaking to the student body, “I ask all students with any interest to either attend the next meeting [Saturday at 2 p.m., UpC], follow the Facebook event, or please email me their thoughts and ideas. We want as many different perspectives as we can get. Don’t hesitate to contact me, really. Every contribution is incredibly valuable.”