The Vassar Student Association (VSA) is currently undergoing an external review of its structure, policies and activities by an outside specialist firm, the SG Consulting Group. They will comment on issues that should be addressed and offer suggestions as to how the VSA can operate as a more effective body. The SG Consulting Group has worked with dozens of campuses across the country, specializing in revising student constitutions and bylaws, training in parliamentary procedures and development of solutions for problems facing student governments.
The decision to pursue an external review arose from a common feeling of alienation between student groups and the VSA as well as a perception of stagnancy and lack of transparency on the part of the VSA.
Vice President for Activities Ramy Abbady ’16 commented, “I want this review to help the VSA become more efficient, better at representing students, and help us figure out how to restructure. We know that the VSA has had very negative interactions with many groups on campus, and I hope that this review will help us become better able to work with all students.”
The proposal was met with approval by the VSA, who agreed that students would benefit from it. VSA President Carolina Gustafson ’15 said, “I think a lot of the stagnancy in addressing the changes students have demanded of the VSA repeatedly has been from an inability for any one person involved in the VSA to be able to see the whole big-picture.” She continued, “I sincerely appreciate the student demand that has pushed for this review. Hopefully with someone else talking and analyzing the VSA, the VSA Council will start spending less time talking about themselves and more time actually working to serve student concerns and needs.”
The Operations Committee has worked closely with SG Consulting, creating an unofficial audit subcommittee to offer the firm resources, including lists of expenditures, recordings of VSA Council Meetings and interviews with members of the VSA, to assist them in their assessment. Gustafson said, “I hope that this External Review can help to set the VSA on a path towards being more accessible, open, efficient and transparent. Students have been demanding these things for…years and it is the obligation of the VSA to respond to students concerns and work on ways to identify how the systematic problems that have plagued the VSA since its inception can be tackled better.”
In addition to bridging the perceived rift between students and the VSA, SG Consulting will seek to balance the burden placed on certain positions within the group so as to promote a more cooperative, cohesive unit that can adequately address student concerns without compartmentalizing the work too heavily on specific members. Abbady remarked, “[W]e know that many positions in the VSA are severely overburdened, and I hope that this review will help us figure out how to better distribute the work that we do. I want this review to help the VSA become more efficient, better at representing students, and help us figure out how to restructure.”
On Dec. 3, there was an open forum with one of the VSA’s external reviewers at SG Consulting in the Villard Room. Students were invited to ask questions and to engage in a dialogue with the SG Consulting representative and with members of the VSA so that the process by which the VSA is adapting to become more transparent and effective at addressing students’ concerns can itself be transparent and effective in the same regard.
The external review has, despite good intentions, not been without criticism. Many students were alarmed by the amount of money that will be spent on the project: $6,500, not including travel fares and incidentals, to be split halfway between the Dean of the College Office and the VSA Discretionary Fund. Questions have also arisen as to the necessity of an outside reviewer, when, according to some students, the problem of a disconnect between students and VSA can be appropriately solved internally simply by an emphasis on greater communication and understanding between them.
Members of the VSA Executive Board responded to such issues over social media, answering questions posted by students on the Facebook event page for the open forum. Vice President for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16 commented, “I think jobs that require large amounts of labor should be done by people who can be compensated for that labor. I also think that if we were to devote all our time & energy on our internal structures, we’d get somewhere, but 1. We’d neglect all of the stuff that’s not explicitly about us and 2. We wouldn’t get as far as a firm with expertise in student governments and an understanding of what works well for other schools.”