What if I told you it’s time for the students of Vassar College to unionize? I don’t necessarily mean unionizing in the traditional labor sense, but I do mean perhaps it’s time we seriously consider a major missing piece in our governmental puzzle. I’ve been thinking about this since last semester, when the VSA hired Butch Oxendine to perform an “external review” of our current student government structure. Some also referred to the external review as an “audit,” but no matter what you call it, Butch’s intentions are to analyze what the VSA is missing to accomplish its task of effectively representing the student body. It won’t be long until we get Butch’s final report, and with it perhaps a slew of suggestions to improve our representation and operation. But one thing I also hope we can consider is whether or not we, in recent years, ever really had some sense of power when negotiating with administrators and faculty.
Unions are designed to represent a specific body, often to utilize the collective bargaining and negotiating power that it has in contrast to the voice and authority of a single employee. Realistically, we are not employees of Vassar College. By extension of this, it seems a bit strange to use the word union when describing a solution to a student body. But after all, why do many schools call their student government a “student union?” Even if it’s just a mere change from the word “association” to “union,” I think it lends to an important issue that I feel has become apparent in the last few years—no matter the issue, we rarely have an equal space to discuss concerns, grievances and disputes with administrators and faculty. I don’t necessarily know or think there’s a specific way to incorporate this power or address this issue, but I do think it’s time that we, as a student body, think seriously about the status quo of our relationship with administrators.
This also brings about the word “shared governance,” something administrators on this campus have used extensively when describing the relationship between the College and its students. I don’t think this is an untrue word either. It’s commendable that we have student voices in student misconduct panels and in joint committees that consist of students, faculty and administrators. However, one issue with this ongoing “shared governance” is how often student voices become silenced over the clout of administrators in all sorts of meetings.
I do think administrators try to have the best intentions when working with us. However, there are numerous examples that represent this sort of strange dynamic between the voices of students and administrators in such meetings. I cannot speak for student misconduct panels, but with joint committees I have heard, personally and anecdotally, how difficult it can be for students to make suggestions or offer insight in these meetings if they don’t already align with existing faculty and administrator interests. I speak from my time as a representative of Vassar’s Committee on Admission and Financial Aid (CAFA), which felt less like a space for discourse and more of a place for the Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid to report on our performance and dispel rumors. Meeting times were picked with minimal consideration to student schedules for committee representatives.
Since David Borus, the former Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, was retiring, there was also much discussion spent about feedback on the selection committee for the current Dean, Art Rodriguez. However CAFA representatives only had one opportunity to discuss the selection committee and meet the consulting firm hired to research candidates. There was more in-depth student representation, but it came not from CAFA but instead the VSA President, who was Deb Steinberg ’14. My grievance over this process is how the VSA President is identified as this catch-all for the need to have a student voice on committees. I spoke with Steinberg and she had good intentions with her feedback in the selection process, but it seems concerning to me that the committee elected of five students to be the student voice specifically regarding admissions and financial aid was given minimal exposure to the selection of our new dean.
Anecdotally, I also think back to discussions in the Committee on College Life (CCL), where its members in 2013 expressed concern about how feedback and discussions took place over the coming smoking ban. As I was not a member of this committee, I cannot speak for what specifically went on, but those who look back at previous editions of the Misc and Vassar Chronicle can see reactions to the voting in the CCL over the smoking ban, as well as how the College allocated resources for students and staff to get help quitting. As far as I know, we still remain the only school of our kind, a residential non-religious liberal arts college, which is instituting such a smoking ban.
So what can we do when the very committees designed to communicate student grievances and concerns are also sources of conflict over the legitimacy of student voices? I don’t have a particular answer or agenda I think needs to be conveyed, but these examples serve as ongoing reminders of consistent failures in our ability to negotiate arbitrate and communicate with administrators on a level playing field.
What I will suggest is that we look at this concept of unionization not as a necessity or even a structural goal, but instead as a concept on our minds as restructuring discussions go into high gear. We need to also consider how our diversity affects our ability to negotiate. I know for a fact that the Vassar student body is a great and diverse group, with many identities and backgrounds represented. This is why I think a specific solution may not necessarily work unless it accounts for the need for collective bargaining power, as well as an effective way for these groups of many backgrounds be able to communicate concerns through the VSA, rather than see no other way to address their beliefs. It will be impossible to create a body that can negotiate every issue, but in the status quo, we are constantly forced to be silenced or choose between two equally legitimate issues. Every time we are forced to make such a sacrifice, I wonder: Why are we being forced into such a position? In an ideal scenario, how would we have the effective ability to address all student grievances in some way where administrators cannot merely ignore or avoid answering the issue unless we are forced to protest?
This all revolves around the reality that we have little agency when the systems we expect to operate fail to do so. This isn’t about pointing fingers either, as it’s the responsibility of the entire College community to interpret the ideas behind shared governance and what these mean for us as a student body. It is up to the VSA to effectively carry out the best possible structural changes to ensure our committee influence can be effective, or provide a way to dispute when we see failures in structure. It’s up to administrators to demonstrate their best interests and collaborate with us on helping shape the future and what we will call “shared governance.” It seems to me most often that these misalignments occur when long-term goals set by administrators and their committees do not necessarily meet student’s short-term interests. It’s also notable that administrators rarely need to directly answer calls for accountability by students.
So ought we be the Vassar Students Association, or the Vassar Student Union? That’s up for us as a student body to decide. I doubt anyone is against the idea of more power and authority to the collective student body. However, it’s hard to say now what that authority, power or structure should look like. What we do need, however, is to start talking openly and honestly about this issue in VSA meetings and among the many groups that make up our student body. A failure to do so would mean yet another year of the same issues, no matter what advice we get from Butch.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.