The Constitution of the Vassar Student Association (VSA) makes the aims of the organization clear in its dedication to serve the student body. “VSA shall serve, represent, and promote the interests and welfare of the students of Vassar College. It shall encourage student representation and involvement in college decision making and shall strive to enhance the quality of life and education for the students of Vassar College. The VSA shall represent the opinions of the student body.” Last week, the VSA announced the results of its 2015-2016 election, and reported that less than half of students voted. We at The Miscellany News wonder whether this diminutive voter turnout is linked to VSA’s consistent inability to communicate with students about the decisions that they make.
It is the job of student representatives to communicate to the student body the policy changes coming up in VSA council meetings, but too often students are either notified too late or not at all. The VSA has failed to adequately announce several constitutional amendments that would affect students. One of its arguably most egregious failures to communicate with its constituents was the question of VSA Executive Board compensation. On the day of discussion, fewer than half of Council admitted to informing their constituents. While the rule was subsequently passed as a referendum during the spring election, the fact remains that when it was first brought before Council, members generally failed to do their due diligence by contacting the people they swore to represent.
This pattern continued on April 12 when the VSA passed a Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) resolution that permanently banned any events that receive VSA funds from relying on non-human animals for entertainment, such as petting zoos or adoption drives, without even half of class and house representatives polling constituents for their feelings on the resolution. The motives of the resolution were not questioned by the assembly, who instead focused on how this related to emotional support animals or teachers’ dogs were excluded from these provisions. After less than 10 minutes of debate, the amendment passed, with only one representative in opposition.
The failure to seriously debate the issue transcends the importance of this individual resolution. Normally it would have to be written into the constitution with the understanding that one week of debate occurred before voting. By skipping this process the VSA did not allow adequate time to seek out student input. “This means VSA would be taking [the] stance of VARC, which the student body would have to be behind,” as one constituent present noted. Given the popularity of these events and the reality that the VSA almost never institutes blanket bans, we at The Miscellany News are concerned that the Council members elected to pass a resolution that banned a previously popular event without serious student input. This serves as yet another violation of the already limited trust the student body places in the VSA.
When observed as discrete incidents none of these may appear particularly harmful, these failures to communicate with constituents reveal a pattern of unacceptable behavior on the part of many in the VSA. To date, Council members have categorically failed to inform their constituents about other resolutions and risk entering into discussions without requisite information from their constituencies. Although not all members are failing to communicate with their constituents, many are and this cannot continue.
Without information about these and other actions, the student body has been unable to contact its representatives to let them know how it felt on the issues. What the student representatives need to understand in these situations is that it is not just their opinions on these issues that matter but their constituents as well. Even one failure to inform students about the debates and actions of the VSA, let alone a pattern, means that the VSA violates its own pledge to increase student representation in campus decision-making.
We do not feel that it would be difficult to increase the transparency of the VSA’s dealings through simple acts that the new Council can and must institute from its first session. A newsletter sent out at the beginning of every week, notifying the student body of what Council will be deciding upon in that week so that students have time to weigh in and contact their representatives, would be one simple step towards making the workings of student government more accessible to everyone on campus. As the system stands at the moment, students need to request to be on the email list that is sent each week’s agenda, it seems self-evident that every student should receive that email, requested or not.
The VSA follows the Robert’s Rule of Order, which is a common form of organization in boardrooms and politics alike. This structure lays out the format for meetings and debates and contains strict procedures for conducting meetings. It is a system built for efficiency so that meetings will move along fluidly; however, it takes skill and previous knowledge to navigate around discussions that run in this fashion, which makes the representative body appear out-of-touch and has proven difficult for current members of Council. Division between Council members and the student body is only extended with the VSA’s frequent decision to violate their own rules or suspend their bylaws. We at The Miscellany News encourage the new Council to seriously consider its current execution of Robert’s Rules in favor of more accessible methods. Moreover, we argue that the VSA Council itself requires better training in its operating procedures.
While little can be done to solve the problems that have plagued this iteration of the VSA with regards to its constituent-outreach, the newly-elected Council has the opportunity to improve upon their predecessors. Students are consistently arguing that the VSA fails to represent them and many candidates espoused firm beliefs in making the organization more representative and transparent. We at The Miscellany News believe that this new Council can achieve these aims if they better acquaint themselves with their operating procedures, devote more time to their training, and establish clear and constant methods of communicating with their constituencies. A student government can only be representative if it listens to the voices of the students it seeks to represent and earn their trust, and we believe serious and concrete work must be done even now to do this.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.