VSA external review methodology proves inconsistent

The Vassar Student Association (VSA) has spoken extensively on the issue of internal restructuring. The two former VSA VPs for Operations, Ramy Abbady ’16 and Ali Ehrlich ’15, have discussed restructuring in their respective committees and in the VSA as a whole. These conversations were brought to the fore this year when the VSA enlisted the help of W.H Butch Oxendine to generate a report on the VSA’s structure which was released in April after several delays. After reviewing Oxendine’s report, we at The Miscellany News believe this re- port to be unsatisfactory given the $7,000 expense, as it contains numerous errors both factually and grammatically, does not understand or differentiate Vassar’s culture from other institutions and ultimately fails to offer a holistic critical analysis of ongoing issues in the VSA’s structure.

Oxendine is the Executive Director of the American Student Government Association (ASGA) and has been publishing websites, books and magazines for student governments and campus leaders since 1983 according to the ASGA website. Even at a structural level his report did not meet these high level of qualifications. The report, which was intended to be completed in January, was not released until late April.

This delay, contrary to expectations, did not come as a result of careful proofreading and preparation. After many pages of information on peer institutions and their governing bodies, the report lists a string of sentence long complaints about the VSA, ranging from the insightful to the unnecessary. Oxendine only noted: “While most of these comments are negative, there were a few comments about VSA members and officers trying and working hard, being good people, and trying to do their best” (ASGA, “Consulting Report” 4.20.15). This redundant, vague and virtually meaningless response is highly indicative of the nature of the report.

Though Oxendine does a decent job of summarizing the current issues with the VSA, chiefly the perception of VSA as merely another branch of the Administration and not an actual voice of the students, the re- port is hardly presenting new information. Oxendine’s role as an external reporter does not provide much more than what could be discovered through an internal review system, like a survey, which would have cost much less money. This redundancy could be excused if the report offered specific is- sues within the VSA and step-by-step plans to overcome them, but it does not. Many of the notes provide no context, explanation or definition and thus make bold claims which are unsupported by fact. Perhaps the best example of this is the statement “VSA’s influence has diminished substantially over the past decade” (ASGA). This decontextualized point does not suggest any research backing the claim, nor any suggestions to restore VSA to this supposed former glory.

Through decontextualization, this report oversimplifies the problems of the VSA. Oxendine attributes most issues to be a result of VSA’s image within Vassar. He suggests a branded, almost marketed approach to the redefinition of the VSA, insisting that The Miscellany News promote the VSA through its articles, and that the VSA create a new position for Vice President of Student Activism. This claim overlooks the fact that The Miscellany News has agendas other than promoting the VSA. Also, assuming that activist groups on campus would be In fact, the preexisting frustrations re- immediately willing to work with the VSA is a glaring oversight.

In general, the report compartmentalizes large structural disconnects into something that can be solved all through improving VSA’s image. The report pushes for the VSA to make superficial changes to promote a more positive exterior perception without recognizing serious internal issues within the VSA structure.

And perhaps the most disheartening result of Oxendine’s study is the report’s total failure to incorporate valuable, campus-specific suggestions for reform within the VSA. Instead of offering coherent solutions to the myriad issues enumerated throughout his review, Oxendine provides the VSA with broad advice that can be applied to any of Vassar’s peer institutions, lazily diverting readers to the additional information offered on his website in a self-promotional gesture that not only speaks to his apathy for clientele, but also the overall inefficacy of the evaluation.

Even in his rambling critique of the VSA, Oxendine, for the most part, only vaguely locates the areas of our student government that he considers to be problematic and is inconsistent in directly calling attention to exact structural flaws. He writes on page 107 of the review, “Clearly now, though, there is far more need for direct mentoring and support. While this may be a generalization, it appears that Vassar students have changed over the last decade and seem to need, and even desire more professional, hands-on direction.” (ASGA) It’s true that students are seeking out professional direction– direction that Oxendine was paid for, but neglected to give.

In fact, the preexisting frustrations regarding the operation of the VSA have been further exacerbated by Oxendine’s underwhelming analysis. We are already aware of issues such as the disconnect between representatives and the student body, the VSA’s unfavorable image and the weak effects of its work. The student body also already knows about the sweeping disparities between the efforts of presidents, vice presidents and council members, and inadequate communication; the insubstantial repetition of these truths and lack of a helpful diagnosis, then, is a discouraging blow to the association’s earnest yet misguided attempts to bolster its ties to students. Granted, Oxendine does advise that a constitutional amendment be made allowing an auditor to monitor the VSA’s funding and expenditures, a move that could help to smooth over any tensions concerning budget restraints, but this suggestion is left unsupported.

Considering the futility of this external review, we must consider new ways in which the VSA can progress towards meaningful reform. We are not denying the potential benefits of an honest third-party evaluation of our student government, but in the future it is critical that the VSA consult with multiple companies in order to guarantee an acceptable level of performance before selecting another under-qualified reviewer. Butch Oxendine’s glaring ineptitude surely stalled immediate structural developments, but the overwhelmingly negative reaction that he has inspired can just as likely be used as incentive to improve the relationship between the VSA and the student body in the coming years.

The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.


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