“I like to make a joke that my goal is to destroy the VSA and build something better but I really mean that,” incoming VP for Operations Ruby Pierce ’16 explained, speaking to her plans for change within the Vassar Student Association (VSA) next year. The end of the 2014-2015 school year has featured several discussions within the VSA about the future of student government at Vassar. On May 22, incoming VSA President Ramy Abbady sent out an email advertising new appointed positions for next year. This was the culmination of a series of conversations meant to locate the VSA’s weakest points. These visions of student governance also come as a response to the VSA External Review, which was released in April. Reflecting on his time in the VSA, Abbady, who served as VP for Operations this year, spoke to a concern he had with student representation. He noted, “At this point, some of it is just thinking about, ‘Are we representative?’ gender-wise, race-wise, that sort of thing. Many years we’re not. But also, ‘Do people feel most represented by their house or their class or do they feel represented by some other thing?’ We are just trying to figure out what will be most effective and what people want to be represented by.” Abbady’s concerns are echoed by many students on campus. The External Review expressed a general theme of discontent and disconnect between the governing body of the VSA and the students it seeks to represent. One of the issues the review focused on was a lack of communication between these two groups. According to the review, not enough people know what the VSA is doing. Pierce hypothesized that this problem could be related to a general feeling among students that the VSA is inaccessible as an organization. She explained, “We definitely throw around the word ‘transparency’ a lot but I think the VSA could really be improved in just being approachable. I think that it is a really alienating space for a lot of people…” The VSA Council meets on Sunday evenings and though its proceedings are almost always open to the student body, except in particular cases, many students, including Pierce, feel as if the space is not always as welcoming as it could
be. One idea for the future she mentioned centered around the reworking of the Council itself. “We might be moving towards a senate system where it’s less of a council. Right now, as it is, it is a hierarchical structure. When you walk into that physical space, there is the Exec Board at the front and the Council sitting on the sides,” said Pierce. “[W]e might operate better in a Senate system which would mean that it would be just an open big room with a lot of people. Anyone is welcome to come and vote and we also have senators from each house, each class.” Outgoing Cushing House President Essie Asan ’17 also had concerns with the operations of the VSA Council. As a house president, she experienced a frustrating gap between the two bodies of which she was a part, the VSA and Residential Life. As Asan explained, “What I realized this year especially is that there is no communication between the VSA and Res Life. Zero. It is crazy. Neither of them talk to each other at all. Res Life does not care about the VSA…” Pierce and Asan acknowledged that many potential solutions to these issues are still being imagined and won’t be fully realized for some time. Abbady too, noted that although many discussions about next year’s VSA possibilities have been brewing, there are few concrete action plans. One idea that has been fully realized, however, is that new VSA positions will be offered next year. In Abbady’s email, he explained the purposes of each new role in the VSA. According to the attached document, the three positions comprise of a Public Relations Director, an Activism Liaison and a Training Director. The Public Relations Director is in part a response to some of the concerns Abbady and Pierce have about the current VSA. It seeks to facilitate communication between the student body and their representatives. Pierce explained that the position would likely require using social media and email to bridge the gap between groups on campus. The Training Director is also intended to improve the actions of the VSA through equipping Council members with better preparation for their jobs. The Training Director is intended to facilitate informed discussion and action within the Council. Asan reflected, “Not all VSA presidents have to sit down and read the VSA by-laws and memorize them. Instead, there should be a posi
tion that does that and that teaches everyone.” The most contentious position of the three is the Activism Liaison. Meant to serve as a representative for campus activists, the role has garnered some criticism as to the VSA’s relationship with student activism on campus. As Abbady explained, “That position in particular was kind of contentious when we talked about it. The idea isn’t to regulate activism or anything like that. The idea is that a lot of the things that activists at Vassar need to be successful is correct information and the VSA is privy to a lot of information that is not actually confidential but just isn’t transparent.” Pierce confirmed this explanation of the position. She echoed, “We don’t want [the Activism Liason] to be a position that regulates activism or controls activism. It’s a resource, it is a system of support for activism. So there is no point at which we would be instructing people on how to practice activism.” Though these new responsibilities will be a part of larger restructuring plans for the VSA, there is no guarantee that they will remain as they are now. As Abbady explained, “This is kind of a band-aid at this point. There has to be a bigger look but this was something that the External Review recommended that seemed easy enough to do at this point while working everything else out….Anything could happen at this point.” In general, these former and incoming VSA members emphasized the importance they see in revising next year’s VSA. Asan said, “In the bylaws, the VSA is everyone. You are a member of the VSA, I’m still a member of the VSA. Every student is a member of the VSA. No one knows that. In peoples’ minds it is like, ‘Oh the VSA is just this bunch of assholes who are just talking about bureaucratic shit and not really doing anything.’ It’s not like that. It’s actually open to anyone who wants to come say anything.” Pierce, too, felt that student participation in restructuring the VSA was essential. “We really want this project to be something that everyone has a hand in so that in the spring, when we present a new VSA, everyone feels that they have built it together and that their voices have been heard in creating that. Think about what you want in a student government and let us know,” she said.