For years, members of the VSA have talked about revising the foundation of their student government. Now, after more than a semester of brainstorming and debating, the Restructuring Committee is presenting their final product to the Vassar community.“Restructuring,” explained VSA President Ramy Abbady ’16, “is the process by which the VSA is changing the positions that exist, the policies, practices—everything about the VSA to make it a better organization in terms of representation, efficiency and being able to adequately address concerns–everything to make it better.”
Last year, an external review of the current VSA government by the SG Consulting Group revealed structural weak points including poor organization of power in the current government and an imbal- ance in representation of students in the VSA Council.
The amount of time required of VSA members in the current VSA has caused many elected students to feel overworked. To exemplify that point, VP for Operations Ruby Pierce ’16 said, “The structure required a great deal of work for a small number of people, specifically the Executive Board. The workload for these positions is just impossible…It’s like 25 hours of work per week.” She went on to suggest that the immense amount of work and required time commitment has led to resignations every year.
In terms of the amount of time necessary, the VP for Activities is required to oversee all student organizations on campus—which number more than 100—and the VP for Finance is tasked with allocating money from the VSA’s $750,000 budget to all VSA orgs. Abbady recalled how in previous years, when students ran for VP for Student Life, they tailored their campaigns to only a specific portion of the job because promising to do everything the position entailed was simply too much. Abbady elaborated on his point, “A few years ago, before I was even here, there was a VP for Student Life who made it his goal to ‘make the Deece pretty,’ so that is why we have all those paintings in the Deece.”Members of the Executive Board are not the only ones swamped by their position’s requirements. House presidents also have a lot on their plates. “All house presidents are over- worked, and a lot of their issues are pretty similar and can be dealt with in a better fashion,” Class of 2017 President Apoorva Natarajan mentioned. Not only do house presidents sit on VSA Council, they also chair their respective House Teams and are required to sit on two of the committees run by the Executive Board members.Time commitment is not the only qualm for house presidents. When house presidents need to pose the concerns of their constituents about housing problems, VSA Council is often not the appropriate place to do so. The Council addresses problems seen around the entire campus, but specific housing concerns are addressed by ResLife. The current structure makes it difficult for these presidents to voice their concerns to an appropriate audience who will give them aid.The biggest problem with the current VSA structure has to do with the lack of representation for many students. The Council is composed of the president, the five vice presidents, the four class presidents, the house presidents and representatives for the Ferry House, the Terrace Apartments, the Town Houses, the South Commons, and the Town Students. Hypothetically, this system could give rise to a VSA comprised of nearly all of one class year and very few of another.
“The representation is very uneven,” acknowledged Abbady. “We have the Ferry [Representative] who represents 22 people and we have Main President who represents, like, 400 people. They have the same vote and the same voice and the same influence and it’s not very equitable in that way.”Lack of representation is also prevalent by class year. The current structure limits freshmen representation to one, yet freshmen make up one quarter of the student body. Similarly, there is no guarantee that the other three classes will be equally represented. Natarajan explained, “All of last semester and for the first two weeks of this semester, I was the only person from [the Class of 2017] on Council, so that, kind of, puts a lot of pressure on me in terms of what I’m voting for and also doesn’t fairly represent concerns.”For reasons such as these, Pierce spearheaded the restructuring project this year and worked alongside Abbady, Natarajan and other students who chose to voice their concerns. The committee has tried to redevelop the VSA organization by judging the current structure’s strengths and weaknesses and piecing together a new system that fixes the major problems.The new structure is familiar, but decidedly more efficient, according to Restructuring Committee. The new Executive Board shall consist of six members in total: the President, Vice President, elected Co-Chair of Equity and Inclusion, Chair of Academics, Chair of Organizations, Co-Chair of Finance, and elected Co-Chair of Residential Affairs. The positions labeled Co-Chair shall have another Co-Chair internally appointed within the respective groups they run.
There will also be four “Boards”–essentially the replacements for major committees such as Student Life and Activities. Each Board will consist of small, open committees which will work on specified issues to be brought back to board. The Board of Strategic Planning will be run by the Vice President and will address any issues pertaining to internal affairs of the VSA. The Board of Student Affairs will be run by the Co-Chairs of Equity and Inclusion and the Chair of Academics and will address issues affecting campus student life. The Board of Activities will be run by the Chair of Organizations and the Co-Chairs of Finance and will collaborate with, plan, and sponsor school programming. Finally, the Board of Residential affairs will be run by the Co-Chairs of Residential Affairs and will be the medium through which House Teams and all other campus residences can convene and collaborate on issues.The new legislative body will be the VSA Senate. The Senate will include six members of the Executive Board as well as five additional committee chairs, two College Planning Senators, and three Class Senators from each class, totaling 25 members. Each Class Senator will be required to sit on one of the Boards of Strategic Planning, Student Affairs, or Activities.According to Pierce, the new structure will spread work more evenly, but will do more than just balance workload. She reasoned, “Our experiences have shown us that our current system is not reliable, so we want to sort of spread it out in groupings that make more sense and to more individuals so that more people can be in power and have these conversations and be in these meetings.”One of Restructuring Committee’s goals was to try to redefine the role of class representatives in terms of the jobs they have. “They’re much more engaged, more defined jobs and also include any potential programming that can happen.” Nataryan said of the new Class Senators position. “Now there are three people who can do that [in each class]. And we’ve also discovered that most of the past couple of years, programming isn’t all that popular except for seniors and, to an extent, freshmen. We definitely have things in place to make that happen like a freshman first year committee and a senior class council.” While the VSA is aware that the current planning has not been as popular for seniors, the Senior Class Council will continue to provide programming such as 50 Nights.
In addition, this new structure introduces more equal representation of classes without sacrificing the importance of houses’ voices. “It’s better to have a board of residential affairs where we can discuss these issues in the presence of people from ResLife and B&G and Safety and Security, you know, with the people who can actually make those changes,” Pierce said. Natarajan agreed, saying, “To bring ResLife issues to Council, we just have a new Chair of Residential Affairs, who is on the Exec, who’ll come and represent all of ResLife’s issues at Senate.”These changes are essential, according to Pierce, because the government has gone without change for too long. “The channel of communication is shifting as it should because the structure has not changed in 10 years. The VSA has been exactly the way it is since 2006,” Pierce attested.“Obviously, we’ve entered a new era,” Pierce commented. She continued, “Things change on college campuses really quickly. We’ve got a whole new level of interacting with social media, a whole new level of just an entirely different culture, really. And I think we need to have a structure that reflects that so there’s less frustration in terms of people feeling like they aren’t being heard.”The final resolution will be brought before the VSA Council on Sunday Feb. 21 and, if approved, it will reshape the image and structure of the VSA. Pierce concluded, “It’s going to change the way that students interface with the student government, and it’s also going to change the way that students interface with the administration and the faculty and everyone.”