VSA centers student activist efforts in Town Hall

The Vassar Student Association, the College’s student government, has a Senate meeting every Sunday night which is open to the public, but attendance by non-Senate members is notoriously low. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, the VSA held a Town Hall meeting, a more casual conversation between the Senate and community members.

According to the VSA’s bylaws, the governing body is required to host a Town Hall at least once each semester, but they are open to the idea of increasing the frequency, as need and opportunity arise. Vice President Apoorva Natarajan ’17 explained that they hope to serve as a more reactionary body, allowing for more inclusive discussion of important issues as the year goes on.

President Calvin Lamothe ’17 opened by outlining a brief schedule of topics to be discussed, including changes to campus dining plans, the Title IX mandatory reporting statute and the campus sanctuary petition recently circulating. However, he clarified that the goal of the meeting was not to adhere to a strict agenda, but rather to have an open, fluid discussion among the attendees, a chance for constituents to make their voices heard to their representatives—which the students took to heart, leading to an unexpected but enlightening series of dialogues.

VSA Senators and Executive Board have the advantage of close interactions with administrators, particularly in sessions of joint student-faculty committees. The information they learn and discuss in those meetings is normally reported back to the Senate at the weekly meetings, but some of the most important issues were recapped at the Town Hall. Chair of Residential Affairs Esin Asan ’17, who sits on the Committee on College Life, updated the group on recent conclusions about the responsible reporting mandate issued earlier this year, to go into effect in 2017.

The understanding until now has been that faculty members in whom a student confides about an issue related to Title IX will be required to report that conversation to the Title IX Office, after which point the student will be contacted by the Office. The student is not obligated in any way to take further action. However, Asan clarified, “It’s not necessarily 100% a mandate but is more…a very strong recommendation, that all employees of the college are responsible employees.” She explained that students should be aware of their rights, saying, “One very important thing to keep in mind is that professors cannot ask you for more information than you give them.” This alteration to student-faculty confidence will take adjustment, on both sides. “Know that there is a lot of backlash from faculty that I’ve seen, where they don’t necessarily understand why this is happening, and don’t want it to happen,” remarked Asan, especially in light of the reduction in peer confidential resourc- es this past semester.

A number of curious first-years peppered the Town Hall, and VSA members took some time to explain essential changes that have happened between this year and last, including the restructuring of the former VSA Council into a Senate. Other VSA members gave updates on projects happening around campus. Chair of Equity and Inclusion Cecilia Hoang ’18 spoke to the group about the proposed versus actual renovations to the All Campus Dining Center. Originally the plan was budgeted at $9 billion, but the College has been unable to meet that goal, even including a $5 billion loan from new food supplier Bon Appetit. “Basically, one or two months into the semester we had a meeting with some upper level admins who said that…we might not have enough money to renovate the dining hall as per the plan, because the price tag was too high and the Trustees weren’t willing to OK that,” Hoang explained.

The VSA also has more access to the Board of Trustees than most students, meeting with them during their handful of yearly gatherings to discuss crucial issues that affect students, such as these upcoming changes to the dining plan. “One of the biggest things about this plan, which actually the Trustees didn’t know was a problem with the current plan, is that it completely does away with meal swipes, and you can just go in anytime and get a small amount of food in the morning, and then come back however many times [you like] during the day,” noted Chair of Academics JD Nichols ’17.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks to the open-access plan. Natarajan pointed out, “The system [doesn’t work] with co-ops, and is kind of a grey area with senior housing.” Students have expressed their desire to cook for themselves in those locations, but it would not be economically feasible with the new system. “Specifically with co-ops, there’s really no discussion on how to reenvision those spaces; Ferry potentially would become obsolete in this system.” Asan countered, “There is discussion, but that discussion does not involve students, which is sad.”

As the topic of conversation turned to the campus sanctuary petition, and more broadly the concept of student activism, VSA members expressed their desire to hold each other accountable as leaders. “[E]ach person who holds a position on VSA has a responsibility to use their power in favor of justice, and I don’t think all of us know exactly what that means yet,” Hoang observed. “[H]aving this position comes with power that we don’t even know the full extent of.”

The bulk of the discussion centered around the VSA’s responsibilities as a political body tasked with representing students’ views. The VSA became political only two years ago, after a realization that such a public and powerful organization cannot be truly neutral. “Our philosophy generally has been that the VSA is widely perceived by students as kind of part of the administration in a way, or closely tied to it, so we don’t always want to try to create our own programming or activism on top of what students are already doing,” Lamothe said.

Natarajan continued, “In terms of us spearheading more programming, there’s no real reason we haven’t been doing it. If it’s already happening, of course we don’t want to co-opt it, we don’t want to step in and say, we’ll help you and put our name on this thing too.” However, she expressed hope that the VSA can take some of the burden off of students where possible, and break out of the more passive role of providing financial support.

Maya Enriquez ’17, who took on and later cancelled the student protest organized after the election results, explained that many people contacted her saying that they feel student activism needs to be more considerate of and centered around people of color. The discussion turned to the burden that politicization can place on already overtasked identity orgs, and how the VSA might use its power to encourage the administration to provide outside sources for support and education. Several students were adamant that a concrete solution for moving forward be established before the Town Hall dispersed, and there was talk of organizing anti-oppression and whiteness workshops for org leaders. Hoang concluded, “These [meetings] are the fledgling stages of what leadership committed to justice looks like.”

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