VSA seeks new vision after series of resignations

Ashely Hoyle '18 and Alissa Bringas '18 were recently appointed as VSA Vice President and 2018 Senator for Activities, respectively, after the previous Vice President and Senator resigned. Seven other positions in the VSA Senate are in the process of being filled./ Courtesy of Hannah Benton

In the first few weeks of the spring semester, eight members of the Vassar Student Association (VSA) resigned from their positions. The most important reasons for these resignations were general dissatisfaction with the structure of the VSA and the heavy workload associated with the high demands of participation in student government. Following these resignations, the VSA looked to appoint successors to the open offices.

Offices became vacant when Former Vice President Cody Harmon ’19, Former Senator of Activities Cyrus Cohen ’18, Former Chair of Planning Maimuna Touray ’20, Former Senator for Student Affairs Robin Corleto ’19, Former Senator for Student Affairs Hien Nguyen ’20, Former Senator for Strategic Planning Micah Fedenko ’20, Former Co-Chair of Equity and Inclusion Sharika Hasan ’19 and Former Co-Chair of Residential Affairs Ifeacho Awachie ’20 submitted their resignations. Former Senator of Student Affairs Derek Sonntag ’19 vacated his office to embark on a semester abroad.

Chair of the Board of Elections and Appointments Nora Eigenbrodt ’18 noted, “Last Sunday, we successfully appointed Ashley Hoyle as VSA Vice President and Alissa Bringas as 2018 Senator for Activities.” Seven offices remain to be filled as the VSA Senate continues to interview and appoint candidates each Sunday. Eigenbrodt continued, “It has been a bit of a challenge to find candidates for these positions. This late in the year, I think that a lot of people are already committed to many activities and organizations and aren’t interested in taking on a position on the VSA, which is a significant time commitment.”

The developments hit hard for other members of the VSA and administrators committed to supporting student leadership as part of the shared governance of Vassar College. Dean of the College Christopher Roellke reflected, “We are sorry to see that a number of VSA members chose to resign from their student leadership roles. The VSA is a vital component of our model of shared governance. Throughout its 150-year history, the VSA has been a critical voice for students and for the broader community.”

Considering the implications of these developments on student leadership at Vassar, VSA President Anish Kanoria ’18 noted, “The students who resigned were all incredibly hard workers with a passion for what they believed in. Their energy had an impact on everyone around them.”

Harmon found that the VSA’s public commitment to equity, transparency and accountability was not evident in his experience in student leadership. Pointing to various transparency issues in finance, he explained, “The Executive Board has access to certain things that they didn’t share with fellow senators who were also supposed to share with constituents, other students. There were some internal struggles about who should have this information, why you should have it, what can and cannot be shared … From joint committee meetings to shared governance meetings, they said you can’t share this information with people. Why? There was no answer. You just can’t share it.”

Information about the allocation of the VSA Student Activities Fund assessed in the tuition of each student on campus remains highly opaque. Its annual budget of about $750,000 supports more than 120 student organizations. Roellke suggested, “A particular area of concern has been the turnover experienced in finance-related positions. I believe this is still an area that needs further development as the amount of fiscal responsibility that the VSA assumes is significant. The finance and administration office has been working with the VSA to lend assistance and to also consider ways in which the College can assist with audits, budget transfers and the like.”

Since the restructuring of the VSA two years ago, the college administration has made several provisions for supporting the work of student leaders, including the creation of an advisor role to the VSA currently filled by Director of Student Activities Michelle Ransom. In light of the continued pattern of resignations at the beginning of the second semester, Roellke said, “In my view, continuing this restructuring work is important—particularly those efforts that foster collaboration between the VSA and the College’s administration and support offices.”

Besides the issues of transparency and accountability, some former members feel another big problem of VSA is an excessive workload that consumes much of theirits members’ time. Former Senator of Activities Cyrus Cohen ’18 recounted their experience in VSA, saying, “It was Finance Committee, which was two to three hours per week; Programming Committee, which was one hour a week; Senior Class Council, which was one hour a week; the regular VSA meetings, which were like two to three hours a week; and then additional work outside … so it inevitably probably falls somewhere between six to eight, nine hours a week.”

However, even though the members devoted time and effort to making improvements, many eventually felt that their struggles were futile when they found themselves repeating the same procedures already completed by previous iterations of VSA. Cohen noted, “It was just increasingly apparent how it was still business as usual, we were doing the same things that VSA years past have done, both bad and good, we were making the same mistakes, we were doing the same kind of advocacy work, but it wasn’t as radical as I think a lot of us wanted it to be and we were seeing the ways in which we were inactive.”

Former Senator for Student Affairs Hien Nguyen ’20 also explained that the time commitment in the VSA is enormous but does not bring noticeable achievement. Nguyen pointed out, “VSA has had such a tremendous strain on my time and personal well-being with so very little reward in terms of achievements or accomplishments in terms of what I wanted to accomplish and what the VSA want to accomplish.”

According to the former members of the VSA, one of the reasons that amount of dedication is not proportional to the rate of advancement is ineffective communication within the VSA. Cohen explained that, in order to make progress on their projects, all the VSA members should work together, but in reality, the many committees have limited contact with each other. Cohen said, “A lot of us sort of felt that we’re all just putting in a lot of effort while being isolated … it does at least feel like there [are] a lot of discussions and decisions that are being made behind closed doors, in a lot of these committees [that are] separate from everyone together. I think that was frustrating for many people.”

Former Senator for Student Affairs Derek Sonntag ’19 agreed that the major problem within the VSA is miscommunication. Sonntag said, “The VSA body as a whole lacks the cohesion and communication it needs to function at its best.” Sonntag pointed out last October’s controversial lecture by Cornell Professor of Law William Jacobson as an example of the VSA’s explicit failure to effectively communicate, and argued that more efficient contact within the VSA would have prevented the confusion and hostility evoked by the event. Sonntag continued, “The day when advertising for the event had begun, I had reached out to other members on a response to the situation, which went nowhere. I know many members wanted to show more caution with a response, but I still think that we needed to respond immediately, and if we had, we would not be where we are right now.”

Sonntag emphasized that communication can be enhanced through frequent engagement with the VSA Senate. He noted, “The most important thing is to communicate with your constituents and [to] communicat[e] with the other members of the VSA.” Sonntag also underscored the urgency of restructuring the Finance Committee. He argued that too few people are working on an excessive amount of work in Finance Committee. Sonntag believes that the VSA needs to restructure the Finance Committee, or it will continue making the same mistakes it has made before. He said, “I ask that, whatever happens from here on out in the VSA this semester, Senate must reform the Finance Committee.”

Another crucial factor that discouraged the former VSA members is the bureaucratic system of the VSA. The resigning members complained that the structure of VSA itself is problematic and should be changed. Cohen explained, “Even if everyone in the room is committed to [a] non-hierarchical style of communication, or [to] collaborating, it is inherently hierarchical because of how it’s structured.”

Nguyen added, “The VSA structurally does not work. Not even just because of the over-stressing of its students but because of the fact that it mimics the bureaucracy that exists outside of this Vassar bubble. Vassar’s culture surround[ing] the VSA [and the] administration needs to change.”

The VSA structure is at its most bureaucratic when the VSA members work with Vassar’s administration. Cohen described frustrating experiences in which the VSA failed to make progress due to a lack of communication with administrators. They said, “It’s also feeling like, well, when [administrators] do show up and they do have these conversations, they aren’t being entirely truthful, or they aren’t necessarily trying to engage or think critically about their own offices, how they can improve, how they can be working better for students, then it just really even more taxing because it feels like it’s kind of going nowhere.”

Nguyen also pointed out that being a student representative among faculty and administrators can put too much burden on students. Nguyen explained, “I, for one, was too often confused at meetings with faculty and [administrators]. I don’t know the big and small detailed history of this institution and its surroundings and I do not get paid to spend even more time researching it.”

As a result, because working as a member of VSA requires a huge time commitment but does not give little remarkable achievement, Cohen and Nguyen strongly asserted the importance of having time to care for oneself. One of the major reasons that Cohen resigned was that they desperately felt for self-care. Cohen explained, “The primary reason was just feeling quite burnt out after last semester, and all of the stresses that came up from it, both from VSA, my frustration with VSA, my frustrations with the school, and kind of the larger administrative forces that were sort of getting in the way of a lot of the work that we were doing.” Cohen concluded by advising future VSA members to prioritize their own health and wellness first and foremost.

Nguyen added, “My advice [to new appointees]  is to make time for yourself, and understand that even when you feel insignificant, you’re not and it’s not your fault. Give yourself space and time to learn about the institution if possible and seek to empower other people’s voices too.”

With issues of transparency, communication, bureaucracy and time commitment on the table, student leaders have called for more critical thought about the organization of the VSA. Kanoria reflected, “It is clear to me that there is a lot of soul searching required on many levels in this institution. It is my hope that we don’t shy away from it.” He continued, “For the long-term of the VSA, I think future student leaders of the VSA should ask themselves and get clarity on certain fundamental questions like ‘What is it that the VSA does?’ ‘What are its core functions?’ ‘Where does its power lie?’ ‘How can it best advocate for students and how can the structures we have support or hinder that advocacy?’ Any future structure of the VSA should, in my opinion, reflect some understanding of these questions.” He believes that a careful consideration of these questions will help to break the pattern of resignation and dissatisfaction with student government in future years.

Eigenbrodt remains optimistic about filling the remaining seven offices through appointment. She elaborated, “We were hoping to have more positions appointed by [Feb. 18]’s Senate meeting but unfortunately, there were numerous issues where some of our candidates had to reschedule interviews. Hopefully we will be able to fill a good number of these positions by this coming Sunday, [Feb. 25].” Filling the offices represents a top priority of the VSA Senate in the coming weeks.

At the heart of VSA work, student leaders remain committed to fully representing their constituents in a broad range of issues related to the governance of the college. Speaking to their plans for activism after their term in the VSA, Cohen noted, “I hope in my last semester of Vassar [I] will be able to still do work, and still kind of carry the same intentionality that I brought into VSA about trying to make this school better, more welcoming, could bring that into other activist work that I do in other organizations, in different capacities.”

Harmon concluded, “I ran because I thought—I still think—that student government should always reflect students, should always reflect what students want, what students need, [and the fact that] students care about current students. Here at Vassar we say we’re so unique in that we have this shared governance, right, and where students have a voice, faculty and administration have a voice.”

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