Members of the VSA Executive Board get paid. When I first learned this, my initial reaction was disgust and disapproval. The antagonizing voice in my head wondered: Why are some student positions receiving pay from funds supplied by the tuition of other students? Why do participants in an overgrown middle school institution receive real money for what skeptics might argue is trivial labor? Wouldn’t payment in Monopoly money be more fitting, given the phantasmal effect the VSA has on my daily life?
Antagonist-Abram, you silly, silly classist boy. A quick series of Google searches dashed any doubts I might’ve had about the tasks the VSA deals with. Just because I don’t happen to indulge in many campus-organized events doesn’t mean that nobody else does.
Moreover, there’s the matter of fomenting participation in self-governance. Let’s take a look at the governing body of Classical Athens, often seen as the poster-child for democracy. Originally, the ekklēsia (popular assembly) consisted of entirely unpaid positions. As behavioral economist Stephan Podes notes, “To operate this system of government successfully required a high degree of participation on the part of citizens … [this] could not easily develop into a full-time job for the individual. It is obvious that not all citizens legally entitled to such political participation were able or willing to in fact do so” (Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, “Pay and Political Participation in Classical Athens: An Empirical Application of Rational Choice Theory,” 09.1993).
That is, it took a lot of time to run a community of thousands of people. Therefore, political participation constituted a full-time, unpaid position. As a result, only the wealthy with time (and money) to spend could afford to pursue political office, whereas the average eligible person had to make their living elsewhere, and were therefore excluded from the democratic process.
Students pursuing positions in student government, particularly on the Executive Board, face the same dilemma. If a student wants to commit themselves to a position benefiting the student body, but is in a socioeconomic position where they need to work a paying job on top of their regular school, then that student would be alienated from the student-governing process if such a position were unpaid.
The VSA is not the only organization on campus that provides infrastructure to the student body, but is somehow the only organization in which students receive pay for their organization-oriented work. At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, The Miscellany News provides the campus with content necessary to upholding the fabric of the college. That is, while we supply op-eds, sports coverage and humor, The Miscellany News publishes articles holding administrators accountable for impropriety, not to mention providing students with information they might not otherwise have access to.
Beyond student journalism, other orgs also do as much valuable work as the VSA. Vassar SEED is a font of activist work in pursuit of responsible climate policy on campus and beyond, and events ranging from the campus-wide climate strike to regular meetings and social media posts require a staff of students working full-time. This is comparable to the work the VSA does in acting as liaisons between the Vassar Administration and the student body. As far as I’m concerned, the work done by many student orgs are all invaluable public services that benefit proportions of students comparable to those benefiting from the labor of the VSA.
Besides the argument that the VSA works on behalf of the student body, there is also the justification for paying the VSA Executive Board that each executive devotes an extraordinary amount of time to their work. However, such a commitment is not unique to the VSA. Barring a conspiracy I’m unaware of, my editors don’t get paid. Simply put, those of us passionate enough to sacrifice well over 10 hours a week for a cause are able to budget our time to accommodate our extracurriculars on top of our usual duties as students. Given that this is the case for every single student organization, I am led to believe that the reason VSA executives are paid is neither their workload nor their dedication to the fabric of student life, but rather because the Board effectively serves as an outsourcing of administrative labor—a source of labor the administration gets away with paying students’ wages, rather than the wages of bona fide professionals.
However, whereas the VSA acts as a replacement for the administration masquerading as student government, there are orgs without faculty resources who are committed to professional work.
As far as I’m concerned, the only good justification for paying VSA executives is the fact that VSA executives do, in fact, serve the whole community. This is as opposed to other orgs, which can be seen as self-serving or only providing for smaller portions of the community. However, in one form or another, every single org serves a proportion of the community. Therefore, if fair is fair, the higher-ups of every single org are entitled to a proportional pay on the same payroll as the Executive Board of the VSA.
The more complex problem, though, is doing the math of how much funding would be allotted to each org to pay its higher-ups. This dictates how many higher-ups an org has, and creates a series of uncomfortable power dynamics. I pose the following question to members of the entirety of the VSA: what do your executives do that warrants their collecting a paycheck while your time is serfdom? Or that of student publications’ editors-in-chief, or the leaders investing countless hours into Vassar SEED?
The final complication is the matter of composing and using a formula to determine how much outreach an org has to a certain proportion of the student population, and what the monetary value of each student provided to is. As you can see, that’s a lot of analysis that’s not quite possible.
That leaves us with the same phenomenon of certain executives being paid, but with the twist of being obligated to ensure that all org execs receive the same proportional financial support for the labor that goes into providing students with experiences and resources. To pay all the execs, or none at all? Certainly, the practical answer is to keep things the way they are. However, the prioritization of one group of students simply because it’s been given the backing of the administration, as opposed to all student orgs not sponsored by a department, cannot morally be left unaddressed.