When Vassar canceled in-person classes last spring due to COVID-19, decisions such as whether student employees would be paid, whether students who needed housing could stay on campus, and whether campus services such as Metcalf would be available were up in the air. Students organized several campaigns and petitions to voice their concerns to the Vassar administration. The College ultimately did provide on-campus housing to students and offered various forms of support to students both on and off-campus. Yet a petition for a Universal Pass grading system, signed by half of the Vassar community, was not enough to persuade administration to implement the policy.
For Vassar Student Association (VSA) Senator Joe Mangan ’23, the College’s response to COVID-19 was a realization that Vassar students have no tangible leverage with the college leadership and Board of Trustees. “The fact of the matter is that there’s not much the VSA could have done if the administration had chosen to ignore the Keep Vassar Open petition: Sending a strongly-worded statement to President Bradley is often the most power the VSA can exercise,” he stated. The lack of student bargaining power inspired Mangan and other student organizers to begin campaigning for a Vassar Student Union (VSU). Organizers name socialist theory and workers unions as models for a VSU.
While it’s still in the early stages of development, students envision a VSU as a body that works alongside the VSA while not replacing it. Mangan described a VSU as an extension of the VSA: “Basically what folks who are organizing the student union are asking for: a new body that works alongside VSA to better represent students—like a House of Representatives, but with less hierarchy, more representation, and more direct democracy.” Christopher Unruh ’23, another student organizing the campaign for a VSU, added, “The member base of VSU feels that VSA does a great job of organizing campus life… However, we feel that VSA has not been able to adequately represent students for the issues that most directly affect us such as divestment, grading systems, inaccessibility for students with disabilities and food insecurity existing on campus among other issues.” Organizers emphasized that the VSU would aim to be a space that represents student workers, international students, ALANA Center organizations and other marginalized groups in Vassar’s community.
Many students increasingly express the feeling that the college’s administration and Board of Trustees have failed the Vassar community in consequential decisions about equity on campus. “Vassar consistently works to silence student protestors and activists fighting to dismantle a system that gives no power to students,” explained Melissa Hoffman ’21, another organizer of the VSU campaign.
In 2016, the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign organized a sit-in outside the president’s office. Four hundred protesters sat in for multiple days demanding Vassar divest from fossil fuels, and 91 percent of students voted to divest from fossil fuels completely in a student referendum. The momentum built by this student activism, however, was halted when the Board of Trustees decided not to divest after a day of deliberation.
While President Elizabeth Bradley, Dean Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, and other administrators are figures who regularly interact with the student body, the Board of Trustees can appear far more elusive. The Board has attracted scrutiny from students, with many feeling its members have no accountability to the student body. “Imagine if there was a government somewhere in the world where all the most important decisions were made by 30 wealthy individuals, most of whom are CEO of this-or-that corporation, with virtually zero representation for the public—there would be widespread outcry,” explained Mangan. Unruh concurred, adding, “Students have practically no representation on the Board of Trustees, besides one student representative that is unable to vote. Effectively, decisions are made by the administration and Board of Trustees with next to no real influence from the student body.”
Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana offered a different characterization of the Board of Trustees and administration’s response to student organizing. Alamo-Pastrana said that in his experience, he has seen the Board of Trustees be open to considering concerns from students. He added that Vassar’s administration is always dedicated to meeting student needs, saying that he and other administrators frequently meet with VSA and student organizations to hear concerns and brainstorm solutions. Yet he acknowledged moments of contention between students and administration, specifically when it came to solutions students have called for. “There is a distinction…between hearing and evaluating concerns, and agreeing on the solutions,” he explained. “So there may be times where the Board and/or the administration listen to students, but disagree on the best path forward,” he added.
VSU organizers aim to gain substantial student representation in Board of Trustees decisions, but to achieve that, they need influence. Still, organizers aren’t deterred by the fact that administration is unlikely to let a group of students override the Board of Trustees. “Rather than asking the administration to give us power, we are instead building power among students and then demanding administration to respect it,” said Mangan. “We are tired of power coming from the top-down, and are instead building power from the bottom-up.”.
Alamo-Pastrana explained that the administration did not have many details about VSU plans, but saw it as a movement largely independent from administrative oversight. “This is really a decision for students to make for themselves,” he commented.
The VSU member base has begun hosting meetings to gather student input. Moreover, they explained that the organization would lack a traditional hierarchical structure. Unruh explained that they have found a huge amount of student interest in a VSU, with 50 students signing up to join the campaign within the first two days of the sign-up form being made available. “There is so much amazing energy in our meetings,” explained Unruh. “It has been an absolute pleasure to work with and interact with so many amazing people that want to work as a collective to build real democracy on our campus.”
Organizers are excited by the possibilities of a Vassar Student Union. “For myself, I envision fighting for a student union leading to ideas about university abolition, restructuring the way knowledge is produced, used, and shared, and eventually creating a university that is student and faculty run,” said Hoffman.