As the inherent dysfunction of our electoral system is laid bare and our precarious environmental condition becomes painfully evident, sticking to outmoded ways of governing that ignore the dire state of the world feels increasingly irresponsible. Vassar is no exception to this––students, who define and support the College, are for the most part left out as decisions are made that contradict its educational doctrine. The Vassar Student Association (VSA), while effective in some respects, is unable to influence the administration and the Board of Trustees when it comes to real decisions that students oppose. An oft-cited example of this lack of voice came in 2016 when 91 percent of students voted in favor of divesting from fossil fuels yet the Board of Trustees shot down the appeal to divest. While Vassar claims to be forward-thinking and has otherwise enacted “Climate Action Plans” since 2016, the College still invests in fossil fuels. This is nothing short of a refusal to acknowledge that financial investments have ethical consequences, and greatly undermines Vassar’s integrity as a progressive institution. Another recent questionable venture is Vassar’s plan to build a sprawling “Inn and Institute” on top of Williams House, which has provided affordable faculty housing since 1922. Besides displacing faculty members and demolishing a historic building, this endeavor would disrupt the public open space, further divide the College from people who live in Poughkeepsie and negatively impact the environment, as explained by the Arlington Neighborhood Association. The contradictions posed by these undertakings corrupt not only the administration and the Board of Trustees, but also the students. It’s demoralizing to attend classes that illuminate the effects of capitalism on social ideologies and the environment while at the same time being aware of the fact that the very institution that educates us in this progressive way is itself financially unethical. Consequently, Vassar students find themselves lacking in influence over the allegedly progressive institution that they sustain. Students’ lack of power in this institutional and social context is unsustainable, and at this point it’s necessary to explore new ways of representation and organization.
A way to reclaim our place in this institution, and act on the values many of us have learned at Vassar, is to support the Vassar Student Union (VSU). While the VSA seems to many of us inaccessible and confusing, the VSU, a student-run collective, includes anyone who wants to be involved. Still in its developmental stages, a few things are clear about the VSU: it operates alongside the VSA, has a nonhierarchical power structure, has no sense of being beholden to the administration and offers a more accessible way for students and other members of the Vassar community to organize. As described by VSA Senator Joe Mangan ’23, who was elected on his plan to form a student union, the VSU creates a more diverse, collective form of representation: “Basically, think of it like the U.S. House, Senate and Executive, but the House in this case is nonhierarchical with rotating leadership, and filled with representatives of student workers, international students, ALANA Center organizations, student representatives drawn from House Teams and ultimately faculty…all with equal voting power” he explained. Drawing on socialist concepts of labor unions, the VSU’s decentralized, student-run system is a refreshing change at an institution that adheres to an insidiously hierarchical and imperialistic model.
I would think that this would be an attractive plan for the Vassar administration––being sincere in our principles is far more impressive and rewarding than progressive posturing––and this could be an opportunity to foster a more unified, happier community. The VSU represents the collective energy of Vassar students who want to carry out these principles, not merely complain about the shortcomings of the administration or the Board of Trustees. Although the VSU is in its initial developmental stages, the plan is to act within the administration’s legislative system without the conventional hierarchical structures, and with more comprehensive representation. A student-run force holding the administration accountable would benefit not only the students, but also faculty, staff, and people who live in the surrounding area. With more open and accessible dialogue concerning our community’s diverse needs and ideas, we could create an institution that operates as ethically as possible in our capitalist context instead of financially and spatially upholding the inherently violent order of institutional injustice. As Frederick Douglass expressed, there’s no progress without struggle, and while it may seem cumbersome or inconvenient to force the institution we participate in to act on its supposed principles, it will create a kinder community, encourage inclusion of diverse needs and experiences and benefit the world around us that we have, purposefully or not, negatively impacted.