Letter to the Editor: VSA’s annual budgeting is fair and thorough

The Miscellany News.

Recently, a widely-shared, inaccurate and misleading petition threw the Vassar Student Association (VSA) into significant controversy. Authored by the members of the Working Student Coalition (WSC), a VSA-certified organization of which I was once president and founder of, the petition alleged three substantially misinformed points. First, that the VSA’s annual budget had “defunded” Transcending Binaries and Dichotomies (TBD), the Native American and Indigenous Student Association (NAISA) and (partially) the Working Student Coalition (WSC). Second, that the VSA had simultaneously and unfairly shifted funds towards other (purportedly whiter and wealthier) organizations, such as the Ski Team, Equestrian Team and Climbing Club. And third, that the budgeting process had occurred “behind closed doors.” While other (just as misleading) points were made surrounding the VSA’s advocacy record, these will not be addressed here, for brevity’s sake.

As the former VSA Vice President, a two-term VSA Senator and the founding President of what is today “the WSC,” I feel compelled to present my own response to the situation. I want to reassure my peers that organizations like TBD and NAISA will continue to provide and maintain the spaces they always have, to clarify VSA’s annual budgeting process and to rectify what I believe to be the unsatisfactory nature of the present outcomes. As a long-time and often publicly sharp critic of the VSA myself—from the Vassar Student Union, to #VCStrike, to VSA reform—I will be blunt: WSC’s claims are wildly dishonest, and upend significant work to transform, and build trust in, the VSA. They must be addressed—and they will be here, point by point.

First, to answer the basic question: How does the VSA determine the beginning balances allocated to each of its 170+ organizations? The simple answer is: on the basis of each organization’s activity, or non-activity—as outlined in the VSA’s Bylaws and Handbook. To get a beginning balance, an organization must demonstrate that it needs money, uses money and knows how to manage money. Through the submission of a required budgeting application, all organizations are asked to share relevant information surrounding their incoming leadership, operating costs, past events and remaining and prospective events. When information is lacking, VSA’s Annual Budgeting Commission also considers event logs, room reservations and communications with our Division of Finance and/or Division of Organizations to gain holistic insight into stability, activity and financial needs. By the end of the process, each organization is allocated a “beginning balance”—a tiny sliver of their overall funding. These beginning balances combine with rollover funds, profits and large amounts of cash from VSA’s easily-accessed $150,000 Special Purpose and Capital funds to form each organization’s total “budget.” 

In the case of NAISA and TBD, nothing—at least this year—was submitted at all: no incoming leadership, no budgeting application, no updated balance sheets, no logged or spent funds, no room reservations—no communication. In the particular case of TBD, appropriate balance sheets had not been updated since the 2019-2020 academic year. And, while the stability and financial needs of all other 170+ organizations were successfully ascertained through all—or at least some—of the aforementioned metrics, the members of our Annual Budgeting Commission were uniquely unable to understand, based on any available information, the overall stability and financial needs of NAISA and TBD. The Commission could not, therefore, allocate beginning balances to these organizations. 

Were TBD and NAISA thus “defunded,” as WSC claimed? No. As previously indicated, the beginning balance is but a sliver of each organization’s overall funding. As with all VSA-certified organizations, any members of TBD and NAISA can still access rollover funds and profits, and request hundreds—or thousands—of dollars worth of additional funds: at any time, and of any justifiable amount. And, while WSC’s petition strongly suggested otherwise, the topic at hand is simply the “beginning balance” of each VSA-certified organization for this fiscal year—not each organization’s total budget, and certainly not their continuing status as a VSA-certified organization. In other words, NAISA and TBD maintain the tools to reserve campus meeting spaces, the right to access support from VSA staff and the ability to obtain all financial and non-financial resources provided to VSA organizations—for years to come. Definitionally, TBD and NAISA remain funded—and supported.

Now, to address the second question: Why did Ski Team, Equestrian Team and Climbing Club receive “so much” funding? According to the WSC, the answer lies in a concerted, biased effort by the VSA to pad the pockets of these (purportedly) “whiter” and “wealthier” organizations: a situation remedied only by cutting—and redistributing—their beginning balances. In reality, WSC notably failed to mention that I, the outgoing VSA Vice President, was actually the first to raise the issue of potential inequity of funding between these organizations and others. WSC chose not to mention the lengthy debates and discussion held by the members of VSA’s Annual Budgeting team, myself included. And, WSC failed to mention the rationale provided by VSA’s then-incoming Director of Finance, when asked about the topic: The activities offered by these organizations are costly, and require financial aid for most to access

Indeed, and contrary to WSC’s claims, the VSA provided the balances it did to these organizations to make them more accessible to low-income, not wealthy, students. When the beginning balances of these organizations are reduced, their ability to provide financial aid for ski trips, climbing memberships and riding lessons decreases—rendering their overall membership wealthier and thus, in our U.S. context where wealth is racialized, often whiter. VSA, in other words, prioritized access and equity—while WSC proposed cuts.

Finally, to address questions of transparency: Is VSA’s annual budgeting process the closed-door affair that WSC portrayed it to be? In both WSC’s initial post and later statement, it was continuously peddled that VSA’s process “was conducted in…few days with little transparency.” In reality, the process occurred over the span of two weeks, during which time our finance team repeatedly contacted each of our 170+ organizations. Subsequent meetings of our Annual Budgeting Commission were, actually, open meetings (per VSA’s Bylaws), and our annual budget was ultimately approved by our 30-person Senate at a public meeting—the time and location of which had been widely and routinely posted throughout the year, and the contents of which were live-tweeted by The Miscellany News and recorded on minutes posted to VSA’s website. WSC’s claims were, in other words, fundamentally wrong—misleading, libelous and harmful.

In light of WSC’s petition, many have raised concerns that NAISA and TBD no longer exist; that the VSA has taken away space from Native, Indigenous or trans* students; even that the VSA now desires to remove other gender-inclusive spaces on campus (as some suggested in this year’s Annual Comprehensive Survey). While these concerns are wildly misguided and assume a huge amount of ill intent on the part of the VSA and especially the VSA’s Annual Budgeting Commission (which, I shouldn’t have to mention, included queer and gender non-conforming people), I am most angered by the genuine fear and concern WSC’s actions have inflicted onto the student body. VSA stands with trans*, Native and Indigenous students, has stood with trans*, Native and Indigenous students, and will always stand with trans*, Native and Indigenous students: not only in an abstract form of solidarity, not only in an abstract commitment to advocacy, but also and especially in that VSA itself is often trans*, Native and Indigenous students. 



5 Comments

  1. This response is comical in its lack of self-awareness. Anyone who is unlucky enough to have to deal with the VSA knows that their processes are opaque, convoluted, and (knowingly or not) anti-labor. Just visit their website: flashy but impossible to find anything. I know when I last tried to find the by-laws, it wasn’t even available (hopefully that’s changed). In regards to the defunded orgs (which VSA had the audacity to claim weren’t defunded), so many other orgs did not submit paperwork (wonder why?) but still received the budget of previous years. As for the wealthier orgs, their “financial aid” is often flat, i.e. not need-based. The incompetence of the prior administration is one thing, their attempt to slam those who dare to criticize it is another. Take some responsibility Joe.

    • As addressed in the article, other organizations did not submit paperwork—but received a beginning balance—because they met other criteria which allowed VSA to successfully ascertain their activity through other means (their communication, events, room reservations, maintenance of a balance sheet, or some combination thereof). The Bylaws are linked multiple times throughout the article, as are our meeting minutes—both are on our website, as they have been for years. And, not only did the VSA (myself, actually) negotiate our current minimum wage—and our expedited timeline to a campus-wide $15/hr minimum wage—but also recently negotiated an increase in Vassar’s work-study allotment, from $3,000 to $3,600. We are also, this year, working to advance a decoupling of campus work-study obligations from financial aid. I’m not sure what “anti-labor” positions you comically speak of.

      Please consider how WSC’s misleading rhetoric feels to Native, Indigenous, and trans* students, current or future. And, try reading the article next time you comment.

      • I did read the article, in full. I misunderstood your point on the orgs and their communication, and to that I apologize. I can’t defend those specific orgs in regards to communication because I am not privy to your conversations. But I have to take your statement with a grain of salt, because for me and practically everyone who I’ve asked, VSA communication and transparency is abysmal. With these specific examples– The bylaws were theoretically “on the website” but were not visible for quite a while, at least for me. Same with the minutes, thanks for reminding me; that’s actually *still* not accessible for me and for anyone whose default email isn’t a Vassar email, which you can’t change without the site crashing.

        As for the anti-labor positions, many in VSA have been less than cooperative, to put it politely, in establishing student-labor power outside of the VSA. As for what VSA has done, thanks for the expedited timeline – making $14.60 an hour this semester instead of the $14.20 minimum wage is doing wonders. Those extra dimes will definitely help us reach the larger allotment that we weren’t even able to fill before. I understand that it can be difficult to get big things done when you have to play nice with administration, but at least say that, instead of pretending like these are game-changers.

        I don’t know what you’re referring to when you say that *you* are working this year to advance the decoupling of work-study from financial aid, since you’re not at Vassar or in the VSA anymore. You already had your statement in the article about this controversy that you linked; this letter serves nothing but your ego. There are always disagreements and things probably weren’t handled the best way on either end, but everyone (who is actually on campus) is trying to move on and be productive. Drop your personal grudges and let current students deal with these affairs ourselves.

      • Not addressing the numerous fallacies with the piece, you are acting like TBD was completely inactive, to which we provided proof they were active. Second, neither the Bylaws nor the Constitution are accessible via the VSA website (go check it! i don’t think many people do, theres a few pretty embarrassing mistakes). Third, quick question, who negotiated the new labor contract? WSC and VSA people. Me specifically. I worked pretty hard on that one. Also, we didn’t “increase the work-study allotment”, which implies that WS students are alloted a bigger WS award from fin. aid, we changed it from an hours a week sytem from a set cap. Lastly, decoupling WS and Fin. Aid was a WSC priority first, then it got co-opted into the VSA bureaucratic structure. When the VSA advocates for labor priorities, WSC members are in the room every single time.

        This whole ordeal could have been solved easily. I raised my concerns to you. I raised my concerns to the VSA in Senate. We could’ve sat down and made appropriate changes then, we certainly had the money. Other people saw the budget that was passed and had the same exact concerns. I brought the budget to ex-VSA members and they shared my concerns, just to know that I wasn’t exaggerating. Anyone with the tiniest bit of common sense can understand what actually happened in the halls of the VSA, which makes this response as a livid reaction from a very talented politician, wanting to defend VSA bureaucracy from critique.

        We’ve been over the core arguments here countlessly. We could recount them for the student body to watch, but frankly, I don’t think that’s a great use of anyone’s time. You have graduated and are probably with a job and I am abroad, also with a job. It makes no sense to continue this argument more than four months after it happened.

    • Seems like you didn’t read the article and instead chose to regurgitate the quite false, inaccurate, and harmful points the petition did as a sort of “gotcha”. While an anecdote, we ourselves knew folks in these “wealthier” orgs who received significant and weighted (not “flat”) financial aid that enabled them to participate fully. Moreover, VSA at the meeting to preliminarily approve the budget committed to drafting policy to move orgs away from providing financial aid on a flat scale. But granted, if your concern is that the financial aid doesn’t go far enough, you should be asking then we provide more funding for these orgs, not cuts that would only make having equitable financial aid harder as the petition wanted.

      Defunded, definitionally, means that a group has been prevented from accessing any funds… As VSA and this article has said in so many ways, that’s not the case. Try not to throw around real words that carry a lot of significance and weight haphazardly next time.

      For reference, the website very much has always had the Bylaws up and available. I should know, I put them there on the “flashy” website I made two years ago. Just find them at About > Governance…

      Also… what IS quite comical is how you bring in this irrelevant and misguided dig on how VSA is “anti-labor”… considering how much advocacy we’ve done for work-study students and considering this dig is against a slate of (full-time) students who worked 20+ hours/week while only compensated for 8 while managing over 105+ elected, appointed, hired students, 160+ student organizations, and countless programs, initiatives, events and more while always making themselves more than available to meet with students and address concerns, questions and ideas… Reminder that “the mighty old VSA” is just a handful of your peers doing thankless, poorly compensated, and expansive work which quite literally 95% of campus doesn’t take responsibility to do.

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