The Vassar College Student Association is in the midst of a highly contentious debate over whether to adopt an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution and bylaws amendment proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.  SJP takes the position that the BDS resolution includes an academic boycott, though there is no explicit language to that effect in the resolution.

There also is a counter-resolution by Vassar J Street U which condemns Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but does not call for a boycott.

The vote is Sunday night, March 6, 2016. The BDS vote will be anonymous, while the J Street U vote will be on the record.

Scroll through our Vassar College Tag for numerous recent reports on the campus atmosphere and conflict created by the BDS resolution, as well as the history of BDS and anti-Semitism at Vassar.

There was an important development today. In a mass email to all students, VSA’s Executive Board indicated it had been informed by the administration that Student Activity Funds used to fund VSA may be taken out of the control of VSA should the BDS resolution be adopted. (Full email at bottom of post.)

The VSA email indicated that the reasoning was as follows:

The Board of Trustees and senior level administration of the college have publicly stated they do not approve of the BDS movement, and that they are concerned with potential legal consequences of using funds to support a boycott.

This legal concern makes sense because the New York State Human Rights Law prohibits boycotts based on national origin. It was on that ground that the GreenStar Food Coop in Ithaca, NY, rejected a BDS resolution on advice of the Coop’s legal counsel.

Additionally, there is pending legislation in New York and other states which would prohibit, among other things, the state from contracting with entities that engage in a boycott of certain countries, including Israel. Although it is a private college, Vassar still presumably has some contracts or receives some funding from the State of New York.

Based on the wording of the VSA email, it also may have an impact on the VSA vote, though it’s hard to tell in which direction. The VSA issued, in its email, the following statement:

We, the VSA Executive Board, have at no point supported this course of action suggested by the administration and the Board of Trustees. We believe that it is still our duty as council members and representatives to vote with our constituencies in mind, in the way that these constituencies believed prior to this power being levied over the VSA. We also recognize the necessity of maintaining transparency, specifically in the interests of having an informed vote. Our goal in communicating this is to protect the future autonomy of the VSA and all of the student organizations that it supports. We are prepared to take the course of action that will best protect the interests of the student body as a whole.

On the one hand, VSA has to act in the interest of all students. The argument could go that jeopardizing funding and/or control for a range of student activities in order to appease the political desires of one faction of the student body in inconsistent with the obligations of VSA. On the other hand, it may anger students and actually increase support for the resolution as an act of defiance.

Regardless, it is a reminder that the state-level anti-BDS laws already on the books and under consideration may have in impact. And that student government political actions subject the student governments to the outside political process.

I reached out to Vassar Media Relations and the VSA President for comment, but received no responses.

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VSA all-student email regarding BDS Resolution(email addresses removed):

As we’re sure you’re all aware, the VSA Council is set to vote this Sunday on a series of resolutions and amendments pertaining to BDS. While already a challenging conversation that a number of you have been involved with, things have become a bit more complicated, and, in order to maintain full transparency, we want the student body to be aware of the full implications of such a vote.

The Board of Trustees and senior level administration of the college have publicly stated they do not approve of the BDS movement, and that they are concerned with potential legal consequences of using funds to support a boycott. In spite of this, however, we remain resolute in allowing the VSA Council to decide for itself. The College President, as the governance states, has the ability to veto any “legislation which involves substantial change in the character of the residential or academic community or in the financial commitments of the college.” That being said, it’s come to our attention that, were the VSA constitution amended, by Council vote or referendum, to include a boycott, the administration and Board would still consider the option of no longer allowing the VSA control over the Student Activities Fee, the money that goes into the VSA budget, the money we then dispense to student organizations. If, however, the VSA were to agree to cede to the will of the administration and effectively ignore the results of the vote or referendum, then the funds would not be taken out of the VSA’s control.

As such, our statement prior to the vote is as follows:

We, the VSA Executive Board, have at no point supported this course of action suggested by the administration and the Board of Trustees. We believe that it is still our duty as council members and representatives to vote with our constituencies in mind, in the way that these constituencies believed prior to this power being levied over the VSA. We also recognize the necessity of maintaining transparency, specifically in the interests of having an informed vote. Our goal in communicating this is to protect the future autonomy of the VSA and all of the student organizations that it supports. We are prepared to take the course of action that will best protect the interests of the student body as a whole.

There is still time to communicate with your representatives, and we highly recommend giving your feedback given this new information. Your opinions are important, and we want to hear them.

Thank you, and let us know if you have any questions, ….

UPDATE 3-6-2016. The student newspaper reports as follows:

On Thursday March 4, the VSA Executive Board met with President Catharine Bond Hill to discuss the upcoming resolution and amendment vote. While the resolution asks only for the VSA’s political support, the amendment would prohibit purchasing from 11 companies that according to the amendment, profit from or explicitly support the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In the meeting, President Hill informed the six members of the VSA Executive Board that if the student body passes the amendment, the administration could opt to take complete control of the Student Activities Fund from the VSA. In essence, the VSA would be defunded….

A joint statement from President Hill and Dean of the College Chris Roellke clarified the Administration’s stance on the issue. As they wrote, “All along, we have said that the VSA has the right to endorse the BDS proposal, given our commitment to free speech. But the college cannot use its resources in support of a boycott of companies,” they wrote. “Were the VSA to adopt the amendment currently proposing such a policy, the college would have to intervene in some way.”

This intervention could come in a number of forms. “The VSA Executive Board asked us what the options might be, were such a proposal to pass,” Roelke and Cappy wrote. “We responded that the options would include vetoing the proposal, mentioned as an option by the VSA Executive Board, or taking away the VSA’s authority over spending the activities fee, or overseeing that spending in some way so as to prevent it from implementing the boycott.”

The report further discusses the legal factor I wrote about in the post above:

VSA Vice President for Academics Logan Hill ’16 questioned the motivation behind defunding over vetoing. “I can understand wanting to avoid legal issues, especially as a bill that would create a list of those who boycott ‘allied nations’ of the U.S. and prevent those on the list from receiving state funding makes its way through the New York state legislature,” he wrote. “I don’t, however, feel disallowing VSA control over the Student Activities Fee is fair given the College President’s ability to veto the amendment were it to pass.”