Almost every post-secondary institution’s campus has a student association, student federation, or student union. These groups collect membership fees from undergraduate, graduate, or all students that help provide cost-saving services, advocacy, financial aid and campus events to students. Many also provide discounts to or more accessible transit, and health and benefits plans. They work to enhance the student experience by providing students with opportunities to meet new people, create and join clubs, work part-time jobs, and gain skills outside the classroom.
A student union’s most important role is to amplify the voices of students and endeavor to best represent the large number of people who have elected them. To do that, student unions aim to hold administrators accountable when making decisions that affect students. Often, governing bodies of post-secondary institutions meet and make decisions with little consultation with or input from students. Student unions are relied upon to lead conversations on institutional decisions to ensure that students’ best interests are the focus, and student unions also work to hold municipal, provincial and federal governing bodies accountable when they are considering decisions that affect the membership. This year, as the provincial government began to attack post-secondary education, much of my focus as the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) Vice President Campaigns and Equity was on advocating in the best interest of Trent students.
The TCSA isn’t perfect, and has a history of both making strides and taking steps backwards in doing right by its membership. A quick search on the Arthur website shows wins like the development of our Student Centre, and struggles where the organization has been questioned about its governing documents or perceived biases. However, while those pursuing student union executive positions boast about their previous experience in student-government-style groups, their leadership qualities, and their desires to represent Trent students, I have found that many do not exemplify these values in their tangible contributions to the union. Where I believe these inconsistencies at the TCSA and other student unions are rooted in is in misunderstanding of the true role of a student union executive: someone elected to represent students and advocate for their rights.
In November 2018, the TCSA board approved a motion that would prevent the creation of new levy fees on the upcoming Spring election ballot due to the ongoing writing of the levy policy to be voted on in the Spring. All five executives were in favor of the motion initially — it made sense not to create new levy fees without knowing the policy that they may follow. However, members brought forward important concerns that had gone unconsidered, including whether this decision denied members’ fundamental rights as set out in the TCSA by-laws. After having these conversations, Vice President of Health and Wellness (VPHW) and I decided to propose a motion to reconsider. We communicated this change of perspective to the rest of the executives through an email in January which shared our concerns and proposed amendment to the motion. While the other executives were not thrilled about our suggestions, it is our job to put motions forward for members, so it was discussed at the first board meeting of the Winter semester. The rest of the executives were not only upset that we had emailed to communicate our changed perspective, but also suggested that our decision to listen and act on behalf of our membership was an act of personal disrespect to the three of them who continued to support the motion. Debate at January’s meeting was lengthy. After two meetings the board decided to rescind the November motion and amend it to simply encourage groups seeking a levy fee to consider that the policy will be up for approval simultaneously.
Earlier in my term, I had begun to explore moving the TCSA to a less hierarchical structure. Titles like “President” and “Vice President” suggest greater power rests with the President, and that the Vice Presidents have a supervisor. Talking to previous executives, I understood that they too felt that the position titles influenced the ways they were treated in and out of the office, especially when Vice Presidents were visible minorities and the President was not. This conversation became detailed in the Winter as the Semi-Annual General Meeting (SAGM) approached, where the motion would ideally be discussed. In January, all five executives had agreed to pursue a non-hierarchical executive team structure by first changing the titles of our Vice Presidents, as more research needed to be done about ensuring the regulations of the Ontario Not For Profit Act (ONFPA) were met without having a President in name. In these conversations we discussed what research may need to be done and did adequate investigation for the proposed changes, including changing my suggestion of “Director” to “Executive Director” as requested by the Vice President of University and College Affairs (VPUC) and Vice President of Clubs and Groups (VPCG) to make the position sound more formal.
In February, I went on a short vacation, confident that the rest of the executives would advocate for the motion at the SAGM on February 6. It was only until I had been back in Ontario for about a week that I heard from friends and members that the motion had been spoken against by the President, VPCG and VPUC and ultimately voted down. These three executives ensured the motion failed by telling members that they couldn’t speak about the motion in my absence and that not enough research had been done to support it.
Upon my return, I had a lot of questions. I’d heard that the entirety of the meeting had been contentious: many of the by-law changes that had been put forward were not supported by the membership, and motions put forward for legal consultation had failed. As a result, I approached our Board Resource Manager (who chaired the SAGM) to request the audio recording of the SAGM. He asked that I speak with the executive team first. I explained to the other executives that their decision to change their perspective on the motion should have been communicated to me before the SAGM, and that I felt they had betrayed myself and our members in not supporting this motion. The response I received was silence and then blame for not being present at the SAGM, though I’d given notice of my vacation two months prior.
I then returned to the Board Resource Manager, asking again to hear the recording. I wanted to understand the issues raised by our members about the by-laws, why they were not listened to, and to know if members had weighed in on the motion I had worked hard on. As my term was coming to an end, I hoped to have recommendations for the next VPCE and executives on important focuses and changes to consider. The Board Resource Manager responded with concern that I did not have good “intentions” with my request. TCSA’s by-laws do not stipulate any rules regarding sharing a recording of a meeting; Robert’s Rules and the ONFPA did not either. Without rules to support it, a “vote” was conducted among the executive committee outside of our meeting space, by the Board Resource Manager, over the span of two days, to determine if I should be permitted to listen to a recording of a public meeting of the membership I represent. The result was “no”: three against and two for, and I was denied once again. As I continued to cite gaps in by-laws and legislation, it became clear that the issue was not that this recording was confidential or legally to be kept private, but that our staff and executives did not feel that I personally should listen to it.
Finally, likely after informal conversations, the executives decided that I could listen to the recording, if only I listened in the same room as them with our Board Resource Manager and Operations Manager. Before my supervised listening session, I was questioned about what notes I might take, what critiques I may have of colleagues’ behaviours, and once again, what my intentions were. After my supervised listening session, I was questioned about what I thought of the Chair’s behaviour and what I would do with the few notes I took. It was evident that there was immense concern that my tendency to seek ethical and just behaviour by the union was something that they feared.
Throughout executive committee meetings, it became clear: the executives’ actions at and after the SAGM were in response to my change of perspective on the November motion on levy fees. Their motivation to fail the motion on position titles and to actively prevent me from hearing the recording of that meeting was seen as payback. In their eyes, my actions in November were the same as what they had done recently. They felt I had also just changed my mind out of spite; had not given any notice to the other executive committee members of my change of perspective; and had not allowed fair discussion to occur before changing perspectives on a motion. Because of a perceived personal slight, the President, VPCG and VPUC, threw out my motion: a motion that past TCSA executives would have appreciated, that would have potentially supported true leadership in equity-based union structures, and ensured that members were always being represented and listened to first and foremost.
Students who run for leadership positions such as student union executive roles should hear from their members, because individual people elected to these positions cannot possibly know how different issues affect different communities on their campus. They may not always find students approaching them, and should make an effort to find ways to hear from them, like offering office hours, sitting at a table in a busy campus spot, or circulating surveys. Student leaders must anticipate being criticized, questioned or disliked by some students. The role of a student union representative requires handling criticism, taking responsibility, and being accountable to the membership. Sometimes that means apologizing for mistakes, taking action when the membership requests it, or supporting motions and changes because they work best for the members — not for the representative. It is nearly impossible to please every member, but it is not difficult to centre our work on listening to members and amending or apologizing for our actions accordingly. As well, members should expect that these leaders make time to engage in conversations, hold themselves accountable to any mistakes brought to their attention, and work collaboratively to come up with plans moving forward.
If elected executives do not make this effort consistently, and their members don’t expect it, it’s unsurprising that the internal understanding of a student’s unions role may begin to shift. It’s easier for internal committees to change by-laws without consulting those they affect than planning meetings and outreach sessions with members. It’s less difficult to have executives and staff rewrite the organization’s policies as they expire instead of inviting students to provide new perspectives. Finding out where the whole student body stands on a decision made by the administration can be tougher than basing the membership’s views on those of the elected Board of Directors. But, if student unions begin to take this easy way out, they are no longer representing, fighting for, or listening to their members at all. Their work “for the students” becomes work decided on by a team of three to six executives and a board of 20 to 30 directors, when their campus population could be 8000 to 80 000 membership-paying students.
This example of me, an elected executive, being blocked from fulfilling my job — representing students — is rooted in this skewed understanding of a student union. I went against the grain of what the TCSA was used to, and I was alienated for it. As newly-elected student union representatives begin their terms, they face a challenging year. The Ontario government is repeatedly attacking students and is not slowing down. Make sure your elected leaders are fighting for you.