On Campus

More on the limits of student union politics

Addressing the question of personal stands on potentially divisive off campus issues, for union execs

A piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the limits of an elected student’s mandate seems to have generated some buzz. A political blog from Queens picked up the topic in connection with local issues. Justin McElroy ran a riff off the topic on this site. And I’ve heard from a few student politicians (or former ones) on the subject.

Now I’ve just received this question. Note that I’ve made all the details more general, to avoid putting anyone on the spot.

My fellow union executives and I recently decided to participate together in an event, off-campus, that has some political overtones. Some of us, although they supported it, were highlighting whether or not this was the union taking a stance on something that they felt is seen as political and if that is appropriate. The event is important to at least one identity group on campus, and we see our participation as a way to support diversity. But it’s possible that some students might disagree.

In our union we have a very strict policy that we don’t pass motions dealing with political things (ie. The war in Afghanistan) and while I feel this is a different case I’d like your opinion on it.

Well first off, thanks for the interesting question! In order to answer it, I’ve got to introduce another idea that is foundational to my understanding of student politics. I believe that just because someone becomes elected to a position in some organization – even if that may be the presidency of the organization – that person’s identity does not become entirely subsumed to the organization itself. In other words, there is still the individual. There is the somewhat prominent student, who may still do things on his or her own behalf, and there is the person who holds office in the organization and may do things on the organization’s behalf. Keeping those two roles distinct from one another is very important.

Union executives are fairly prominent figures – at least among students. I’ll compare them to city counselors only in miniature. Not everything a city counselor says or does is endorsed by the city or needs to reflect on the city’s official position on issues. Now, if the counselor says or does something particularly stupid, embarrassing, or toxic that’s a different story. The fact that the counselor is embarrassing him or herself does affect the city – but only by reflection. If a counselor speaks on behalf of some cause or shows up at some event that doesn’t mean the city supports that cause or event. Not even if the mayor does it. The city has its official policy but city officials still have their individual identities. And so too do student figures on campus.

So, to answer the question. I think if your union were to pass a formal motion supporting this event or the cause it is associated with that would be outside of what I feel is an appropriate union mandate. That just goes back to the original article. Similarly, if you were going to spend student money on the cause that would amount to the same thing. But merely showing up doesn’t need to imply that your union is taking a formal stand. You can still show up as prominent students who want to show your support for the cause. And there is nothing at all wrong with that.

I’ll grant you, once the entire union executive shows up that does send a clear message. But the message is only that you happen to agree on this issue. Unless you show up on behalf of all the students you represent, or presume to speak on their behalf, you aren’t binding them to your individual views on the subject. And I firmly believe elected students remain entitled to their individual views. As particularly prominent students on campus others may be interested to know how you feel about things. Feel free to share your opinions (and potentially deal with the criticisms that may follow) but the opinions can remain your own and need not reflect on the union unless you intentionally cross that line.

All of this implies one necessary limitation. If you aren’t showing up as representatives of the union you have no right to require anyone to show up. So while your mail seems to suggest that everyone is on board, if there were one or more execs who would prefer not to participate I would say that’s their right. As soon as you say that someone has to show up as a function of their role in the union then your union is clearly taking a stand. If you communicate clearly that showing up is a personal decision for each participant that would go a long way toward avoiding the perception that you are taking an official union stand on the issue.

I’m really glad this topic has received so much attention, and I’m particularly glad to hear from union execs who agree that unions are strongest and most effective when they stick to core student issues. It’s so easy to push the rhetoric in the other direction, and succumb to accusations that if you don’t use your control over the students’ union to promote a particular cause or agenda then you obviously must not care. Of course students care – about any number of things. But it’s possible to support a cause wholeheartedly and still debate the best way to promote that cause. Grappling honestly with these issues is part of what student leadership is all about.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.