On Campus

The limits of an elected student’s mandate

Some advice for the student leaders among us, and those who live with their actions

Ever year students elect various representatives to run their unions, to sit on the governing bodies of their institutions, to head their various clubs and organizations, and to speak for them in numerous diverse roles. The full list would be impossible to compile, but I’m sure that any mid-sized university has literally hundreds of elected students in any given year. The most vocal and influential students are typically the union executives. And every year a new crop of students faces some interesting questions. How best to serve students? What should they do with their terms in office? What are the limits of the mandate they have received?

Actually, some student leaders never get as far as that third question. And that is a source of great frustration for many students. Students tend not to think of the question in abstract terms, of course. But when there’s some concrete example at hand they get there fast enough. Some student politician is off doing … something. And at least some students respond with “what?!? I didn’t elect him or her to go do that.”

I take it as assumed that there are limits to the mandate of every elected student, and every student organization. In fact I take it as assumed that there are limits to the mandate of any elected person or organization period. We agree that there are things even our government shouldn’t do – such as tell us how to worship – and therefore there are subjects even our highest elected officials shouldn’t presume to touch on our behalf. So if we can agree there are things our government shouldn’t do and even our Prime Minister shouldn’t touch (as our representative – what he does as an individual is quite different) I’m sure we can agree there are limits to what a union should do, or how far union executives should go in terms of speaking for their members. The really good question is: where are those limits?

I have always believed that the mandate of any elected student is to speak on behalf of student issues. Now let me be clear on that. I mean issues that directly touch on the experiences that students have as students rather than the experiences they may have as individuals. I’ll give you a direct example. I believe it is well within the mandate of a students’ union to stand up for an oppression-free environment on campus. I believe everything possible should be done to advance that goal. But I do not believe that the students’ union should take a hand in advancing social causes more broadly.

Some may view those positions as contradictory. Some will say that as long as you tolerate a social ill anywhere (and tolerance, for them, is defined as anything short of active resistance) then you can’t take a consistent position against it locally. I prefer the opposite way of conceiving of this dichotomy. In a very real sense, ensuring that the campus is oppression-free is the way you take on the broader issue. Do everything you can locally. And ideally, if everyone were to do that, then you would indeed address the problem as a whole.

As student leaders go (in my case, former student leader) I’m probably in the minority in my perspective. Many student leaders willingly and gleefully take on issues that are well outside the scope of anything that is going on within their school environments. They do this for a variety of reasons. Sometimes because students demand it – almost invariably a small minority. Sometimes because issues in the moment grab headlines and attention. Sometimes because the union leadership itself has particular sympathies and agendas. And most often, in my personal opinion, simply because the union leadership is actually quite powerless when it comes to these broad social issues, and therefore is free from any responsibility to be constructive. Allow me to elaborate.

Believe it or not – and this may come as a shock to some students who haven’t seen university administration from the inside – elected students actually have quite a lot of power and influence. Or they have a lot of power and influence, I should say, on a fairly narrow stretch of turf. When it comes to influencing institutional policy, students can do a lot, if they are willing to do it in dialogue with the administration, and to deal with all the crap and compromise and hard work and details that it entails. Dealing with the administration is very hard work. It’s messy and complicated and you never get exactly what you want and along the way you’re forced to learn all kinds of facts about why things currently work the way they do and what the consequences will be (intended and otherwise) to changing those things. Real change is difficult.

By contrast, when you aren’t trying to institute real and immediate change, but rather only want to make a statement in principle, then your job is very easy. You organize a protest. You make some big signs. You pass some resolutions in broad language and write a cheque to some external organization that makes grandiose claims regarding their long-term agenda. You issue some media statements. And at the end of the day you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s actually quite easy – compared with all the detail work of making local change – and best of all it requires no compromise or even any close understanding of opposing views. Is it any surprise that many student leaders go this route?

Here’s a great example. Many students care about exploitative business practices around the world. They don’t want to support sweatshops, unfair corporate behaviour in disadvantaged nations, and abusive practices generally. So what can you do? Well, you can organize an anti-corporate protest the next time there’s a local meeting of the IMF or the G8 (as many students do) or you can work with your university towards a responsible investment strategy. And working with the university entails working within the sort of framework I just linked to. My God, that looks boring and frustrating, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what real change looks like. After all the statements of principle and broad-minded rhetoric, someone has to sit down and deal with the details. I repeat – students can and do have a role to play in doing that. It’s just not nearly as fun or as satisfying as the protest.

What I advocate, as an approach to student leadership, is not at all new or radical. It goes back to a very simple and effective philosophy – think globally but act locally. Locally is where you have the power. Locally is where you can create real change. And students have so much power locally, when they only use it fully and accept all the grunt work that comes along with doing so.

All of this brings me around to the final question, which is a good one. Can’t we do both? In my experience, no. I think you can’t do both for two reasons. First, doing the big-picture stuff is just so alluring that it inevitably comes at the cost of the local work. It sucks in everyone’s attention and energy. And in any elected environment, where attention is everything, there’s so much gravitational force drawing towards those issues already. It swamps everything else. And second, most critically, the big-picture issues are often divisive. Much as we might wish otherwise, big social issues almost never come with only one opinion to contend with or one side to the story. If it were really that simple these issues wouldn’t be big problems at all.

Here is what student leaders often obscure, ignore, or simply counter-attack. For every social cause they take on there is at least a minority of their members who disagree with their stance. I won’t cite specific examples that would inflame people, but imagine any relevant headline-grabbing issue of the day. Even where there seems to be one “right” position (and we all have our biases there) there will be students who disagree. There will be students who feel deeply alienated and frustrated by the stance taken by their union leadership on their behalf. And when that happens it is utterly counter-productive to the student movement as a whole.

Of course anything the union leadership ever does will attract some opposition. Some students, for example, actually want higher tuition. But when the union is on a core student issue – where they actually have some influence – then it is more than justifiable to annoy a few members in the cause of doing something meaningful and effective. That’s the price of any organized effort. It’s when the union is on some topic where it has no influence and can’t be effective anyway, as I’ve outlined above, that this price becomes insupportable. Every time the union takes a stand on any such issue it causes at least some students to walk away and disengage. And those are students who probably have all kinds of issues in common with other students – real student issues – where the union has immense power. If not for the wider social agenda those students stay on the same page and stand together. But for the sake of the wider social agenda – and with no real accomplishments to show for it – they stand apart.

This is a lesson that I feel is lost on a lot of organizations and their leadership. It isn’t only students who succumb to this temptation. When you’re elected to some position, when you suddenly have a voice and some power and you speak on behalf of some people, it’s very tempting to do everything at once. But trying to do everything is the surest way to throw away the power that you’ve been handed. When any organization tries to be about everything it ends up achieving nothing. Student unions, with their annual turnover and their idealistic leadership, are particularly susceptible to this problem. But they sure aren’t alone in it.

There’s a simple formula to stay on track. Remember that you’ve been elected by students to represent them as students. Stay focused on that commonality. You haven’t been elected to represent them as people or to deal with the totality of their lives or their identities. We all belong to many many organizations and we are free to form and join new ones at need. When we want people to speak on our behalf concerning issues that have nothing to do with our identities as students we can form and join those organizations. Those organizations will be far more effective at addressing our issues of concern because they are focused on them. And we won’t do those organizations any favours at all if we ask them to additionally take on the student cause. We have unions for that. And our unions can be damn effective, so long as they remember why they are there.

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.

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