What is the Purpose of our Student Union?

Published 10 March 2014 ~ http://trentarthur.ca/what-is-the-purpose-of-our-student-union/

Though universities like Trent exist principally for the education of students, as students we have little input in the governance of this institution. We relate to Trent not as sovereign subjects but as clients, people being provided a service under set conditions. There is then no student government in the proper sense, but as students, though diverse, we do have shared interests, and our student unions – for most of us, the Trent Central Student Association – exist to represent and advance those interests. As its website tells us, “the TCSA represents the interests of its members to all levels of government and university administration.”

“In addition to its advocacy and lobby efforts, the TCSA also provides a variety of services and events for its members” {emphasis my own}. The precedence of representationis key here: fundamentally, the union exists to represent us in our relations to the university administration and other stakeholders. While it may (and does) provide other services, representation is the reason for its existence. Its duty is to advocate, serve and protect the interests of the student body.

I stress this point because I believe the TCSA is failing to fulfill its cardinal purpose. It busies itself with the details of providing services and planning parties, to the point of neglecting its most fundamental role.

Students, I think we can all agree, seem to have no trouble organizing parties – so would we really want or need to pay someone to be our Party-Planner-in-Chief? Yes, social events are an integral part of any formative experience and yes, it’s perfectly reasonable that our union might play a role in facilitating those experiences and ensuring they are positive and inclusive. Would these events stop happening if the student union were to focus its attention elsewhere? Not bloody likely … and sadly, as we’ve seen repeatedly in scandals on campuses across the country, a student union’s involvement in planning or organizing these events is no guarantee they won’t be rife with racism, sexism, rape culture and all the other bigotries prevalent among the student body.

To some what I’m saying here will no doubt come across as some grumpy old fart complaining about how things ‘ain’t like they used to be.’ Fair enough, I’ll take up that role – because the state of higher education is in crisis, and it is way past time people started paying attention. WAKE UP, we’re falling; you might want to think about how you’re going to land.

In this era of ballooning tuition fees, degree inflation, endemic joblessness and a plague of unpaid internships, what I want and need from my elected representative body is a strong defense of our common interests as students; to know that if I close my eyes for a moment (or, dare I say it, the summer), someone will still be watching to ensure I don’t get fleeced by an opportunistic university administration and politicians who already know you’re unlikely to vote for them. Yeah, I’m willing to pay someone to do that – and in turn I expect them to be a counsel, witness, advocate and defender of our shared interests to the best of their ability.

I don’t feel I’m getting that from this student union. I’m glad to see they’re undertaking a ‘campaign’ against rising tuition – but the way they’ve gone about it is sorta like bringing a twig to a knife fight. If this campaign is really a priority, we should undertake it with the same enthusiasm we have for our annual epicurean parties.

I personally do not know the incoming president-to-be; I bear no ill-will toward him. Nor do I know the current president. If someone knows the whereabouts of his list of accomplishments, do tell me; it’s not for lack of trying that I’ve been unable to find any.

What I have been told of, from multiple sources, is conduct that I would consider appalling in anyone, but particularly, perversely egregious in the person elected to be the chief representative of our interests as students. I’ve heard of the TCSA – and particularly the president himself – ignoring funding requests from new student groups; denying funding to Cultural Outreach, one of the most important events of the year for many international students, and which in previous years has received strong financial support from the TCSA; childish, cliquish behaviour that has had the effect of marginalizing a racialized member of the union leadership; gross negligence and insensitivity to the interests and concerns of racialized and international students. The list of offences goes on and on, but I’d rather it be told by those more directly involved and wronged.

At a university that bears so little institutional memory – something that’s particularly true of the TCSA itself – it means little to make sweeping blanket statements like ‘Ben Perry is the most apathetic student union president in the history of this university.’ But the bar of expectations has fallen so low that I could scarcely imagine that statement not being true.

With one foot out the door, Perry has made it widely known that he flat-out doesn’t care about fulfilling the duties of the position he was elected (and is paid) to perform. I sincerely doubt that he ever really did care much about the issues I’d want my union representative to care about – but nobody bothered to even run against him. For the third consecutive year, the presidency of our student union will go uncontested and acclaimed. In fact, most of the elected positions of leadership in the student union will go unfilled this year, or have a single solitary candidate acclaimed to the position.

You don’t need to look far back to find a time when things were very different. In 2008 there were numerous people seeking the presidency and entire teams of candidates contesting all offices. Trent is not by any means an apathetic campus, contrary to what our president has been heard to say. Just this past Friday more than 50 people, most of them students, were willing to gather for a spontaneous impromptu protest march in opposition to Line 9, taking over George Street in the downtown. What conclusions are we to draw, then, from the fact that for three consecutive years the most important executive position in our student union has been passed on uncontested? Surely it means many things, but most certainly it indicates the very low regard in which we hold our student union.

This is so despite the epic victories of students in Quebec, who pay a fraction of what we pay for school yet were still able to effect a province-wide freeze on tuition increases and a seismic reorientation of the terms of debate back toward ideal of free education – as aspiration so remote from our impoverished expectations that most students don’t believe it’s even possible… despite the fact that it exists in many countries just as prosperous and developed as our own.

So, I’ve made my concerns clear: I’m sure people are wondering to themselves why I don’t do something about it. You’re right, I should … and would were I not transferring to another university. It’s easy to say the system’s broken, and just saying it doesn’t accomplish much. But the problem is clearly larger than even the herculean efforts of some outstanding individual could fully remedy.

We distrust most student office seekers for the same reason many people distrust most politicians: because we suspect their ‘desire to serve’ has more to do with narcissistic ego-gratification than any benevolent vision of what they would actually do once elected. I don’t think this is true of all student officer seekers, but it certainly seems to be true of our president. His time in office, happily soon over, was frittered away, half-heartedly pursuing a middling, do-nothing agenda with ever-diminishing scope and credibility.

At the very least, don’t ever let another student election go uncontested. Run a fucking hamster for president if nothing else, if only to at least make clear how abysmally fucked up things have become.

I’m not sure exactly how we’ll get to where Quebec is at, but we sure as hell have a long way to go. There’s going to be a lot of hard work involved – but our collective success depends upon it. So let’s get started. Let’s give a shit again about the state of our education.