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 Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


More on the limits of student union politics

  1. I have to disagree with you on one point. I believe that political positions are such that everything you do in the public sphere is in that position. While you still have a personal life (you can go out with friends, have personal opinions, etc) whenever you vocalize those opinions in public you have to deal with the after-effects. Especially when the individual use the elected position as a way to open doors.
    I have more, but I don’t like commentors who write essays. But I do like you stuff.

  2. Well Ken, we can agree to disagree if it goes that far, but bear in mind that I left the window open on that. If a public figure goes so far as to genuinely embarrass themselves or do something inflammatory then yes, it reflects on their public role. But that’s not the same thing I’m talking about here.

    Take my city council example. Counselors constantly show up at all kinds of functions. Must they take -personal- responsibility for their behavior at those events? Sure. The people who elected them expect a certain standard of behavior, may take these things into account next election, etc. But simply because they fill an elected role in the city does that mean that every action they take is the city’s action? Of course not. And even a casual glance at the things various counselors do would easily prove the point.

    So that’s the principle I extend to union politics. And I’ll grant, it amazes me how often it eludes students. But there is a difference between expecting a public figure to deal with the consequences of their opinions and confusing their opinions with the official stance of any organization they are involved with.

  3. Oh! I’ll add, in reply to Ken, that if you like my previous points these two subjects are unavoidably linked. You can’t really have one without the other. If you believe that your students’ union should not have a foreign policy, as some have put it, and should not (for example) have an official position on Afghanistan, that’s fine. But if you also believe that prominent figures in the union are not able to have public opinions of their own without turning those opinions into union policy…well, you’ve got a problem. Now you must either demand that every public figure suspend all public opinions on all topics that aren’t student-related or accept that your union does have a foreign policy the first moment any union exec expresses an opinion on the topic.

    Allowing union figures their own identities and their own opinions, and making some effort to distinguish what you’d like to hold them personally accountable for and what you’d like to hold the union accountable for, is a bit of effort. But it’s a damn good investment in keeping the union out of foreign political debates. If the President’s opinion becomes the union’s position as soon as he opens his mouth (and you treat it as such) he has no motive to avoid dragging the union into the issue. In some ways, it’s actually you that’s done so.

    Anyway, you’re right, answers get too long very easily. Sorry about that.

  4. For some people, student union politics are just a door into further politics, but many (if not most) executives are just there because they like to get involved on their campus, and it would be absurd to treat them like public figures in their whole lives, as Ken suggests. Student union executives should not abuse their position for personal gain, but the reciprocal of that is that they still have their right to be a private student/citizen.

  5. Thank-you Joey for your very valuable thoughts. I am a student at the University of Victoria and I feel that the UVic Student Society Board may be crossing the line. Specifically Board members will participate in partisan event or rally and then include that in a report of their activities at the next Board meeting. If they are participating as individuals I don’t feel it should be in their Board reports. Last year a Board member included attending a rally in support of the coalition government in her Board report. This year two Board members mentioned attending a rally against the President of Iran in their reports. On top of that one of these Board members said they “provided a microphone.” I don’t know if there was any net cost to the UVSS but this seems questionable to me. Not only was the Iran rally a partisan event it was about politics in another country!

  6. @Anon – yeah, I was going to say something along those lines also, but my comments were already running too long. First, I’ll reiterate my point that even at the same standard as city counselors it’s a mistake to suggest that the individual opinions of student union execs must reflect on the organization. But second I do agree – it’s also a mistake to see them as politicians in miniature.

    I feel like there’s a lot of meaning loaded into Ken’s suggestion that union execs “use the elected positions as a way to open doors.” Maybe there’s even another blog in this. But there’s a world of difference between students who run for positions merely in the hope it will get them somewhere (rarely happens – I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it) and those who simply build on their established experiences to find careers for themselves. The later is something that everyone does. Hell, I did it. But I sure didn’t run for student office in the first instance with a plan in mind that it would benefit me. And therein, in my opinion, lies a critical difference.

    @David – well, first, it isn’t Joey on student politics this time around. Though I guess I’m on his beat so I can see why you’d think so. Second, I see your point about including individual activities in reports to the union. But at the same time I don’t know if that’s so much a case of dragging the union into an official position or if it’s just a case of sloppy separation of roles. Bear in mind, the ideas I’m expressing here are hardly universally agreed upon, and in many cases the topics haven’t even been addressed. So before you go on a warpath on the issues, you might want to raise the idea that there’s benefits all around to separating individual activities from official union actions. You might even find agreement if you raise the topic diplomatically. It may be no one’s ever brought it up before.

  7. What we need to do it get out of the normative type statement of what should or shouldn’t be and take these ideas out of the lab and into the real world. What happens is that these student union politicians think they should not be held accountable for what they do/believe/say on their own time. This is the mindset I am trying to combat.
    So if the President of your student union is quoted in the newspaper it is likely b/c they are the President of the Student union. Not b/c they have a unique point of view. Should they not political and professionally liable for their comments? Can they not be criticized for their actions? The same goes for speaking at events. And as David notes, specifically making it part of their mandate and their reports.
    As mentioned a few times, it only becomes an issue when they do something embarrassing or something like that, but I think that is the whole point of my argument. The UTSU executive arrested for protesting on the HWY comes to mind, as well as the YFS President leading an unruly racist mob. If they are doing something that doesn’t alienate a large potion of their electorate they are likely (if not always) within their mandate anyways. We only need to talk about the occasions where these ideas we are discussing come into play.
    And as Jeff notes, the ideas being expressed here are quite the work in progress.

  8. I’m glad we’re having this conversation, Ken, but I definitely think I’m going to have to address this subject in one or more additional blogs. I get that you are frustrated with and/or suspicious of all student politicians – but bear in mind that I was that guy for three years. And I spoke with more than a few students who wouldn’t even consider the idea that my motives were honest. That was just frustrating in return.

    You write “it only becomes an issue when they do something embarrassing or something like that.” I think I’d have to disagree on that one. It also becomes an issue when student politicians actually address the problem and want to find ways to express themselves as individuals (which is certainly their right) without dragging their union into external issues. Look again at the question that started this post. Although it’s been vagued up it was a real and sincere question, by execs who are not in a compromising position at all but still want to do the right thing.

    Your cynicism may be well earned, but I don’t think you help solve the problem by painting every union executive into a corner where they are no longer entitled to personal views. Creating that kind of impossible tension – where your expectations have been designed such that they are impossible to fulfill – actually contributes to the problem. Or such has been my experience.

  9. Ken’s example of a newspaper interview is different from just attending a protest, if the newspaper contacted them because of their position. Of course when you’re invited (by the media, by organizers of a conference, etc.) to speak on some issue as SU president, then you’re commenting them as SU president. I’m sure we’d all agree on that. This is not what we mean by personal time.

  10. I think I need to clarify, I did not say that student politicians and professional politicians do not have personal time. I specifically said they do: “While you still have a personal life (you can go out with friends, have personal opinions, etc) whenever you vocalize those opinions in public you have to deal with the after-effects.”

    And I am not saying that every single student politician falls into this category. I am specifically talking about the ones that do.

    If we look back at the question, the SU Exec is wondering what to do, whether or not to attend this event. I am not saying that they can’t/shouldn’t, what I am saying is that they should be liable for doing do. If someone does have an issue with this event having the Exec stamp of approval on it, they should not be able to respond with “that is my personal opinion and you cannot question that.” In the end, the executive is elected and is paid to represent the entire student union, not just the people they agree with.

    There is also a difference between attending an event and participating in an event.