On "sell out" student leaders - Macleans.ca

On “sell out” student leaders

What does it really mean, to represent students?


I recently created a twitter account. This is an unrelated fact, save that it explains how I was trolling around looking for a few people I wanted to follow. And I came across this article by the Ryerson Free Press. I resolved to ignore it, but now a couple days later it’s still in my head. So obviously it is more than just a passing annoyance. This article is almost a year old, but nonetheless I think it deserves a rebuttal.

The article calls out by name three former student representatives, and accuses them of (a) selling out the student movement and (b) using their roles as elected representatives as springboards for their later careers. I’ll decline to note who I was initially looking for when I found this article. But I will say that I know two of these people personally and the third by reputation. I wouldn’t call any of them friends exactly (if you’re wondering about my bias) but I’ve noted and appreciated their work in the past.

This article infuriates me for any number of reasons, but I’ll confine my criticism to the two primary critiques in the article itself. First, there is the idea that student leaders “sell out” the movement when they assume centrist – or even right-of-center – positions on issues. I simply cannot agree. I may find myself in opposition to the opinions expressed by these and other student leaders, but I am not prepared to dismiss their legitimacy simply because I disagree with them. The notion that there is only one orthodox position to assume on behalf of students is patently ridiculous. Students are free to elect whomever they want to represent them. And just as mainstream politics may swing among representatives that espouse one position or another, there is no reason to imagine that student politics must be different. If someone were to suggest that a candidate campaigned on one position and then did something radically different I would agree – that’s a problem. But simply to assume that centrist or right-of-center views represents selling out the movement is ignorant. This dismisses the possibility that students might have actually voted for that.

Second, and even more importantly, there is the assumption that these student leaders somehow used their former positions to form the basis of their future careers. As a former student leader myself, I find this very insulting. I wrote an article on this topic some months ago, but the central premise bears repeating. Students who assume prominent positions on campus are in no way guaranteed future success. Some do go on to achieve prominence in various fields. Others do not. But in either case the determining factor is not the positions they held as students. Elected office may be a brick in the wall of someone’s career, just as any job is one step along the path, but it is only that – one step or one brick. The totality of anyone’s personal career path is so much greater than any student office.

I need to refute this article because it perpetuates two very damaging myths. First, the notion that there is only one legitimate perspective to assume on students’ behalf. In my experience, students are very capable of electing representatives who stand for a large range of perspectives and views. Whether I happen to personally agree or not is irrelevant. So too if anyone else happens to agree. That’s politics for you. Sometimes people get elected who you don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, or ill-intentioned, or diabolical. Often, that simply means you have to rethink your ideas about the dominant views held by the voting base of people who elected them. Second, the idea that future success is created by elected student office. This is a dangerous myth because it encourages people to seek office for all the wrong reasons – no matter their political views. It isn’t true, of course. Maybe elected students are “successful” in greater percentages if only because they are naturally dynamic personalities. But the success still isn’t due to the prominence in student politics. I have plenty of counter-examples at my fingertips. But of course no one writes stories about the elected students who go on to do nothing in particular after their university days.

Student politicians and elected representatives make easy targets. This is true while they are in office and true even afterward. Part of assuming a prominent position is accepting this role as designated target. I lived through this myself and I have a lot of sympathy for students who are living through it now. But when criticism spills over from attacking the students of the day to attacking the movement as a whole, I need to make some reply. Flawed though the results may be, in an immediate sense, the system as a whole does work. Students are capable of electing a large range of potential representatives – and this range is what legitimates the choices they make. And elected representatives truly don’t derive enough personal benefit to ever make the job worth it for selfish reasons (even if a few may try) and this is what guarantees sincere, if not always effective, representation.

It does work. Don’t let the cynics get you down.

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.


On “sell out” student leaders

  1. Though I’m still skeptical as to whether the system as a whole really does work, I think you make some very important points. Well put!

  2. I’d say check out some of the conflicts of interest between their editors and certain student lobby groups.

  3. I think part of the question of “selling out” has nothing to do with left/right, but rather with keeping a certain distance. Student unions are supposed to hold politicians and administrators accountable with respect to the perceived interest of students (of course, the vision of that this interest is depends on your political opinion). This involves constructive criticism, and giving credit where credit is due, but the organization should always maintain its role as representing students to the government/administration, rather than the other way around.

    This is why, for example, I found it questionable that (sometimes around 2006-2007) OUSA and CSA in Ontario would co-sign press releases praising McGuinty’s government programs. This gives the impression that you’re part of the marketing strategy of the government, and is not a good thing. At the same time, student unions can facilitate conflict resolution with campus administrations, but they shouldn’t be policing their own members on behalf of the administration. This has nothing to do with left/right.

    I just mentioned “political” actions, but accepting perks from insurance companies (from cases also mentioned by the Ryerson Free Press) is even worse and an obvious conflict of interest.


    For the same reason, there are reasonable questions to ask when a student politician is immediately hired by the government or the administration after the end of their mandate. This is different from the extreme position you condemn, saying that *any* political career following a student union mandate is wrong.