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.


The limits of an elected student’s mandate

  1. But, who gets to define what constitutes a “student issue”? Wouldn’t a student leader saying that, say, militarism isn’t a student issue be just as bad as one unilaterally saying it is, in your framework?

  2. It’s a student issue if it affects white students like Jeff.

  3. Craig, I do not think Jeff is trying to argue that student unions cannot focus on issues like militarism; I think he is trying to say that these issues can back tackled locally where the union has more influence. For example, the student unions could pass a motion to close its space to army recruiters rather than trying to take on the military as a whole. I am sure you would agree that in the grand scheme of things the former is much more effective and achievable solution for an individual student union. Imagine if all student unions were to take a similar stance, once again I am sure you would agree that it would be much more effective than all student unions waging a broad campaign against the military.

    I would also point out that many student unions belong to the Canadian Federation of Students. When it comes to bigger issues maybe Student Unions should leave it to the CFS to handle. To me it doesn’t make sense to have a bunch of smaller organizations duplicating the effort of a larger one that they are all a member of.

  4. To reply to Craig, I’d suggest that working up a full list would involve some gray areas, but it’s easier to do than you’d imagine. You take an issue that seems to be affecting some students. You ask, “is it affecting those students as students or is it affecting them in some other way?” Housing isn’t normally a student issue, for example, but in the situation in Queens where there are sometimes town-and-gown disputes that directly target students and their off-campus living spaces, then it may become a student issue.

    To reply to Michael, I agree to a point, but I think even the CFS far exceeds its reasonable mandate on many fronts. I’ve been to three or four CFS meetings, of both the CFS-O and the CFS national. The amount of space and discussion time that core student issues receive is often shockingly small. For all the same reasons I discuss. Although your example of militarism is very apt. I still don’t think the CFS achieves anything by (hypothetically) taking a stand against the Canadian military as a whole. But it can help develop strategies to approach the issue campus by campus. And for sure, taking a stand against recruiting on campus is absolutely a local issue, where the union has a lot of direct power and influence.

    My reply to PaulR is that his comments do not merit a reply.

  5. My heart is broken.

  6. Oh! I’ll add once last thing. Craig’s comments still have me thinking. I believe once you conclude that militarism is a student issue once military recruiters are on campus (and I 100% agree – at that point it is a student issue) that still doesn’t tell you what to do about it. And I won’t try to tell you what you should do about it either. Some unions have had very active and intelligent debate on the subject. Some have taken a stance (often very effective) against military recruitment on their campuses while others have elected to either endorse it or at least silently accept it.

    My suggestions about how to identify what is or isn’t a local student issue don’t solve the problems associated with what to do next. And that’s part of my point. When your actions might have real and immediate consequences the choice of what to do next becomes far more complicated. You have to take a stance in mind of all the details (denying students access to jobs they might want, for example) which is far more complicated than taking a stance in principle. But at least once you decide what to do, you have a lot of power to see it gets done.

  7. Pingback: working hard to waste your influence « The Radical Beer Tribune

  8. Another thing is that there are some students who disagree not with a union taking a stance on a social issue, but that the union took a stance at all. A post on the RBF blog details a motion which the UBC AMS will debate at their next meeting.

    Regardless of whether or not it passes, it’s the perfect example of the kind of issue I’m talking about. Yes, what’s happening in Iran is bad.

    But I’m pretty damned sure that I voted for an AMS council that would work on issues that 1. They could actually influence and 2. Actually affected their constituents. I don’t want my council wasting time and potentially dollars making feel-good proclamations, I want them working towards improving conditions at the university that elected them.

  9. I think PaulR might actually be on to something there. Jeff seems to be coming to it with a some privilege as a white male, so it’s easy for him to dismiss student unions taking a stance on issues of marginalization of the people who student unions represent in society.

  10. I guess things will never change as long as people like Bill and PaulR are somehow admitted to university.

    Hey Bill, are student governments elected to represent students or minorities?

    Bill and PaulR are racists.

  11. I know this may be a shock to you, Steve, but students who aren’t straight white males exist.

    And what the hell do you mean “I guess things will never change as long as people like Bill and PaulR are somehow admitted to university”? Are you implying that I’m not smart enough to be in university? I easily qualified for all the admission requirements, managed to maintain a decent GPA, and was on the Dean’s Honour List on a few occaisions. I was “somehow” admitted because I applied and fulfilled all the requirements. Or is it just that you believe people with certain political views should be excluded from university?

  12. Bill, get your head on straight. You’re arguing against common sense. If you’re actually saying that Rybek’s article is bunk because he is white, you’re a racist. If that’s the case, GTFO. I’m shocked that a university student can be so god damn stupid. Are you completely incapable of critical thought? Take your conflict theory crap elsewhere. I’m well aware that there are other students that aren’t straight, white males. Their political issues have no bearing on student politics. Read this, jackass:

  13. No, I’m saying that the stance that student unions shouldn’t take on social issues despite having a majority of members belonging to some marginalized and oppressed group (50% women, plus LGBT students, students of colour, students of certain class backgrounds, etc) and should stick to only certain issues, while ignoring wider issues and aspects of marginalization and oppression which don’t fit into the narrow box of “as students” is one which is influenced by white male privilege. All these issues are interconnected into a mass cobweb, and I don’t think it is possible to take on oppression on campus without attempting to understand and attack the root of the problem, which is in society.

    Also, don’t worry, I will “GTFO” from posting here (but I’m not going to leave university, I have every right to be there). Obviously, this isn’t a place where issues can be discussed respectfully. Not that I expected Macleans to be such a place in the first place.

    You god damn stupid jackass.

  14. Bill, whatever your dispute with Chris, you chose to enter this debate by suggesting that because I disagree with your view I must be coming at the topic from a racist perspective. I do strongly disagree with your view. I had 1,800 words to explain why so I won’t bother reiterating them. But I don’t need to believe you are a bad person or that your views come from a hateful place just because we disagree. And it saddens me that so much debate is curtailed just because we are so quick to accuse each other of the worst possible motives rather than face the idea that there may be multiple valid perspectives on the topic at hand.

    I spent three years representing students on one of the most diverse campuses in the nation. I’m tempted to say “the most diverse” but I don’t have the stats to back that up. Let’s just agree it’s close. In the course of those three years I made a lot of close friends who agree with my perspective on student politics and we got a lot done together. They come from every possible background and identity group.

    I won’t say my time in student politics was all sunshine and roses. Three years is a lifetime in student union terms and that’s a lot of time for difficult issues to arise. But I was never in all that time called a racist. I was proud to represent students at UTSC, and I was especially proud and grateful to belong to a very diverse group of elected students who were not, in fact, driven by identity-politics but rather by a desire to do the best job possible for the students on our campus.

    If the students at UTSC were comfortable enough to repeatedly elect me, in an environment where they actually knew me and my track record on issues, I think it’s a bit much that strangers on the Internet see fit to call me a racist simply because I disagree with how they choose to pursue their social agendas. And remember, that’s what this was always about. Not that we even disagree on the goals. Just that we disagree on where and how to go about pursuing them.

  15. Bill,

    I think the argument again comes back to the idea that an individual student union or a large group of students (CFS, CASA, etc.) for that matter will really not be able to affect broad social change, there are to few students (a demographic we will see shrink as the baby boom echo passes through the prime education years) and too many issues to take on for us to really change the values of our society. What student union can and should do is try to make the best situation possible for there members on their respective campuses. Jeff has been arguing just that, student unions have much more authority on their campus than in the world and society at large, if they focus on their campus and every other student union focuses on there campus you would find that a big step has been taken to attack social ills at their root.

    Imagine if Student Unions did this, when students leave their campus and go into the world they will bring there thoughts and knowledge to friends, family and co-workers. If this were to continue the next generation of students would have the same experience and would continue the process. Eventually you would find, bit by bit, society changing for the better. The power of small acts when done by many people and groups is probably the greatest agent of change possible in the world.

    I know this may not seem fast enough for most but, if history has demonstrated anything it is that rapid change hardly ever sticks, it usually changes rapidly in the other direction to the very opposite extreme.

  16. Jeff, when someone says that something you said isn’t taking into account the concerns of marginalized students, there is no need to react defensively by insisting that you aren’t racist.

    I have no idea if you’re racist. I don’t care if you’re racist. I don’t care if you had many friends of colour at university. That’s not what’s at issue here.

    Pointing out that you are speaking from a position of privilege, as a white man, shouldn’t be off limits in this discussion. Especially if most of the “social issues” you think student unions shouldn’t involve themselves with are those that have been brought forward by marginalized groups.

    Again, just in case I haven’t been clear: I am not arguing that you are racist. I am saying that you are speaking from a position of privilege.

    It’s no accident that almost all of the columnists in the OnCampus section are white (maybe all, but I haven’t checked). We live in a racist society and people think this is normal. The best way to change these things isn’t to react defensively and attack people who point this out.

  17. @MN There was a continuing dialogue from another topic on this site, relating to protests and the Tamil community. I do understand what it means when someone suggests that a perspective does not take into account the experiences of certain marginalized communities, and I’m open to that point. But I’m not confused about what I’m hearing from PaulR, and previously from some equally anonymous fellow named Sam. They said flat out “your views are racist.”

    It’s not misinterpretation on my part, and if I’m defensive on the topic it’s because I consider the accusation to be a serious one. PaulR followed me here, and so I can’t help but take his comments on that topic as relevant to this one as well. In hindsight, however, I’d like to apologize to Bill. He may not have been aware of the full range of what he was agreeing with. It’s easy to forget that people are mostly reading the comments on one topic and only that topic, whereas I tend to follow all of what’s discussed on this site.

    The way you have gone about discussing the topic is entirely fair. If it had come up in similar terms in the first place, MN, I’m sure we’d have had a much more productive dialogue. You are 100% right. We must be able to discuss relative perspective and privilege where it occurs. But we must also, I’ll hope you agree, not deploy accusations at the drop of a hat merely to delegitimize ideas we happen to not like. I wish you were part of this conversation sooner. It would probably have taken a better turn.

    And to everyone else, I’ll just remind that based on the fact I have volunteered a photo, you are able to see the colour of my skin and my outward gender. That is not a lot to go on, when it comes to the full range of a person’s identity and life experiences. I am very much open to this topic, under some circumstances. But it’s a very personal subject and anonymous exchange on the Internet, where people feel free to say the most inflammatory things without taking any responsibility for it, is perhaps not the best venue.

  18. Jeff, I respectfully disagree.

    I read through the posts you’re mentioning and nowhere did PaulR, Sam or anyone else accuse YOU of being racist. They said your comment about “pan-national” issues not being student union issues was racist.

    It might hurt that someone thinks a comment you made is racist. I’ve been there, and I think we all have. The thing to remember is that people often unintentionally say racist things because these views are so normalized in our society.

    When you speak from a position of privilege to make authoritative statements about what is an appropriate use of funds, and the “inappropriate” use of funds just happens to be for issues that people of colour and other marginalized groups have brought forward as concerns, I think it is up for discussion whether that view is racist.

    I’m not saying it is, I’m just saying it’s up for discussion.

    And the best way to engage isn’t to respond with “I’m not racist, I have friends of colour.” It’s to examine how your beliefs about the way a student union should operate are based on how student unions have traditionally operated in a racist society.

    Listen to what people of colour think a student union should be instead of telling them what it always has been.

  19. Well, we’ll agree to disagree MN, but I’m glad we’re at least doing that much respectfully. I’ll even agree the term “pan-national” has unfortunate connotations, which is why I’ve avoided it since. Though when I used it, it really was just a way of describing in geographic terms the idea of campus-based organizations trying to influence what’s going on halfway around the world. So yes, there’s a level on which language can become charged with unfortunate meaning when the ideas behind what’s being said are not badly intentioned.

    And for the record, I didn’t say “I have friends of colour” as a defense. I said I was part of a union environment in which people from all identity groups came together to act locally, as I’ve described, and I became good friends with many of them. The notion that a union should act locally where it has the most power is thus not a particularly “white” idea. That was my point. So while some are attempting to paint it as such, I do not believe that is true.

    One final time, at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, I’ll state that my ideas on this subject are not founded in a moral position. On a moral level I can easily see how we would wish, as human beings, that every organization would care about everyone and every issue all the time. My points are coming from a strategic perspective. I believe we achieve more when we act locally, target our efforts, and concentrate on core issues and common ground. And then when we want to take on other issues (as individuals) we form and join organizations to act on those issues, in similarly targeted fashion.

    Maybe on a high abstract level there’s something inherently western, white, patriarchal etc. to that view. Some ideas are deeply encoded, after all. So I can’t claim in definitive fashion there is not. But you could also go as far as to suggest that the notion of currency is somehow western, white, patriarchal, etc. And that doesn’t stop organizations from fund-raising. We work with money because it’s effective. And I’m suggesting, in similar fashion, that unions are simply more effective when they operate on local turf. As is, I would hazard, just about any organization.

    Anyway, I thank you for your respectful participation in this conversation.

Sign in to comment.