By Julianna Cummins
It’s 11:30 on a Thursday night. Thirty or so students sit around a long table, fists clenched, voices strained. They’ve all been here for four and a half hours, but they’re ready and willing to stay the whole night. The president looks tired, the executives look angry and most of the board looks smug. They know they’ve just served the ruling party with the ultimate insult.
The university-sponsored audit the RSU is currently undergoing is essentially the climax of the two-year deterioration of the organization. With personal disagreements getting in the way of decision-making, they’ve shown they’re having a hard time getting their act together. And every year, students are paying them $60. How do we form a student union where healthy discussion and debate can occur, without meetings breaking down to five-hour yelling matches? Like other big problems, no one big idea can fix it, but there are places to start.
Discouraging deep slate divisions, reviewing the basic purpose of a student union and encouraging students to keep their elected reps accountable for their behavior can help to quell the storm.
As of next year, all of the executive and most of the board will be controlled by members of the Undivided slate. If they’re as committed to unity as their name implies, they should try implementing some of the following ways to fix the RSU and reconcile the divisions that have started to destroy it.
1. Eliminate slates from the board of directors
Regardless of the current dysfunction in the RSU, it’s important to remember there are still student unions that work. One that is known to run a fairly smooth operation is the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU).
UTMSU president Wasah Malik said his union’s success comes from maintaining open communication between the executive and the board of directors, and keeping the union’s issues and personal conflicts separate. However, the UTMSU election rules are also a reason why hostilities within the association can be kept to a minimum.
At UTMSU, anyone who runs for a position on the board of directors can’t run on a slate. They must run individually. Slates still exist for the executive positions, but a slate or any person running for an executive position cannot endorse anyone running for a board of directors spot.
Now, let’s break that down into RSU terms: a Ryerson student running for a Faculty of Community Services director position wouldn’t be able to run with Undivided or RyeChange because only executive candidates can run on slates.
Keeping directors from running on slates would prevent the divisions at the executive from spilling over to the board of directors. This has been huge a problem at the RSU board for the past two years.
“[Running on slates is] going to create divisions. You would have to be very careful of that,” said Malik when was told how the RSU elections work.
2. Hold elected representatives accountable. Seriously.
While students may feel that the RSU is a lost cause, they aren’t entirely without blame. Students enable the conflict by simply not caring and letting the union run amok. “It’s the responsibility of students. If the students in general don’t really care, then of course nothing is going to happen. At the end of the day, it’s the students who elected these people,” said current RSU president Muhammad Ali Jabbar.
When student voices are loud enough, student unions will listen. It worked at Carleton University. In early November 2008, the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) passed a motion to end the university’s participation in the Shinearama fundraiser for cystic fibrosis. Their reasoning? Because the disease, according to the motion passed, “has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men.” The Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was quick to point out the inaccuracy of the statement.
“The reason why you see such weird decisions from student unions is often because students aren’t paying attention,” said Nick Bergamini, the only student representative on CUSA who voted against the motion. Once mainstream Canadian media made the CUSA decision a leading story, students started taking greater interest in what their union was doing and voiced their opposition to the decision.
“When students get involved, they look at what’s going on and often it’s a case of ‘I don’t really like what I’m seeing right now and I want to change this’,” said Bergamini.
The decision to cancel the Shinerama event was later revoked. At the same emergency meeting, CUSA president Brittany Smyth was served with a petition to impeach her.
Bergamini said the reversal of the decision showed how student engagement can change how a student union conducts itself as an organization.
“What you get is student associations doing what students want,” said Bergamini, who was recently elected to an executive position (vice-president student issues) on CUSA.
3. Go back to the basics
Douglas Hart, president of Hart and Associates management group, said that sometimes conflict within unions can be resolved by simply refocusing on the fundamental goals of the organization.
“They need to go back to the original documents and see if they are doing their jobs.”
While Hart has never worked with the RSU before, he has worked with other student unions at Ontario universities. When debriefed on the RSU situation, he suggested that the union go back to the basics and evaluate if their behavior really reflects what they were elected to do.
“They need to go back to the original documents and see if they are doing their jobs,” said Hart.
It can be as simple as reviewing their election requirements and identifying what they have to do as representatives of the student body, said Hart.
He also said that there are ways to boil down the issues to what your student population cares about.
“It’s called polling,” said Hart, referring to what the federal and provincial governments often do to gather information on what issues matter most to their constituents. In a student union, uniting everyone under a common goal by addressing the issues that come out of polling students can create an environment where the debate is about how to achieve these goals. Right now, our union is arguing about what they should be doing in the first place.
4. Follow CESAR’s lead. Polling, but with power
The Continuing Education Students’ Union of Ryerson (CESAR), our ‘other’ students union, has a body of elected representatives.
Each class that runs over 31 hours can elect a classmate to become a student representative, who then go on to form the council of representatives.
The council, made up of the class representatives, present their classmates concerns to CESAR’s board of directors throughout the academic year.
“We feel like we keep in touch a lot with our members,” said CESAR president Gail Alivio.
CESAR’s membership is much smaller than the RSU’s. and the class representation system would be difficult to implement on a larger scale. CESAR does, however, have the right idea.
Having an elected body that is in constant contact with students as an intermediary between students and the board of directors helps to keep the union accessible to students.
Most importantly, it keeps the decision-making body in touch with what their members want. This system ensures that the student union, in the most fundamental way, is doing its job.
There are ways to fix the RSU. It’s not yet a lost cause, because the representatives involved in the RSU do want to make Ryerson a better place for students.
It will take a commitment from from all those involved to put aside the personal grievances, to acknowledge that the needs of students are best met when compromise and respectful debate is practiced at the level of student government.
The RSU also must be able to embrace some kind of change. None of these suggestions will necessarily be simple to implement, but different approaches must be taken seriously in order for the union to survive. Ryerson’s student population are tiring of the old, shown in our still relatively low voter turnout for RSU elections. While there is no one solution, these are a few suggestions that can help to make the RSU an organization that other student unions can refer to as one of the best, instead of one of the most dysfunctional.