Earlier this academic year there was a fleeting debate in the Manitoban on the role of student unions in connection with political advocacy. Since that time a great deal has happened. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) initially announced that they would not condemn the impending U of M budget cuts, citing their position of neutrality on political issues.
In a subsequent letter they backtracked somewhat, saying they are opposed to budget cuts but are taking a stance “not [ . . . ] of neutrality, but of rationality.” Jeremiah Kopp ran for and won the position of UMSU president. On the matter of political advocacy, he said, “We are there to support any student who has a cause or issue that they want to be passionate about.”
It seems that there is a concerted effort being made to redefine the role of the student union vis a vis advocacy.
Back in November, in an article entitled “UMSU gets it right with political neutrality,” Ethan Cabel argued that the current situation at big universities makes it inappropriate to treat UMSU members like a single political bloc. Therefore, he argues, it is not appropriate for an organization like UMSU to engage in special interest political advocacy on issues that do not bear specifically on students.
To some extent this makes sense – one of Cabel’s examples is campus bottled water bans, an issue that is not really the business of a student union. But somewhere along the line we’ve elided the distinction between special interest issues that are irrelevant to students and special interest issues per se.
Advocacy regarding tuition, the status of international students, budget cuts, and conditions on campus are still very much within our union’s purview. And another consequence of the heterogeneous makeup of the student body that Cabel mentions is that many students will disagree with whatever stance UMSU chooses to take on these student-related issues.
It is impossible to take a stance that will please everyone. But as the elected representatives of a student advocacy group, it is the responsibility of the UMSU executive to take stances on these issues anyway. At some point you have to disagree with somebody.
To construe the role of the student union as passively supporting whatever students choose to advocate—as Kopp seems to—is simply to ignore the duties that were given to him as a result of the election.
Members of the UMSU executive sit in on meetings at all levels of university governance. They have power to effect change in ways that no other students possibly can – and a mandate to use this power on behalf of students. Refusing to use this power is not the wise restraint of a Cincinnatus; it is an explicit decision to endorse the status quo. Which is fine—it may actually be the case that the status quo is an acceptable state of affairs—but let’s at least be honest about it.
It is not UMSU’s role to be neutral or equivocal on issues that bear on students. It is their role to take a position and fight for it. If the student body doesn’t like it, the student body has ways of getting new executive officers who will adopt different positions.
Kopp was among three members of the outgoing executive who signed a letter in the Manitoban outlining UMSU’s position on budget cuts. This letter took a rather lukewarm stance, stating that UMSU is opposed to budget cuts but was not going to press the administration on the issue.
“UMSU recognizes the university’s complex budget outlook, limited revenue sources, and the need to balance competing priorities,” the letter said.
But it is not UMSU’s job to “[recognize] the university’s complex budget outlook.” That’s the job of the university administration. It is UMSU’s job to advocate for students’ needs regardless of the university’s budget outlook. The administration can do with that advocacy what they will.
The union has no responsibility to balance competing priorities within the university; they can negotiate, but their first and only responsibility is to look out for their members. Faculty, staff, and the administration all have their own representatives to look after their own interests.
It is possible, fun even, to criticize certain other student unions for overstepping their mandate by advocating for issues that are not relevant to students. But it’s also possible for a union to go too far in the other direction and advocate for considerations that are outside their mandate because they are the proper domain of government and university administration.
Given the choice, I’d rather have a union that stands up for workers’ rights and the environment than one that tries to act as impromptu emissaries from the administration.
As the incoming president of UMSU, Kopp is in a position where he has to make a number of hard decisions. I would like to remind him that he was elected as a student leader, not as an administration mouthpiece or the representative of our aggregated id.
I challenge him to make these hard decisions explicitly and transparently, and to fight openly for the decisions he has made, rather than continuing with the wishy-washy equivocation of neutrality and balance.