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Campus Conversation: How can SSMU regain students’ trust?

Commentary/Opinion by

Editor's note:  This past semester has seen a seemingly unprecedented number of scandals stemming from the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU), and has left many McGill students feeling disillusioned and disengaged from with their representative body. In light of this, we asked members of the community, including incoming SSMU executives, how SSMU can regain students' trust. 

Content

Greta Hoaken | Connor Spencer | Maya Koparkar | Muna Tojiboeva | Elaine Patterson | Anuradha Mallik | Jemark Earle | David Naftulin

Greta Hoaken, Director on the SSMU Board of Directors 

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) must change its culture from within to become more open, transparent, and welcoming to newcomers. To me, this starts with prioritizing bringing in new members that represent previously underrepresented identities. Given SSMU’s self-recognized “systemic issue of sexualized and gendered violence,” actively encouraging more women to become involved must be a core component of its strategy moving forward.

SSMU’s loss of legitimacy as a representative body starts and ends with problems from within. While some point to apathy about student politics as being the culprit, we cannot expect students to want to take ownership of their student union if it does not look like them, or if it is dominated by a small group of decision-makers. If SSMU is to regain students’ trust, it must look inward, and make a meaningful attempt to bring new, diverse talent into the institution.

Throughout my four years at McGill, I have been a strong critic of SSMU, and have never sought any position within the Society. I have been involved on campus in various capacities and in various clubs and activities, but I never felt the desire to associate with SSMU. I have long believed student politics at McGill to be too male-dominated, too self-serving, and too closed off to newcomers. After the resignations of the Vice-President (VP) External and the President this past semester, I became enraged, and applied to an open position on the Board of Directors (BoD). Now a Director, I am seeing more and more of SSMU’s potential to do good on campus and to truly represent its constituents, but also how much the institution must change to realize its full potential. While I am incredibly optimistic given the candidates that put their names forward this year–and the executive team that was ultimately elected–there are many other positions, elected and appointed, within SSMU that are in dire need of new blood.

In my case, anger may have spurred my involvement, but SSMU cannot expect that anger alone will translate into a permanent, sustained change for the institution. I was heavily encouraged to apply for a BoD position by individuals that were already involved with SSMU. Without their support, I would not have felt like I had a place at the table. Many students have been angry with SSMU for a long time, but they have not become involved because they have not been made to feel like there is room for them to do so. Put simply, SSMU cannot expect those that have been left out of the conversation for so long, and that have been negatively affected by the actions and policies (or lack thereof) of the institution, to come running to save it in times of crisis. Rather, those who currently hold positions within SSMU must make an active effort on both individual and institutional levels to seek out, encourage, and prioritize bringing in new, diverse representatives in the coming year.

The decision of the BoD to designate VP Student Life Elaine Patterson as Acting President and Chloe Rourke as Chair of the Board are fantastic steps in that direction; however, these changes are not long-term. If we want to see a shift in the organizational culture of SSMU, it is important for all members of the Society to encourage women, minorities, and previously uninvolved but skilled students to come to the table. Hiring decisions must prioritize candidates based on this goal. Individual leaders must take responsibility to seek out qualified individuals from outside the existing SSMU community. If SSMU wants to regain the trust of students, it must make itself accessible and transparent to students. It’s not enough to tell us to lean in or that SSMU cares about the students it has previously ignored or discarded. SSMU and the individuals that comprise its structures of power must be willing to make an effort to help students, especially women, who want to see positive change.

 

Connor Spencer, 2017-2018 SSMU VP External Affairs

How can SSMU regain students’ trust? It can’t. And it shouldn’t pretend to. Not in just one year.

In order to regain students’ trust, SSMU needs to create a new track record over many years that outweighs the current SSMU track record that has led to a culture of distrust among its members. That takes time. And one of the most important steps on this road will be the transition between the incoming and outgoing executive teams. The incoming team needs to prove that they will ensure that the incredibly important conversations and concerns that have been raised because of recent events on campus will continue into next year–even if the anger or urgency around the subject matter loses steam over the summer break.

SSMU has realized it has a whole lot of listening to do. It cannot continue to simply take positions or make statements. As part of its accountability process, SSMU needs to take steps to ensure that the proposed SSMU Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy, and the work that surrounds it, is as bottom-up as possible. The Society must support, advocate for, and listen to the grassroots groups that already exist on campus who have worked and will continue to work tirelessly around these issues, such as Silence is Violence, the Community Disclosure Network (CDN), the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), and Consent McGill–groups that are all primarily survivor-led. This is why it is incredibly important that SSMU is working with CDN, and that CDN is facilitating closed focus groups for members of the community that have experienced sexualized violence.

Beyond the creation of a Gendered and Sexualized Violence Policy, members of the incoming executive team must all take steps to ensure that there is as much communication between their offices and their members as possible. A lack of dissemination of information between offices was repeatedly highlighted as a problem throughout this year’s campaign period, and steps must be taken over the summer to make sure that better communication systems are in place by the time students return in September. I can only speak concretely to the actions that the External Office will take, such as collaboration with a campus newspaper on the creation of a small weekly section listing all upcoming events and demos relating to external affairs, and promotion of its Facebook page.

Working towards accessibility in these ways is only a part of many steps on the road to winning back the trust of the membership–and one that is easy for incoming executives to identify—as shown by how much it came up during campaigning. However, where the challenge comes will be in recognizing and validating steps that come from the student community  in addition to those from within the executives and our own platforms.

One can say that the incoming executive team has a lot to prove, but I’d rather say we have a lot to do. Just by looking at who was voted in, we can see that the membership was interested in seeing change. It’s up to the new team now to make sure that the change is not just symbolic, but lived within the work as well.

 

Maya Koparkar, 2017-2018 SSMU VP Internal Affairs

There's no denying that this year has been an incredibly tumultuous one for SSMU. However, I am incredibly excited to get to work with the rest of the new executive team. I believe that we all are more than passionate about working to re-establish the student body's trust in SSMU, and all intend to work hard to achieve this common objective. 

There are a couple different ways in which this can be accomplished. One of the easiest ways to start is by engaging directly with students and making ourselves, as an executive, more present within student body affairs and events that might not necessarily be a part of SSMU. A lot of people feel disconnected from SSMU simply because executives tend to not be the most visible. However, participating and attending different events, such as socials, performances, events, and the like–organized by departmental organizations, clubs, or committees–is a great way to make ourselves known and more relatable to the student body. It also sets the precedent that we are there to engage with students and hopefully by doing this we can open up the space for students to feel more camaraderie with SSMU. This camaraderie will hopefully allow students to feel comfortable enough to open up dialogues about SSMU affairs and increase participation as a result. At the end of the day, SSMU executives are also students, and I think this is a characteristic of the executive team that tends to be glossed over, but is actually quite an asset.

Beyond this, we also simply need to be the most competent executives we can be. Rebuilding trust with the student body means holding ourselves–and each other–to the highest standard of conduct, and being receptive to feedback from our peers. We also need to be proactive about implementing methods to approach problems within the executive team should they occur. I believe this is something each of the incoming executives are more than aware of, and making sure we have those conversations as soon as possible is definitely a priority.

Finally, rebuilding trust with our student body starts with maintaining trust within the executive team. We need to be able to trust each other before we are able to move forward in reconciling this organization with our peers. If we cannot put our faith in one another–not just to do our jobs well, but also to hold one another accountable–it makes for an unstable foundation for the rest of the student body to put their faith in. That being said, I am looking forward to working with the rest of the incoming executives in the months ahead. We have already had many chances to come together and discuss our various beliefs and objectives for this year. Rebuilding trust is at the top of the agenda for all of us, and I believe that with diligent effort from all of us, we can show the student body that we are committed to achieving this goal.

 

Muna Tojiboeva, 2017-2018 SSMU President

Trust in SSMU is at an all-time low following several scandals and a multitude of student representative resignations. These scandals and resignations are illustrative of deep-rooted institutional failures within SSMU. However, students have not trusted their student society for quite some time now–it is not an entirely new phenomenon. It becomes especially clear that distrust for SSMU has been steadily growing if we look at the constantly decreasing voter turnout as well as the alarming number of abstentions in SSMU elections and referendums.  

Nevertheless, many lessons can be learned by looking back at this past year in order to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated in the future and to improve SSMU’s ability to serve McGill students.

First, we need to implement concrete action policies, such as the Sexual Violence Policy, since this year’s disastrous handling of scandals illustrated that one should not rely solely on executive leadership.

Additionally, I think it is up to the executive team to ensure that students understand all the terminology that SSMU employs in its communications with constituents. For example, clarifying what “gendered violence” means would be a good idea since most people I have talked to are unsure about what ‘gendered violence’ means in the SSMU context and are afraid to mention this in conversation for fear of being embarrassed.

Another good step, mentioned to me by a fellow student, is publishing a clear set of guidelines online for what one ought to do in a situation when someone discloses an instance of sexual assault or gendered violence. This way, students and student groups on campus can have a clear, step-by-step action guide that they can consult and follow if necessary.

This also brings me to my next point: Information on the SSMU website should be easily accessible and comprehensive. It is not the case right now and needs to be adapted as soon as possible. Without making information accessible to students, SSMU cannot regain their trust. A good first step in regaining students’ trust would be to start publishing governance documents online–for instance, none of the BoD meetings minutes are currently published on the SSMU website.

Furthermore,  SSMU suffers from a severe accessibility problem that urgently needs to be addressed. SSMU is simply not accessible to the average McGill student because, in order to actually understand what SSMU does, how it can be useful, and how it can make their McGill experience more enjoyable, most students have to spend a lot of time and energy navigating a poorly updated website and a convoluted bureaucratic system.

We should employ SSMU’s vast resources in order to facilitate students’ experiences: McGill’s bureaucracy is already complicated as it is–there’s no need to have a second complicated SSMU-reaucracy system.

I realize that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I am looking forward to making SSMU an institution that all McGill students can be proud of, fulfilling all of my campaign promises, and bringing McGill back into the national news for all the right reasons.

 

Elaine Patterson, 2016-2017 SSMU VP Student Life and Acting President

Before I had the opportunity to work at SSMU, I knew very little about the organization and the scope of what it offered to students. Thousands of undergraduates are involved in student groups that fall under SSMU’s umbrella, but that’s likely the extent of their knowledge of the society. I can’t say I blame them: Why should anyone need to know more about what SSMU has to offer?

But, as per the preamble of our constitution, the three pillars of SSMU are service, representation, and leadership. I prefer to look at these pillars as more of a foundation for the organization–fundamentally, these three things should encompass most of what SSMU does. So, in an effort to regain students’ trust, I think it’s necessary that SSMU restabilize its foundation.

The range of services that SSMU provides is what most students recognize. From room bookings to a student bar to safety resources, such as Walksafe, Drivesafe, M-SERT, and more, there’s a lot that SSMU offers to its members. Perhaps SSMU needs to revisit how it advertises and offers these services to students to ensure that they’re being used and accessed to their fullest extent.

In terms of representation this year, I think many members of the society were failed by SSMU. Our team of elected student representatives was largely white, male-dominated, and lacked a diverse set of viewpoints. McGill boasts one of the most international campuses in Canada, and it’s a shame that this year’s executive team was unrepresentative of its student population. However, the incoming team of executives better mirrors this diversity, so I hope that students can trust that they will be better represented in the 2017-2018 academic year.

Finally, I want to encourage the incoming executives to strive to be the best leaders that they can be. I think that students underestimate the value of leadership when voting for their representatives; people tend to pay more attention to the tangible changes or initiatives candidates lay out in their platforms. But, if there’s one thing I have learned thus far in my term as an executive, it’s that things like leadership and communication are necessary skills for any position of responsibility. With those fundamentals, learning about the individual portfolios will come in time.

Although it won’t happen overnight, I think by continuing to offer necessary services to students, being more representative of the student body, and by demonstrating quality leadership skills, the SSMU can work to regain students’ trust.

 

Anuradha Mallik, 2017-2018 SSMU VP Sustainability & Operations

I ran for the position of SSMU VP Sustainability and Operations because I wanted to help return the society to its roots as an organization built to serve its constituents. I have seen what SSMU has been through over the last few years, and I stand in solidarity with the students that have been affected by its tumultuous history. Students at McGill have lacked faith in SSMU and its ability to represent the McGill population; it has only entered the public consciousness of the university whenever controversy arises, and that is something that needs to change.

As a newly elected Executive, it is my responsibility to start changing the conversation around our student society; I believe a big part of that is engaging more personally with the general student population. Being more comfortable with the student body would help ensure the student body is more comfortable with their representatives, and having a larger presence on campus would contribute to this. Whether that means being present at SSMU events, or having a “Meet the Executives” table or event at the beginning of the year, there are multiple avenues that are, as of yet, unexplored.

Communication has to be bidirectional between SSMU and the student body. Having open forums of communication and consistent feedback methods would allow executives to remain aware and in touch with the needs and desires of the constituents, and make sure students know they are heard. As executives we represent the population, and we must allow their voices to be heard. Publicizing office hours and expanding the use of feedback forms would allow a constant channel of communication and enable better dialogue between us and the students that we serve.

 

Jemark Earle, 2017-2018 SSMU VP Student Life

I, like a significant number of McGill students, have difficulty putting my trust in others. I have been hurt and taken advantage of time and time again. Because of my experiences, I am empathetic to the general feelings students have towards SSMU and I stand in solidarity with all of you whose trust and faith in SSMU has been lost. This year, I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian Conference on Student Leadership. The trustworthiness of student leaders was a recurring theme at this conference, and I wanted to share a quote I heard that resonated with me:

"Trust is about giving people the ability to believe they can achieve your goal. Not thinking that they will do what you want them to.”

Regaining trust in SSMU will not be easy. It is not something that can happen in a day, in a month, or even in a year. The members of SSMU have been hurt. They need time to heal. It is our duty, as the incoming executive team, to create and foster a space where they can do this.

I believe that all of our incoming executives have wonderful ideas on how we can create this space. By collaborating with one another, I am confident that we will be able to achieve this goal.

First, we SSMU executives need to do a better job familiarizing ourselves with our constituents. This can take many forms, such as meet and greets, livestreams, appearances at campus events, or increased communication with campus media.

Second, there has been a lot of talk about adopting a policy that holds student executives accountable for their actions. While a policy adopted specifically for executives would ensure the accountability of their actions, executives should be held to the same standards as the rest of the student body. SSMU should ensure that there are no policy grey areas or loopholes that executives can use to avoid being responsible and accountable for their actions.

Third, we must continue to increase awareness on what exactly SSMU does, through some of the means of communication mentioned earlier.

Lastly, SSMU needs to encourage student involvement. Without the engagement of the student body, SSMU can only do what it thinks will help students. The executive consists of only seven members; without the student body, there would SSMU would not exist. Both parties need to be proactive in engaging with one another to find out what is needed, and what can be done. We have a long road ahead of us in reestablishing trust. The members of SSMU voted in an executive team for 2017-2018 that I am confident will begin this process. 


 

David Naftulin, Arts Student

SSMU has a credibility problem. Plagued by scandals and fixated on dangerously divisive issues, SSMU has had a rough couple of years. But with a new year ahead and a new crop of leaders, change is possible. If SSMU follows its own constitution, holds its leaders properly accountable, and once again becomes inclusive for all of its students, then it can begin the process of regaining the trust of the student body.

Recent shockwaves spread through campus as two SSMU executives, former VP External David Aird and former president Ben Ger, resigned from their positions because of issues surrounding sexual and gendered violence. Further allegations that SSMU had attempted to deal with Aird’s behavior internally, instead of reporting it to the necessary authorities, certainly did not help. This incident left students seeing SSMU as an unaccountable and unrepresentative organization that does not look out for the safety of the student body or the ethics of its leaders.

Yet SSMU compromised the trust of some students even prior to these allegations, through its inadequate response to Arts Representative to SSMU Igor Sadikov tweeting "punch a zionist [sic] today,” on Feb. 6. I attended the ensuing SSMU Council meeting on Feb. 9, outraged by the tweet and ready to voice my opinion. When questions from the gallery began, I was disappointed with how SSMU handled the session, which deteriorated from a discussion on the issue of student safety to the singling out of the only Zionist councillor for her beliefs. If SSMU wants to regain the trust of students that were harmed by Sadikov’s tweet, it must improve its response to instances of such divisive and alienating rhetoric.

Just as disheartening, votes held by both the SSMU Board of Directors and the Arts Undergraduate Society failed to impeach Sadikov. Although Sadikov eventually resigned from his positions, this was not until after intervention from the McGill Administration and allegations arose of Sadikov’s emotional abuse of an ex-partner. Thus, for the mainstream Jewish community and its allies, SSMU has come to represent alienation and division on campus.

SSMU’s loss of credibility and its recent history of failing to represent its constituents, does not have to be permanent. The recent landslide election of Muna Tojiboeva as SSMU President, who campaigned on a platform of cleaning up SSMU, is an encouraging start; however, Tojiboeva and the rest of the incoming executive team enter SSMU with a hard job ahead. SSMU must abide by its own constitution, stay away from divisive and alienating politics, and must promptly and swiftly respond when their executives violate either Canadian law, SSMU’s constitution, or both. Actions, not words, are what will matter going forward. Only when they do this can students place trust in SSMU’s leadership again.

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