In light of recent controversies over the degree to which the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) represents the student body, we asked several students for their opinions:
“How would you make SSMU a stronger representative body?”
Representation, the first pillar
Representation is one of the three pillars of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). Along with service and leadership, accounting for the thoughts and concerns of all undergraduate students is no simple task. That being said, there are some fundamental principles that make this process fairly straightforward, and its implementation is where things get tricky. There’s a reason why there is a proportionate number of representatives from each faculty, and it’s our hope as student representatives that the mechanisms in place can help facilitate two-way communication for a variety of purposes. It’s important we remember the two-way nature of this relationship—being a strong representative body means not only reaching out for input on issues when the student opinion needs to be gathered, but also facilitating open and free channels of communication for students to voice their concerns to us, especially on issues we may not be aware of.
When it comes to smaller faculties, there is generally higher success rates in terms of response rates to consultative efforts such as using surveys and forums because it is easier to access large fractions of the population. How to go about this when it comes to larger faculties, like Arts, is an ongoing discussion. With all the recent conversations surrounding SSMU’s leadership, I, along with other representatives, have been thinking more about how to connect with students. Whether that means navigating less conventional platforms like Facebook or holding more open forums on issues, we know that every voice is equally valuable. Despite often feeling overwhelmed with the apathy students show towards SSMU, it’s important to remember that the opinions of those who disagree with some of our values and structural intricacies hold just as much weight as those engaged more closely with SSMU. As a representative, it can seem despairing sometimes, especially when notions like that of SSMU promotions being an eyesore are expressed in tandem with complaints about how the society does not accurately serve its constituents. It is tempting to dismiss such ideas, given that they allow for little else to be done, but nonetheless, this opinion is as valid as any, so it’s important we listen to these comments as well.
The disconnect between much of the student population and SSMU is sometimes palpable, and it means that representatives have a lot of work to do in terms of better informing constituents of our activities, the structure of our work, and how their voices are our top priority. Students and student representatives alike need to work together to create positive change for the student body. That being said, this is a democracy, and we must represent the largest number of students in the decisions we make. The most important thing we need to work on right now—in terms of improving our representation and bridging the gap between dissatisfied students and SSMU—is to reach out to the students that don’t know what SSMU is and also to those who are disenchanted with the importance of SSMU as a whole. These are the opinions we are the least connected with, and once we have a more complete vision of what these students want, we can go from there. The possibilities for change are limitless, as long as those impacting it are our constituents. Letting our own personal views affect our decisions is unacceptable; instead, we need to improve communication before we can be fully satisfied with our capacity to accurately represent students.
Microphones, not megaphones
The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) representativeness is important because the association plays an important role for students by standing for their interests to McGill. The path to a more responsive SSMU lies in improving three ways in which SSMU interacts with the wider McGill student body
First, SSMU should aim to have as much participation in its decisions and operations from as diverse a portion of the student body as possible —the more minds working on a problem, the better the solution will be. For example, in my current role as an Arts Senator, I work with McGill on revising the Student Assessment Policy to ensure that such policies are fair. Changes to this policy could affect groups of students differently, so it’s important for me as an Arts student to hear what students from other faculties think about these potential revisions. Better decisions are made when more students are involved in making them. However, student politicians have to be realistic and recognize that between lectures, homework, part-time jobs, and ‘relaxing’ on weekends many students simply don’t have time to be involved in all decisions made by SSMU. Consequently, SSMU is a representative democracy, allowing elected representatives to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. However, the onus is on elected representatives to effectively communicate with students, both to ensure that representatives vote in tune with their constituents’ opinions and that the most divisive issues are left to direct democracy. Additionally, SSMU must always leave the door open to student participation so students can take part in whatever decisions they want.
Second, SSMU must diversify its methods of communication. Listservs alone just don’t cut it: SSMU needs to go to where students already are in order to reach them. This means using social media, tabling on campus, making class announcements, and more. Communicating this way will reach more students and give student representatives more complete information to work off of. This was useful when consulting with students about a food-and-noise policy the library was developing—a post on Spotted McGill received many comments from students on what they would and wouldn’t like to see in the policy. By using a variety of forums, SSMU will be able to reach a wider audience, achieve greater student participation in decision-making, and lead more students to use its services.
Third, SSMU should adopt an issues-based approach to communication. This would mean appealing to students’ opinions on specific issues, in addition to asking them to tell representatives what they think in general. Further, SSMU should give greater weight to student input so that students’ opinions lead to more tangible results. For example, under the Arts Undergraduate Society’s (AUS) participatory budgeting initiative, students can vote directly on what AUS funds should be used on. If a student’s vote has a tangible, meaningful impact, students will more likely be willing to voice their views.
Improving these three areas will lead to a student society that better represents McGill students. SSMU must have as much participation as possible in its decisions, and where extensive participation isn’t possible, representatives must consult with students. Further, the consultative communication must be widespread, specific, and succinct in order to be truly effective. To draw an imperfect metaphor, SSMU must act as not just a megaphone—broadcasting the decisions it is making and the issues it is looking at—but a microphone for students, which proactively looks into the student body to collect opinions and amplify all students’ voices. This would then enable students to be better represented by their student society, with better outcomes for all.
Clarity needed with SSMU’s role on external issues
In evaluating how representative a body is of its constituents, one must start by determining what is, or ought to be, the role of that body. For instance, a body with a strong activist role will require different representational mechanisms than a body with a purely representational function. It is also important to look further than merely into the formal structure of the body, and into the actual use that is made of its structures.
The whole backlash that ensued after the Fall 2014 General Assembly (GA) is symptomatic of an association whose role is ill-defined, or, rather, ill-understood by students. As proof, the question surrounding the situation in Israel-Palestine, which was substantive in nature, resulted in a mainly procedural debate on whether the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) should or even could take a position on such a divisive issue. The indefinite postponing of the motion seems to show that the student body—or at least a few hundred of its members—thought it better that SSMU should refrain from trying to take a position on such questions.
This result sparked anger throughout campus for many different and sometimes contradictory reasons. Some criticized the organization of the GA itself, denouncing the fact that many students were unable to attend or to vote. Others thought it outrageous that a small number of the students present at the assembly could silence a substantive debate about an issue that many hold close at heart. In most cases, anger seemed to stem from a lack of clarity as to SSMU’s role in these issues.
Had it been clear that the SSMU shouldn’t take stances on external questions, this controversy would not have happened. Had it been clear that SSMU should take external stances, some mechanisms ought to have been put in place to allow proper discussions to happen. The current ambiguity makes it harder for SSMU to create specific measures for such questions, forcing the body to resort to its usual governance mechanisms to discuss questions and issues which would warrant a different treatment, in that they are necessarily external to campus. In fact, such political questions should require extensive discussion and debating opportunities for all of the student body. Even so, it is a reality that many students won’t want to engage in these discussions. It goes also without saying that all students ought to have the possibility to formally vote on such questions, rather than merely ratifying GA decisions, as is presently the case.
On another note, it is important to acknowledge that SSMU’s governance is actually quite suited to represent students on issues that are not extremely contentious and external. There are several tiers of decision-making which allow elected and non-elected students from all faculties and schools to voice their opinion on almost any subject matter.
While SSMU is a strong representative body in many matters, it could undoubtedly devise new mechanisms and procedures to allow better debate and more adequate representation of its constituents when taking positions on contentious political issues. That being said, another discussion might even be held on whether we believe that SSMU, as an association with the primary goal of representing all students’ interests, be vested with the power to take stances on external issues which might inflame issues already divisive among its constituents. This question would, hopefully, make place for a constructive debate.