Overworked and underpaid: Executive dysfunction in student government

On Feb. 25, Sophia Esterle, Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President  (VP) Student Life announced that she would be taking time off for an indefinite period due to immense emotional and physical burnout. Similarly, VP External Marina Cupido resigned in Sept. 2018 citing mental health concerns while in office. In Dec. 2018, Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) External Affairs Officer Hocine Slimani left his position as well. With executive elections fast approaching, student societies need to confront that burnout is inherent to a flawed structure. Underpaid and overworked executives are physically and emotionally unable to fully carry out all of the tasks in their portfolios or campaign promises—healthier systems of labour will only strengthen the work that SSMU and PGSS are already doing.

Students often underestimate the significant roles that student society executives play on campus. While executives garner unwanted attention during times of controversy, much of their job is mundane. Besides being responsible for facilitating many day-to-day operations, such as the SSMU Daycare and tutoring services, executives often handle multiple large-scale projects at a time. On paper, the job is a 40 hour a week commitment, but, in practice, that number can stretch to anywhere from 60 to 90 hours. For the amount of work executives do, they are grossly underpaid. For instance, as of 2016, SSMU executives are some of the lowest paid in Canada, making roughly $6,000 less than the $35,000 per-year average for Canadian student association executives at the time.

Institutional structures are part of the reason why executives are overworked: A small group of elected representatives come into year-long terms with multi-year goals. These representatives are tasked with handling budgets of over $1 million, running multiple businesses such as SSMU’s MiniCourses, and lobbying governments, all while completing their degrees. PGSS officers juggle additional academic responsibilities, such as holding teaching positions and conducting research.

When it comes to advocating for campus reform, administrative change at McGill often happens too slowly for an executive to see the results of their efforts during their term. What students may see as a failure to achieve campaign promises may be indicative of something more concerning: McGill’s current bureaucratic administrative structure makes achieving their goals almost impossible.

A lack of institutional memory contributes to these structural issues, as well. Previous and newly-elected executives’ terms overlap for a month in May, but this is hardly enough time for new executives to fully grasp all of the responsibilities of their roles. Student societies should consider creating more administrative full-time positions or extending elected terms to have more overlap. Additionally, student societies should hire more students and non-students to aide executives, taking over their more mundane, but time-consuming tasks, such as email correspondences.  

SSMU and PGSS serve indispensable roles on campus by supporting and advocating for students. General Elections are approaching soon, but student engagement and voter turnout continue to be low; in previous years, most candidates ran uncontested. Currently, there are only four candidates running for PGSS’s six executive positions. Assuming a more reasonable workload would likely help address the problem of uncontested executive elections, as well. There has been momentum toward reforming aspects of SSMU through a governance reform committee, and it is crucial that these efforts be sustained. Student societies need good executives to continue, improve upon, and create new tasks and projects: Making their jobs less grueling is a first step to keeping them around.

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