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Separating criticism from cynicism when evaluating McGill’s student leaders

Editorial/Opinion by

Often, students at McGill regard the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) as an inefficient, incompetent, and divisive organization. Some of these perceptions are reasonably grounded in SSMU executives’ past mistakes. Last February, campus was rocked by Vice-President (VP) External David Aird’s resignation, following a statement released by the Community Disclosure Network (CDN) alleging that Aird had committed acts of sexual violence against members of the McGill community.

Since then, among other SSMU and faculty counsellor resignations, two more SSMU executives resigned: Last year’s President Ben Ger left his post in March 2017, and VP Operations and Sustainability Anuradha Mallik resigned this past August, leaving the SSMU executive team with a vacancy at the start of the academic year. SSMU executives’ recent history of resigning mid-term is a valid cause for student distrust of their government. Still, as McGill enters a new school year, it is critical that McGill students examine the source of their skepticism toward SSMU, and recognize the value of the work being done by student leaders. Further, students must be cautious not to hold grudges from past institutional and personal failures against the new set of SSMU executives. Unfounded aversion to SSMU threatens the well-being of the organization by creating an atmosphere where overburdened leaders do not feel supported by their constituents.

A properly functioning SSMU is essential to the McGill community. It is an independent body completely separate from the McGill administration that operates as a critical advocate and provider for students’ needs and interests. While the relevant personal dramas of SSMU executives tend to dominate campus dialogues, the day-to-day responsibilities of leaders and the index of services provided by the society are much less discussed, and even taken for granted.

Without SSMU and its elected executives, students would lose many services fundamental to the well-being of their community. SSMU has ownership over students’ health and dental insurance plans, and runs a daycare for students and faculty in need of childcare. SSMU also provides employment for hundreds of students in a variety of positions throughout the organization. Further, it organizes a diverse range of MiniCourses—ranging from yoga, to languages, to creative writing—for students to inexpensively cultivate hobbies and learn skills that aren’t taught at McGill. SSMU also sponsors, supports, and provides space and services for hundreds of clubs and student organizations at McGill. Finally, it fully funds and administers 15 services—such as McGill Students’ Emergency Response Team (MSERT), McGill Nightline, the Peer Support Centre, Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS), Walksafe, and the Black Students’ Network—to name a few.

Next time they take a dig at SSMU, McGill students should question whether their disenchantment with SSMU is based on legitimate constructive criticism or whether it reflects cynicism of the institution itself.

These roles, diverse in character and makeup, are essential to our community: They make students feel safe, understood, and included, and more often than not, they fulfill needs and provide opportunities that the McGill administration does not.

This is as enormous of a task as it sounds. An hour log released by Kimber Bialik, VP Clubs and Services (now renamed VP Student Life) in 2015-2016, revealed that she often worked up to (and over) 100 hours per week to fulfill the requirements of her portfolio. While SSMU executives are paid a salary, it does not come close to adequate hourly compensation for the job. Furthermore, SSMU acts as an important advocate for student interests to the administration, with members sitting on the Senate, Board of Governors, and working groups in order to establish university policies for students’ benefits. One recent example is SSMU executives’ involvement in the creation of McGill’s Sexual Violence Policy in Fall 2016.

The historically low numbers of candidates for SSMU executive positions are unsurprising when considering the volume of the commitment coupled with the McGill community’s ingrained distaste toward the organization. In the 2017-2018 SSMU executive election, only two out of the seven available positions were contested. A diverse election process is key to effective leadership, and a climate of apathy and disillusionment discourages influential, capable leaders from stepping up. Putting one’s name on a ballot isn’t easy to begin with; faced with a perpetually disapproving constituency, this task becomes even more daunting. Normalizing minimal contestation of executive positions followed by mid-year resignations only further erodes the authenticity and legitimacy of the organization.

One glance at the extensive list of services that SSMU provides is enough for students to realize the necessity of student leaders. SSMU executives champion the interests of McGill students to the McGill administration. While it is essential for McGill students, media, campus groups, and other prominent actors to hold student representatives accountable and maintain reasonable expectations of them, it is equally important for the McGill community to recognize that SSMU executives are students, not seasoned politicians. Next time they take a dig at SSMU, McGill students should question whether their disenchantment with SSMU is based on legitimate constructive criticism or whether it reflects cynicism of the institution itself, cultivated by the missteps of former leaders. Yes, SSMU has high standards to achieve and a responsibility to students, but students also have a responsibility to SSMU: They must actively engage with student politics, afford leaders a clean slate when they are elected, and promote a positive political culture out of which they can begin their tenure.

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