Student leaders should speak for themselves

Opinion by
McGill Tribune

Queen’s University students are set to vote on a referendum question which would recommend to the university council that it move to impeach Nick Day, the university’s elected rector. Day—whose position is the third highest in the university and is mandated to represent students—drew national attention last week when he posted a note on Rabble.ca criticizing Michael Ignatieff for condemning Israel Apartheid Week. Day wrote: “I was elected to represent the approximately 20,000 students of Queen’s University. If I ever used the influence of my office and the power of my public voice, as you have, to insulate from criticism the perpetrator of a mass-slaughter, I would have a very difficult time sleeping at night.” Controversially, he signed the letter as “Nick Day, Rector, Queen’s University.”

While it seems true that, as Day later contested, he never claimed to be speaking for his 20,000 Queen’s constituents, it is obvious that by signing the letter with his position he sought to add more authority to his views than merely writing his name would have gotten him. It is common practice to assume that a letter invoking someone’s position means they are writing in that specific capacity, and not as a mere layperson. Queen’s students are appropriately upset about Day’s mistake.

It is important, in light of the controversial nature of the topic, to be clear about what is at issue. Everyone is free to agree or disagree with the stance Day took in supporting Israel Apartheid Week; the more important discussion is about a student leader who used his position in a way he was not elected to do. We have seen this at McGill recently, too, when Students’ Society President Zach Newburgh sent emails from his president account to make contacts with other student leaders regarding Jobbook.com. Both Newburgh and Day made errors in judgment. The Tribune believes it is inappropriate for student leaders to use their positions of authority for advocating on issues not directly related to student life and on which it is far from clear they have a mandate from students to speak on their behalf. If Day wanted to invoke his position in the online letter, he should have made it clear that he was speaking for himself only. Student leaders are elected to speak for students in a certain context; the Day controversy shows that when leaders exit that context, they need to be especially clear who they are representing and how.

Day published a statement in the Queen’s Journal this weekend arguing that one of the duties of the rector is to “foster academic dialogue” among Queen’s students, and that his publishing the letter falls under this category. This is a gross misinterpretation of why people are upset. Day needs to apologize for abusing his title. If he continues to insist, as he did in the Journal article, on his erroneous conception of the duties of a student leader, the referendum question urging university council to impeach might not be such a bad idea.