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SUDS CONFERENCE – JULY 2003: Report from the 2003 Students Union Development Symposium:

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Perhaps I spoke too soon:

Two weeks ago I wrote an editorial discussing the recent speech by AU President Dominique Abrioux to the students of Athabasca University. While I lauded the participation of Dr. Abrioux and his willingness to speak with students directly [which was probably a ridiculous statement on my part, as I’ll explain later on], I also expressed frustration that in the past The Voice has had no written statements from AU on issues of importance to students.

This is true, but perhaps I was remiss in not being more aggressive in trying to obtain these items.

I’ll be honest; I wimped out.

It’s not like me to do that, as anyone who knows me can attest [or at least I hope so!]. If anything, I think some might accuse me of being over-assertive on many issues. It’s a trait that not everyone likes [especially if you are female – I live in the real world], but one that serves me well as editor of this paper and as a self-employed individual.

So, I have had to ask myself, why have I been so reticent about directly contacting Dr. Abrioux for a statement? I can think of a number of reasons:

First, there is the reputation of The Voice. While our paper has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity with student readers – most likely the all time high was when we were a print publication mailed to students’ homes, and the low, I suspect, came just after the move to online, when no one knew about us – it has also, supposedly, engendered varying degrees of respect from AU itself.

I have to be honest and say that I have no first-hand information about the administrative history of our paper, other than what is found in the archives themselves, but I have certainly heard a number of tales about past conflict between the university and The Voice. Conflict which was said to stem from irresponsible and misleading reporting by past Voice writers and editors. These tales made me nervous, and I think that I often approached AU administration with a sense of trepidation. I wondered, “Is this one of the people who had problems with The Voice?”

One of the supposed results of this conflict was that AU stopped sending The Voice information regarding new courses, job postings, program updates, and other university news of interest to students. Instead, AU opted to begin printing their own paper, AU World, which until last year was mailed to all students a couple of times a year. The change, I have heard, was a result of university disappointment with how their content was being handled by The Voice.

I’ve been very cognizant of this fact since I began with The Voice, because I know that readers have a keen interest in seeing more university information in our paper. The feeling was that I should tread carefully, in order to rebuild the damaged relationships with AU and perhaps gain the ability to start printing more university news now that AU World appears to have been abandoned.

Imagine my surprise when I did make a few inquiries, and found that a) no one I spoke with at AU is aware of any problems, or of any instances where AU had trouble with anything The Voice printed, and b) that it was the previous AUSU council which, in attempting to establish a arms-length relationship with AU, asked that the University publish their own newsletter rather than use The Voice to print announcements.

While I certainly understand and applaud the desire to establish a more independent SU, a move to not print AU notices in The Voice is nonsensical. Certainly printing this type of information is less of a favour to the university than it is a valuable service to students. I have since been in contact with a number of AU departments and I hope to be able to bring readers more notices from the university in the future. I am aware that students are especially interested to know about job and research opportunities, and new course and program announcements, and I hope to include more of this information very soon.

Another factor that has limited my interaction with the university has been my past relationship with AUSU. One of the first things I learned when I joined the union was that strife within previous councils have lowered the respect that the university had for the students union, and that as a result, a positive relationship would have to be rebuilt. Sound familiar?

I’ve always been careful not to discuss union issues within The Voice, however I have to say that council decisions are often strongly tempered by a desire to rebuild the relationship with AU. I’m not saying that decisions are made on this basis – just that it always seems to come up as a factor. During my time on council I was very frequently reminded to tread carefully when dealing with AU and that any positive relationship that could be built with the university would be an important step toward rebuilding respect toward the union. While I think that the union has been very conscientious in trying to maintain a good relationship with students and the university, and in balancing its ethical responsibilities, in retrospect I realize that I developed a great deal nervousness about dealing with the university. This nervousness was only enhanced when any positive dealings with the university would be lauded as a ‘breakthrough’ in our relationship.

I am now coming to realize that this hyper-awareness of how AU views AUSU places an enormous burden on those relationships. When I would approach university staff on behalf of the union – and now on behalf of The Voice – I realized that I would bring that concern with me, like a heavy cloud ready to blacken at the slightest sign of disagreement. This cloud was with me in all my early dealings with the AU publicity department, when in retrospect I’ve never seen any evidence of reluctance to speak with students, The Voice, or council, and I’ve had nothing but delightful and positive experiences with those people, who seem to have a lot of fun with their jobs.

When a person is overwhelmed by doubts and worries about what others think of them, it is considered a sign of low self-esteem. I wonder, then, if an entire organization can become imbued with low self esteem? I think they can, and I think it’s detrimental in ways you do not realize until you move on. In reality, I now believe that the AU staff I have dealt with have been entirely unaware of most of this supposed negativity, and that the worries were in my head, and my head alone. Why are these worries so dominant in AUSU, then? I don’t know where they started, but they are always there – lurking quietly under the chairs.

While I remain respectful of this current AUSU council, what they stand for, how much they have accomplished in such a short time [the record will speak for itself once this council moves on], after long consideration I have to suggest that this assumed negative attitude toward AUSU may have never existed, and to therefore be constantly concerned about rebuilding something which was possibly never broken, places an enormous burden on the council when being a council member is already a very difficult job. It is also irrelevant.

I, for one, wish to wipe the slate clean and no longer approach anyone at the University with a sense that there may be negative feelings, or that the building of a positive relationship is of paramount importance. Getting the work done – that’s what matters. Of course I wish to have positive dealings with everyone that I encounter my job, that goes without saying. To place additional weight on these interactions, though, leads undue tension, and I think all of council should ask whether these concerns are in any way beneficial to themselves as persons or councillors.

Among the people that I’ve spoken with at AU, I had a chat with Dr. Abrioux himself. He, in fact contacted me in response to my editorial of two weeks ago. In his reply, he asked me why, if I had been wanting written statements from the university, I had not called him and asked.

It is a fair and obvious question, but also a loaded one. There are a number of reasons why I didn’t call Dr. Abrioux directly. For one thing, in most large institutions and corporations the publicity department handles all public statements. I check the AU website for press releases very frequently, and I’m often in contact with the publicity department, who are very helpful.

Second, while I was able to obtain Dr. Abrioux’s direct e-mail address quite easily, I have always been respectful of the chain of command in using proper channels to contact people. I felt that just dropping him an email without setting up a formal interview would be rather cheeky. My bad.

Dr. Abrioux has affirmed that he reads all his e-mail himself, and welcomes questions from students. I’m sure, however, that he’d prefer not to be contacted if you received the wrong book with your course, or if your AU sweatshirt does not fit. Fortunately there are people who deal with those things too.

I took Dr. Abrioux up on his offer, and contacted him to establish better ways of communicating in the future. I must say that I found Dr. Abrioux extremely approachable, easy to speak with, and very willing to discuss the issues. I still believe that Athabasca university should use its public relations department more effectively to inform students on important issues and changes to policy rather than waiting until there are direct request made. However, when those statements were not available, I am remiss in assuming that AU does not wish to make such statements. There are a couple of reasons I jumped to this conclusion, which are council business and I won’t discuss them here, but nevertheless, I stand corrected.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would like to say that I continue to have questions and concerns about statements made by Dr. Abrioux regarding the tuition deregulation issue, among others, and I will question those within The Voice whenever I feel appropriate. My talks with AU staff have indicated that they are a professional bunch, and they understand and expect this. This should go without saying, but at AU sometimes it needs to be said.

I have chosen not to directly comment on Dr. Abrioux’s statements regarding tuition deregulation for distance education courses, at least not at this time. Instead, I have just posted the mp3 files and transcripts of Dr. Abrioux’s address to the students (http://www.ausu.org/multimedia) on the AUSU website, as per an earlier arrangement with AUSU, and I would urge all AU students to at least browse the transcripts and become more informed on this important issue. And if you do, please send your comments to The Voice for inclusion in an upcoming Sounding Off column where I will print students’ responses to Dr. Abrioux’s comments.

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief

Finally, for those who could not make it to the AUSU council meeting where AU president Dominique Abrioux addressed the students with AU’s perspective on the new Alberta tuition fee policy, the files are online. You can listen to Dr. Abroiux’s address via some rather rough sounding but decipherable mp3 files, or you can read the transcripts I spent the last week typing up for your illumination!

Better yet, use both and learn more than you ever wanted to know about tuition deregulation for distance education courses. This is without doubt the biggest issue facing AU students today, and probably in the past several years. Don’t be left in the dark – learn more, and gain some insight into what the future might hold for AUSU.

The files, plus some supporting documentation provided by Dr. Abrioux, can be found on the AUSU website, here: http://www.ausu.org/multimedia

Once you listen to or read transcripts of the speech, send your comments to The Voice for inclusion in an upcoming Sounding Off column where I will print students’ responses to Dr. Abrioux’s comments.


See this issue for full details of the first Voice writing contest. Good luck to all entrants. Please ensure that you differentiate between items submitted for the contest, and those submitted for immediate publication!


The Voice fiction feature has become popular, but submissions have been slow. Send us your best fiction today, and it might become our next feature.


The Voice needs some new Voices! We know you have plenty to say, so why not get paid for it. Send us a writing sample or article for submission and you might be published in an upcoming issue. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it pays. Contact voice@ausu.org for more details.

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