From My Perspective – Student Unions

During the last week there have been several interesting union-related activities in Edmonton. As president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union, I always look for relevance to the role I play in these types of events, hoping to learn from the process.

The first activity that came to my attention was related to an Edmonton Journal article on November 10, 2003; entitled, “New style leaders spring up in schools.” Several Edmonton high schools have adopted a “new structure of student councils'” based on an egalitarian leadership model. Student council elections have been eliminated. Instead, a team of teachers choose the “best school representatives – not necessarily the most popular or outgoing – to run the union.” The idea is built on the stated notion that student council elections often result in “class clowns” running for office, elected on the strength of a popularity campaign. Once elected, the unexpected level of responsibility results in “slackers” instead of the “loyal and qualified” students needed who will get the job done.

Under this new system of teacher-chosen representatives, “quieter and shyer students have become involved,” who are apparently more “committed and dedicated,” and “believe in” what they do. Some schools are using an egalitarian model which “brings out leadership in everyone on student council, not just a chosen few,” by making all council members equal, with no leaders. Others are using a variation which allows students to apply for council positions, then once they are selected by teachers, they are elected for executive positions from among the group. One of the first schools to embark on this project was the Victoria Arts School, where the assistant principal has made the observation that the new consensus model “takes longer to make decisions,” but has given a “new voice to many young people.”

My first response on reading this was one of disbelief, then one of deep disappointment. Not only are young people being deprived of the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights, but an essential learning process is being circumvented. I was particularly disappointed that Victoria School would be taking the lead in this process. The Victoria Arts School is a progressive and reputable institution that converted a tough inner-city school into one that provides arts-based instruction from kindergarten to Grade 12. Victoria school is a model of egalitarianism among students – how one dresses, sexual orientation, family or socio-economic origin – none of them make much difference to the students or teachers at Victoria school. Teachers take a keen interest in students; and arts, theatre, dance, drama and music training are considered equally as important as math, science and social studies. I was so impressed with the school that I chose it for my daughters. Anytime we were involved in school activities, I was always bemused by the diversity of expression I would see – hair of every hue and style; crazy and wonderful clothing ranging from staid to dramatic or witchy; and behaviour that could go from quiet and serious to wild, crazy and joyously off-the-wall.

Yet this same school that is a celebration of individualism and diversity has now taken the lead in embracing a student union representation model that removes student rights to choose their leaders in favour of totalitarianism!

There are several underlying assumptions that really disturb me about the whole thing, beginning with the loss of democratic process. First of all, where do students have their first opportunity to learn about the election process before they are of legal voting age, if not at school? Where else do students learn about, and have the chance to participate in, an election campaign in which they each can cast a vote for the winner? Where do students learn the lesson that voting is “both a right and an obligation,” and “you get the government you deserve?” Many of the principles of democracy are taught to students through the student council election process. In the real world, if we don’t vote, or if we vote based on popularity or looks (and yes, we do elect our leaders on this criteria!) – who do we have to blame afterwards? This is a valuable lesson that is being lost amongst the schools who have adopted this undemocratic model.

In a November 15 letter to the editor, one Journal reader made the observation that “taking the right to choose student politicians away from students and giving it to teachers is not egalitarian leadership; it is disenfranchisement.” For many years, women were denied the right to vote, since they were considered too foolish, simple, or uninformed to be able to make a capable decision. A system that allows teachers to choose leaders on behalf of students makes the same implications – that high school students are too immature, and/or incapable of making a responsible voting choice.

Teaching young people that they need adults to make an informed vote on their behalf also reinforces the idea that voting is not important. Far too many 18-24 year olds do not exercise their democratic right to vote. At the last federal election, overall voter turnout was 64 percent – but 75 percent of 18-24 year-olds DID NOT VOTE! Young people often state that they don’t go to the polls since they don’t think it will make a difference anyway. To have that lesson reinforced in high school by being taught that students are not capable of making an informed decision on behalf of the student body – I can only begin to imagine how much damage that could do to the future voting motivations of these young people. Certainly there is no justification to disenfranchise everyone, simply because the majority choose not to vote.

Another area of concern is the criteria being used by teachers to choose student representatives. The system is supposed to eliminate the “popular” or “outgoing” in favour of the “quieter and shyer” students. The assumption that quiet and shy people are more loyal, qualified, and dedicated than popular and outgoing ones is absolutely appalling as far as I’m concerned. Being a student leader – indeed, being a leader of any kind – requires that one be outgoing and somewhat aggressive. How effective is a quiet and shy person in going up against opposition? Or in being fearless in speaking out on behalf of others? Certainly one does not have to be popular to be an effective leader, but often popularity is an important part of being able to get the job done and overcoming the apathy of the masses. Sometimes the most beneficial political change has resulted from a person who is not afraid to stand out from the crowd to take an unpopular or different decision. Equally appalling is the notion that someone who is popular or outgoing is not committed or dedicated. Just because you are a class clown or popular – does this mean you can not be an effective leader?

One Journal letter writer stated it well; “productive citizens must have the ability and willingness to question authority; allowing authority to choose one’s leaders is not conducive to that goal.” Allowing teachers to choose student leaders simply reinforces the hierarchy, and is totalitarianism at its worst. It begs the question – if teachers choose the student representatives, who will these representatives really be representing?

In some of these systems, current council members are allowed to choose their successors – which is another troubling implication. One issue that has come up within AUSU is the notion of “succession planning.” This is the idea that those of us who are experienced on Council can use the benefit of our experience to help choose future leaders. This can be a good idea, since there is certainly no substitute for on-the-job experience. But there is a potential for abuse if individual council members use their position to advocate for friends or relatives as upcoming council members. One teacher likened this to the “inbreeding of the French kings in pre-revolutionary France.”

Even if not abused, an endorsement from outgoing student council members is not always the best indicator of good potential either – and this is also true of “real world” politics. If a council member is highly committed to a particular style of leadership or certain goals – they may support others who also subscribe to the same philosophy. But sometimes a student population (indeed any population) wants change rather than continuation of the status quo. In the appointment system being used by these high schools, this option is being removed. Certainly there is nothing wrong with a teacher or council member encouraging an individual to run for council if they see good leadership potential; but this can be done without destroying the democratic process.

I put my own experience into the picture here. In junior high and high school I was one of the quiet and shy, and I was not popular or outgoing. Although I always rated high on leadership scales in my report card, as a teenager I had not yet developed the kind of qualities needed to lead a student political organization. Now, as president of AUSU, I clearly see the importance of certain qualities in a student leader, and being quiet and shy are not necessarily among them. During the next few weeks I will be sharing with Voice readers my observations about student unions and similar representative groups, as well as my own experiences as president of AUSU, and what kinds of things I have learned to be important in overseeing a successful and democratic student union. These things, of course, are based on my own experience – and another student leader might be equally effective taking a very different approach. One thing, however, that I believe all of us student leaders would agree upon – we want to be elected democratically by the students we represent.

In a few months AU students will have the opportunity to go to the polls and elect a new set of representatives. Unlike the Edmonton high schools I’ve spoken about here, we have fortunately not had our democratic right removed. But it is also incumbent upon each of us to make an informed choice – otherwise we will “get the government we deserve”.

Next week I’ll take a look at another “unionized” group at the opposite end of the spectrum – a group of Alberta seniors who have run into their own set of problems with democracy.

“New style leaders spring up in schools: Student councils dump presidents in favour of equality” Jodie Sinnema, [The Edmonton Journal, November 10, 2003.

“Poor training for democracy.” Edmonton Journal, Wednesday, November 12, 2003.

Letters to the Editor, Edmonton Journal: “Let students choose their leaders,” November 13, 2003; “Students need democracy”, November 15, 2003.