I’m not someone who plays the game of politics very well – and this may seem strange, considering I’ve been president of the student union for the past two and half years. In reality, however, “playing politics” can be very destructive to an organization, political or otherwise.
Student union elections tend to attract many different types of people. Some simply want to expand their university experience and serve other students. They want to make a difference, and may be very idealistic in their goals. Others see it as an important learning experience, a chance to learn about politics and government, a way to further develop leadership skills. These students bring positive and productive elements to a council group. While they are seeking personal growth through their involvement, they have a balanced viewpoint and place student interests first. They understand that “there is no ‘I’ in TEAM,” and do not take personal credit for accomplishments.
Unfortunately, there are other types of people also attracted to student council. These students see council as an opportunity to exert power and to play political games; a way to become important and influential outside of their very narrow real-life world. They seek personal aggrandizement and/or advancement of personal agendas, and they do not see the need to work within a team framework. Rather than providing a supportive environment for the group, they tear the group down.
During my term as president, I’ve worked with council members that fit virtually every description, and it has often been extremely challenging. In researching the history of AUSU Council earlier this year, I discovered that this is not something new. In the past, AUSU Council has often had difficulty maintaining a cohesive and productive group, and on several occasions has come very close to completely falling apart. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two key factors in preventing this from happening. One is the combination of personalities of individual councillors and their reasons for being on Council. The other is quality of leadership.
No one can lead in isolation, and the support of one’s executive and board is an essential component for success. As I observed last week, when Dr. Abrioux accepted his honourary degree from the Open University of UK, he stated that this honour really belonged to the AU university community as a whole, and he particularly thanked his executive for their support. AUSU Council is no different. I am proud of what we have accomplished as a group, and honoured to have been leader of that group.
There are many positives to “life at the top” as AUSU president. But there are also many negatives. If I were to describe the experience of being AUSU president in one word, that word would be, “lonely.” At any of the points where I have felt ready to resign, it was almost always because I was feeling completely alone and unappreciated.
To remain successful as president, support from one’s executive is required, as is respect from the rest of Council. Without this, the president feels even more alone, and this can hamper the ability to get the job done. As president, I’ve had to make many unpopular decisions, take responsibility when things go wrong, and bear the brunt of criticism. I try to lead by example, and this means that I’m under scrutiny all the time. If I do something wrong, I take responsibility – but if Council as a whole does something wrong – I also take responsibility. This can mean taking blame for something I am not responsible for and may not even be in agreement with – since I must present the opinion of the majority of Council in our actions, not just my own. As the “voice of Council” I have to be very careful what I say, and often am prevented from stating my own opinion. But I’ll expand more on the disadvantages of being president later.
The benefits of being president cannot be understated. I cannot think of a better way to develop leadership qualities, and as a learning experience it rates highly. I’ve learned how to write and interpret bylaws and policy, and I’ve learned board and university operations. Through networking, I’ve developed valuable and enduring contacts that will serve me well throughout my career. There is also a prestige factor. I’m not one to be pretentious or name-drop, and I rarely even use the title of president, unless on official business. But at certain times the recognition is enjoyable. I appreciated being invited to the alumni dinners last year and being introduced as a special guest who had worked hard on behalf of students. I also had the honour of being seated next to Lt. Gov Lois Hole at the AUGC December reception, in acknowledgement of my hard work as student advocate.
A Student Union president normally has a more public role with the politicians, but due to our smaller Council structure on AUSU I’ve not been able to spend the time I would have liked to in government lobbying. Much of my time has been taken up with administrative functioning, something which AUSU Council hopes to remedy now with the hiring of an executive director. Fortunately I’ve been able to rely on my hard-working VP External, Shirley Barg – who ensures that the politicians hear our voice. Even though I haven’t been able to spend time in the public eye like Shirley has, I’ve been able to take advantage of developing many government connections, and this is another benefit of my role as president.
I’ve had the opportunity to sit on many committees, such as Governing Council and Academic Council, learning the inside story on how the university operates. There have been past AUSU presidents who felt that sitting on AU committees was a waste of time and didn’t bother to attend – and I’m absolutely appalled at that attitude. I take great pride in my committee representation and have always done my very best. There are many AU committees, and it is not always easy to find Council members or students willing and able to sit on them. When a rep cannot be found, the job falls to me. So I have sat on committees such as SUP, AUGC, AUAC, Employment review, MSCHE, and more. I do my very best to properly represent students at each and every one of these committees. I’ve tried to ensure that I never miss a meeting, no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel. Sitting on committees is hard work, and I’ve often come out of a 3 hour AUGC Finance Committee or an 8 hour Strategic University Planning Committee feeling completely drained – yet still having to write a report to Council about the meeting!
My efforts have paid off, and the university has come to respect the voice AUSU brings through me to these committees. This was brought to my attention recently, in an incident that made me realize that my hard work is noticed by the university. As I was going out the door to make it to the Edmonton Learning Centre to teleconference to the last Academic Council (AUAC) meeting at 9:30 A.M., my pager went off for my “real” job. I called the AUSU office and had our Admin Assistant let AUAC know that I might not be able to make the meeting after all. I finally did manage to arrive an hour later, and as I entered the ELC, one of the new committee members said, “oh, you are Debbie? They were talking about you up in Athabasca during the first part of the meeting!” I asked what was said, and she said it was related to Bill 43 and tuition increases, and that someone had made the comment that “if Debbie were here at the meeting, she would say that tuition increases are not the solution!” It felt really good to have my voice at Academic Council acknowledged this way, and to know that even if I can’t be there, they know what I will say and hear the student voice I’ve brought to the committee in my absence!
At times I’ve made extraordinary efforts to attend the meetings. One such occasion was in March of this year. The week began on Tuesday, March 18, with the alumni dinner in Edmonton; and ended with an AUSU Council retreat on Sunday, March 23, in Canmore. This week was an important one at AU, since AUGC would make the yearly budget decision, including proposed tuition increases. Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances, our AUSU yearly retreat was scheduled the same weekend. Within AUSU Council we had some challenges that week as well. Our secretary-treasurer was facing a motion of removal at the March 20 Council meeting for failure to fulfill duties, and VP Shirley Barg was in Saskatchewan, having just lost her father. Only a few months earlier we had been forced to remove another Councillor due to policy violation and disruption of Council activities – a matter so serious that we decided it merited laying a charge of non-academic misconduct against this individual.
Shirley had been away for some time due to her father’s illness, and I was already exhausted from managing so much of the executive work by myself. A motion to remove someone from Council is a difficult and serious one, and as president, I was feeling the burden of the responsibility for this decision. I was also feeling increasingly alone.
In addition to the alumni dinner on Tuesday, I attended a cross-cultural committee meeting that afternoon at AU. Early Wednesday morning I made the three-hour drive to Calgary and spent the rest of the day at the CLC cleaning out old AUSU files and meeting with AU staff to negotiate some kind of AUSU presence in the Calgary office. That evening I attended the Calgary Alumni dinner, followed by an informal meeting with AU president and members of the AU executive. Thursday morning I drove to Canmore to meet with the rest of Council for our retreat. We had a Council meeting that evening. Two important agenda items were decided. One – we accepted the resignation of the Secretary-Treasurer and elected a replacement. Two – I presented to AUSU Council a budget proposal the university was hoping students would support. AU had received a sum of money from the Alberta government; and they wanted to use this money, in conjunction with a re-allocation of budget money that was intended to support multiple-course-takers; to reduce the out-of-province differential fee. Dr. Abrioux had approached me with this proposal at the Tuesday alumni dinner, and asked if we would consider this re-allocation of funds, taking into account the benefit that some 60% of our members living outside of Alberta would experience through a reduction in out-of-province fees.
I did not personally agree with the decision the majority of AUSU Council finally made on this matter, but when they asked me, as president and AUGC representative, to go to AUGC and present the majority opinion, I did as requested. What did this involve? I could not vote at AUGC unless I attended the meeting in person (the university paid my expenses to do so). So after the Council meeting ended at 10 P.M. Thursday, I slept for a few hours, then left Canmore at 3 A.M. Friday, driving back to Calgary to catch a flight to Edmonton. I arrived in Edmonton at 8:30 A.M., met with Dr. Abrioux, then attended the AUGC meeting itself until noon. I presented AUSU Council’s position on the budget and voted against it, as AUSU Council had directed me. After the meeting I drove back to the airport, flew back to Calgary, and drove back to Canmore – to rejoin the rest of Council by 6 P.M. that evening. One of the purposes of the yearly retreat is that Council members have an opportunity to rest and regroup while making plans for the upcoming year. Everyone else at the retreat had spent a relaxing day and were ready to get to work – so even though I wanted nothing more than sleep – I spent the rest of the evening and the next day working on AUSU projects before finally returning home on Sunday.
In retrospect, I realize that what I did went far above and beyond the “call of duty.” But at the time it just seemed that I was fulfilling my responsibilities as president.
I did the same a little more than a month later, in May, when I drove all night from Regina, Saskatchewan, to be at a CAUS meeting in Nordegg (near Red Deer, AB). This was an important meeting, since AUSU VP Shirley Barg was running for CAUS chair. My attendance was required, so that I could vote on behalf of AUSU, and so that I could reassure the other schools that as AUSU president, I would support Shirley in the role if she were elected CAUS chair. I had been trying to finish my coursework before the May 5 graduation application deadline, but the same weekend, my daughter was presenting her original research at a chemistry conference in Regina. I was torn. I very much wanted to attend the conference, but had also committed to be at the CAUS changeover meeting that weekend, and I knew how important it was that Shirley be elected chair of CAUS. At the last minute, I decided to take advantage of the AUSU personal development conference funding so that I could attend the chemistry conference, and drove to Regina on Thursday with my daughter, planning to return in time to also meet my commitment to AUSU and Shirley at the CAUS meeting.
Although I wanted very much to take a break and stay the night in Regina with my daughter; at the conclusion of the Regina conference, Saturday night, we packed up and I began the all night drive to make it to the CAUS meeting in time. My daughter was not feeling well on the return trip, and the situation was compounded by us hitting a freak snowstorm just after crossing the Alberta border. For hours I clung, white-knuckled, to the steering wheel, as we crawled through white-out conditions, finally reaching Calgary at noon Sunday. Shirley by now was calling my cell phone in a panic, since the vote for CAUS chair would be held that afternoon, and if I didn’t make it in time she would have to withdraw her nomination. I frantically tried to get through to her to let her know I was on my way through the snowstorm – but the cell phone connection kept getting interrupted.
Finally we reached Nordegg. Chilled, shaking with cold and exhaustion, I made the CAUS meeting with less than an hour to spare, and Shirley was successfully elected CAUS chair. It wasn’t until midnight that evening that I finally managed to recoup a few hours of sleep after that horrendous drive, and it was weeks before I recovered from my overall exhaustion. Looking back now, I realize that, as stressful as that drive was through the snowstorm, and as much as I wanted to give up and go home – I did the right thing by seeing my responsibility through. Shirley has proved to be the very best possible representative CAUS could have had during a difficult transitional year and I am so thankful that I made the meeting to vote her in as chair. Its hard to imagine Bill 43 without Shirley as the main advocate, and as I mentioned last week – even the Alberta government officials recognize the valuable role Shirley has played.
In spite of the personal cost, I didn’t mind expending the extra time and energy. I care about AU students and AUSU Council, and I take my job as president seriously. Unfortunately, my effort in attending that meeting was not appreciated, and in recent months, some members on Council have not shown respect for my voice on AU committees in general. This has created a situation of extreme discouragement for me. I’ve had my ability to properly represent students on AU Committees called into question by two councillors, one of whom came to AUSU Council and demanded that I be removed from AU Committee representation, claiming that I could not possibly represent AU students on these committees if I did not agree with every AUSU Council decision. Thankfully, AUSU Council refused to accept this allegation. The majority of AUSU council concurred that even if I was not in full agreement with a decision, they were confident that I was able to put my own opinion aside when necessary and was properly representing AU students at all times.
But I was deeply hurt nonetheless, and since that time I’ve lost heart. Where I used to be passionate about my representation on these committees and would come home from a committee meeting to eagerly write a detailed report to Council about everything that had occurred, I’m now coming home feeling like it doesn’t matter. I will never again do a Canmore-Calgary-Edmonton-Calgary-Canmore day trip like I did in March, and I will never again drive all night from Regina to meet an AUSU commitment like I did in May. I learned the hard way that my extraordinary efforts were not appreciated, and in fact were denigrated. This is a dangerous way to feel, since it could seriously hamper my ability to represent students.
I’ve been trying hard to focus on the positive – to put the advantages ahead of the disadvantages. Most importantly, I’ve continued to try and always place student interests at the forefront. I’ve tried not to let discouragement at the hands of individuals stop me from doing my best as AUSU president. But such things wear you down. When you are a dedicated, hard worker who always puts AUSU first – to have individuals belittle your work is extremely discouraging. When these individuals are members of your executive – individuals who you have always worked hard to support in return – well, there are no words to describe how that makes you feel.
Next week: Conclusion
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.