From My Perspective – Life at the Top – AUSU Council President

A few hours after the publication of last week’s Voice, I received two emails. Both were from AU students, regular Voice readers. These students expressed how much they appreciate my articles in the Voice and offered words of encouragement and appreciation for my role as President. Their words brought tears to my eyes, and gave me an important, balanced perspective that I had lost sight of recently. Where I’ve so often been feeling overworked and under-appreciated, to hear these individual students express their appreciation made it all worthwhile. During the week, others came forward as well, to encourage me to keep at it and not let the actions of a few diminish the value of the work I’m doing on behalf of AU students. When I stopped to look at the big picture, I realized that lately I’ve been allowing the negativity of a few individuals affect me disproportionately – when in reality there are so many who work with me and support me positively.

Several weeks ago, in writing about the honorary degree received by Dr. Dominique Abrioux, I commented that “the highest accolades anyone can receive are those that come from one’s peers.” I’ve received many such accolades from my peers, both university administration and AU students. The university executive have often expressed their appreciation for my hard work and loyalty on behalf of students, and they have said how much they value the excellent working relationship we have developed. In spite of the times when I have to take the university to task for something, this respect is undiminished. For example, when we fought against the change in course extension policy, AU administration was not happy that we had joined forces with the tutors to protest this. During a meeting where the policy was debated and eventually cancelled, tensions were running very high. But the mutual respect between all parties involved kept the meeting on an even keel, and we all walked out of there satisfied that even though we disagreed, we were still able to work productively together. The same occurs at AUGC when I argue against tuition increases and other university policies. President Abrioux was very unhappy with AUSU when he announced recently to AUGC that AU would be kept under Bill 43’s tuition fee policy. But he acknowledged that students had done what they needed to do and stated that he respected our position.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my representation on AU committees is the respectful atmosphere in which work is done. In spite of the long hours and the heavy commitment this committee representation entails, it has been an invaluable learning experience. Seeing how a board can operate when all members treat each other respectfully provides a balance for me, and is a model I try to follow in AUSU operations. I always look for parallels in how the university operates, since we are an extension of the university in many ways. I’ve come to realize that there are some deep divisions and dissentions within the university community about many issues, but these are never brought to the board meetings in an angry or disrespectful manner.

I also see many similarities between President Abrioux and myself. Dominique is highly involved in every aspect of the university, and very little occurs without his knowledge or approval. He carries an extremely heavy workload, and is stretched very thin at times, yet he is always willing to be there when you need him. As noted in my recent article, he is also unwilling to take personal credit for his accomplishments, always acknowledging the importance of the contribution of those around him. For me, this is one of the most important aspects of my role as president. I celebrate the accomplishments of the AUSU group and I’m very proud of what we’ve done during the past two years. Although at times it may be a single individual receiving a particular accolade or thanks, nothing would have been accomplished unless the whole group worked together.

For the most part we’ve managed to do this. Conflicts within a group are inevitable, and we’ve weathered many. One of the most difficult aspects of being president is taking responsibility for the group when there is a conflict. It’s a very serious matter to bring a formal motion of removal against a councillor, and it is my responsibility as president to ensure that any such motion is supported with sufficient evidence and firmly grounded in our policies. Unfortunately, motions of reprimand and removal have occurred on several occasions during my term as president. From the outset I’ve advocated that the best way to deal with policy violations is by taking a strict line, and dealing swiftly and decisively with issues in order to protect the integrity of the organization. This is often easier said than done, however.

In retrospect, when considering those who have been removed from Council, or resigned, it saddens me. Most of these students had many positive things to contribute for students and to Council, and most of them did spend many productive hours on Council. Somewhere along the way, unfortunately, these good intentions were lost. Why? Some of it may have been because they were on council for the wrong reasons, as I mentioned last week. But I think it had a lot to do with not being willing to accept a reprimand and not being willing to admit when one had made a mistake or done something wrong. Even there, some have used the excuse that they could engage in unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour, as long as they said “sorry” later. This only works to a point. I’ve certainly done my share of apologizing, but I’ve also worked very hard to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. Saying “I’m sorry” then going out and doing the exact same thing just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion.

I believe students have a right to know what goes on with AUSU Council. At the same time I believe there are limits to the level of detail provided. Any group has problems and differences of opinion, and we work to resolve these properly. If these differences are publicly aired in great detail, before they have even been discussed within the group, what is accomplished? Nothing positive, really. Constituents start to lose confidence in their elected members, and the difficulties become amplified. I cited an example of this several weeks ago in the case of the Edmonton Senior’s group whose good work became obscured because several individuals chose to take the problems they were dealing with into a public forum. In politics, indeed in any organization, a certain level of professionalism must be maintained. Professionalism means we respect each other, we respect the rules and regulations, and we respect those we interact with publicly.

Even in writing these articles I wrestle with ethical issues and how much I should say. There is much more I could write about, but I don’t. Sometimes I’m placed in a position where I cannot defend myself because I will be perceived as speaking on behalf of Council – so I remain silent under attack. There are issues even with writing for the Voice itself – some have questioned whether this is an obligation as a Councillor, or whether my voice when writing is my own or whether I am always speaking as president of AUSU. It’s often a fine line to tread, and its difficult. I’m always conscious of what I say and spend hours re-reading portions of an article prior to submission, to ensure that I’m not crossing that line. Readers have said they enjoy hearing about my day to day struggles, my sharing all the simple and sometimes crazy things I and my family do – not just because I’m a student like they are, but because it makes me more human as president of AUSU. So its hard sometimes to draw the line between me as president, and me as student and writer. I trust that Voice readers are intelligent, mature adults and they are quite capable of seeing the difference.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that overall I’ve loved being president of AUSU, in spite of the difficulties. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve gained so much. I’m disappointed that certain individuals have been a source of discouragement to me, and I’m even more disappointed with myself that I let these individuals discourage me. But I have had the respect of the university, students, the staff I oversee, and the majority of Council. I have one executive member who has done her best to be a support to me and to Council. Even though we’ve had our differences, we’ve both managed to transcend these and continue to work together to put student interests first. The same is true for the majority of Council and our staff. I know I’m not the easiest person to work with. I’m a demanding perfectionist and all too often lately I’ve allowed personal stress to spill over into my dealings with others. This is something I continually work to remedy. Perhaps if I can sleep for a week at Christmas I’ll recover!

The most rewarding thing about life at the top, however, one which makes up for all the discouragements; is the relationship I’ve developed with my fellow AU students. Whether this relationship is that of colleague, staff member, AU employee, or student at large – I’ve been so pleased and proud to be able to be a part of this unique student body and to be able to play such an important role in trying to make the student experience better for all of us.

Merry Christmas everyone, Happy Holidays, and a politically correct Best of the Season greeting to all!

Debbie

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.

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