The CSU has no place for me anymore
// Gurpreet Kambo

The CSU has no place for me anymore. I realize that is a strong statement; however, let me explain. As with any kind of student organization, the CSU has a very high turnover rate among its elected student executives. Myself, I served for three years as an elected representative, and then found myself burnt out, realizing that it was time to pursue other opportunities. As a whole, the experience was amazing, and the personal growth and skills that I learned were invaluable.

Generally speaking, in student organizations this high turnover rate is a good thing – the executive positions are not meant to be treated as careers, they are meant to be treated as positions in which one can learn about governance, democracy, and politics, among other things. The revolving door of faces constantly brings in fresh ideas, fresh experiences, and allows the organization to remain responsive to the needs of its student membership.

Simultaneously, this constantly revolving door can result in a swinging pendulum of goals, priorities, values, and overall quality of service to members. While this constant-yet-gradual shifting isn't in and of itself a bad thing, it can result in a level of instability in the organization. This is rectified somewhat by the fact that the organization has bylaws and policies that continue to govern the organization long after any particular board member has moved on (although these bylaws and policies can be changed as well). It is also rectified by long-term staff members at these organizations who bring a living institutional memory of the unwritten traditions, practices, and precedents of the organization.

As much as I recognize these characteristics, my problem is that, being a member of the old guard (three years is longer than most people stay in these positions), the values I have held dear to the CSU over those years simply aren't there anymore, or are less of a priority than they were in the past. While I understand and accept that different people will bring different points of view and priorities (only one person remains from when I started), it is still difficult to avoid this internal conflict when I attempt to participate as a student member of the CSU. This is an organization in which, as an executive, I spent three years passionately pouring my heart and soul into. I lived and breathed the organization, and the student advocacy associated with it. It is in me, like fleas on a dog, like a horse chasing the tastiest-looking dangling carrot, like a terrible infection with symptoms that include low grades, poor classroom attendance, excessive amounts of time in meetings, shouting myself hoarse in front of tons of people at rallies, and an admittedly weird obsession with Robert's Rules of Order. I still care, and I want to continue to participate as a member of the CSU.

With any kind of student organization, one of the most important values that they hold is something called “membership engagement.” During my time in the CSU, this was a concept that was bandied about repeatedly; it was a concept that coloured many of the conversations that we engaged in. As a representative democracy, particularly one that has elected representatives for traditionally underrepresented groups (the Women’s Liaison, for example), how could we best represent the will of the membership? How could we allow the members themselves the greatest opportunity to represent their own views, to provide a better quality democracy? How could we remove all the roadblocks that may prevent a member from participating and having a say in the CSU’s business? The level of participation has always been lower than expected, but at least it was a philosophical point that was particularly emphasized among executive committee members.

To this end, the CSU, as it is structured, is an organization that is membership-driven, from the bottom-up. Unfortunately, when it comes to membership engagement, it is often the little things that matter, and lately it seems this is where the CSU is falling short.

Traditionally, items for consideration go to their respective subcommittees before reaching the executive committee. For example, a proposal for a campaign about tuition fees would go to the Educational Issues Committee, and a proposal to buy a new game for the lounge would go to the Services committee, and then these subcommittees provide a recommendation to the executive committee on the item. In this way, all members of the CSU have the opportunity to speak and vote on issues that the CSU is working on. This used to be something that was really important, making it extremely rare that a significant item or decision would be approved at the executive level without having gone to a subcommittee first. It doesn’t seem to be as significant a concern anymore, as items get proposed to the executive committee without going to the relevant subcommittee all the time, and often get approved.

A second example is in the CSU’s usage of the “Additions Folder.” This folder is a mechanism by which items can be proposed for addition to the board meeting agenda after it has already been printed and posted publicly for members to consider. Unfortunately, even major changes to bylaws have been proposed through this mechanism, not allowing anyone, even other board members, to have the opportunity to consider the item beforehand. That this doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable is certainly eyebrow raising.

In addition, a lack of clear and strictly enforced guidelines on what items board members may discuss in-camera has resulted in items being discussed in private that should not be. Generally, in-camera is limited to matters of land, labour, and legal, but without any strict policies the executive doesn't have to follow this. Logically, sometimes this is necessary to deal with sensitive issues, but my experience as a board member also showed me that it was often merely an opportunity to talk behind the back of whoever wasn’t at that meeting that day, among other things that had no need to be in-camera, or need to be discussed at all (like gossip).

Lately, there has also been a lack of discussion in committees, because it appears that the executives have already discussed and decided beforehand what motions they wanted to bring forward, and how these motions would be passed. Unfortunately this excludes members being able to participate in the discussion when the decision is being made, and as a result the CSU feels similar to an exclusive club as opposed to a bottom-up organization. In fact, the current chairperson of the executive has, on two separate occasions, tried to restrict the speaking rights of non-executive members without any direction from the board. The action resulted in the executive approving a motion to officially give members speaking rights at executive meetings. Logic has it that a member of the CSU may have as much to say on an item, that may sway someone’s vote, as any elected executive.

All of this is not to discount the point that the CSU board members are, by and large, hardworking individuals who should be commended for much of the work that they have done. However, it is clear that there has been a major cultural shift in the CSU, which seemed to begin while I was still a board member last year. Every year, many of the candidates that run in CSU elections speak about how “no one on-campus knows/cares about the CSU” and that they will work to address that. Let’s hope they follow through, firstly by affecting another culture shift to where concerns of the membership are sought out and encouraged above the interests of even the elected representatives themselves. That would be a true democracy, where there really is space and accessibility for members to be at the table and participate in the discussions.

As for myself, I shall continue to participate as much as possible, if only to make it clear where the roadblocks lie that prevent students from participating. Because believe it or not, there are still some students that care.

// Gurpreet Kambo, Columnist

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