Student Engagement at UNBC: Refocusing the Issue

Seth Jex | Human

(Monique Gendron | OTE)

This is written as my response to my Open Letter to the Student Body and the conversations that were had. The original Open Letter can be found online in Over the Edge’s March newspaper issue. I hope it better illustrates my argument and continues the conversation.

Dear Students,

On Wednesday March 7, I published in both the student’s newspaper, as well as 300 printed copies around the university, a letter I wrote addressed to the undergraduate student body here at UNBC. The main argument of my letter was that even with dedicated student representative positions throughout our university, students are failing this year to take advantage of them. This year all student positions in Senate, Board of Governors and the undergraduate student’s union (NUGSS) were uncontested or vacant. This is regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or any other segregator, students are failing to step up. Students across every walk of life, as a collective, did not engage in the designated UNBC positions this year despite many important discussions coming in the 2018-19 school year. As I mentioned in my letter, decisions on everything from the Chartwells food service contract, to James Moore remaining as our chancellor, are all set to be tabled this coming year.

Some have countered my statement that students are apathetic by saying that they are simply disenfranchised with NUGSS. After all, in the last few years we have faced many challenging realities of our student’s unions debt and the failings of the Thirsty Moose Pub that have created a negative image of NUGSS. I would respond though in saying that if you believe this to be true, that NUGSS has flaws and is not working as well as it should be, why not raise those concerns? Get embedded in the system and seek to improve it as you feel it needs to so that it can succeed for the betterment of your fellow students. After noting this years uncontested elections, I continued by saying that not only does this mean we struggle to fill the seats, but that we also weaken the voice of those that do. I argued that if someone wins a position by acclimation, devoid of a supportive constituency, they will struggle to raise their voice with any sort of authority in debate. How can we trust such person’s opinion if they were not elected by the student body? How can we ensure proper and accurate representation?

That is the core of my argument! Why do we have student positions at UNBC if students won’t fill those,l or if they do, as in this year, they have done so in such an apathetic “checked-out” way that it makes the legitimacy of the positions negligible. Students did not cast a vote for Senate or Board of Governor Undergraduate Representatives, and only 11 per cent voted for their student’s union reps, even though there was at most one candidate.

I go one step further however, in challenging not only the need of student reps in general, but to question the value and desire for designated representation. If I can argue that student reps who got the position by acclimation may not possess the necessary authority and backing from their fellow students to represent in debate on issues, then it must follow that applies to the NUGSS representative positions as well. Based on the lack of engagement in the student positions, I feel they don’t really mean much to students, and maybe we can just remove them all together? Since students don’t seem to care about them why should we keep these positions? This is an uncomfortable question that I hoped would create a protectionist reaction in which students would recognize the value these positions offer in ensuring marginalized communities are heard in important discussion, and would leap forward to run. In my opinion, these designated rep positions have made meaningful impacts here at UNBC even in the short 5 years I have been here.

Recently UNBC has made commitments to pedagogical changes that were supported by students. In the letter, I recognized there are people who work for the betterment of students outside the representation offered by UNBC and NUGSS, but I believe these positions inside the system are incredibly valuable. Working within student representation schemes to advocate and ensure fair systems and actions is preventative, whereas outside the system’s governance most activities such as marches, picket lines or petitions are reactionary and not as effective at long term systematic change.

This is an idea I think is up for debate as some have said that uncontested does not mean unengaged. I was unaware until recently that some students, speaking to a member of the Northern Women’s Center collective, met prior to the NUGSS election to discuss who should run. In that way, hosting preliminary nomination style conversations and producing one candidate, whereas I saw only one person putting their name forward, these people see that one person as the nominated rep even before the election has begun, and in that way not standing alone but rather with the support of their community. These are valuable conversations to be having as we challenge the situation we find ourselves in. Universities have long been the place of inquiry and ideas, challenging notions and norms and at times, facing uncomfortable conversations. I feel we must all continue to engage in these conversations and responding to someone’s assertion, mine included, if we feel that they are wrong. If we fail here in this, if we digress into polarizing ideological camps so far apart that write the other off as not worth the effort to talk to, we all lose.

Last week, we saw the UNBC Student Fees Committee push through a new fee with little consultation and at the objection of our NUGSS Student Rep. Regardless of the NUGSS board’s efforts, the fee did get passed in the committee, and was only stopped after a petition was started by NUGSS. I feel the administration felt they could do this because they do not respect student’s power within the university’s bureaucracy. They felt that they would be able to get this fee through because the perception is that students are checked-out. NUGSS was forced to take a reactionary method to stop the fee’s implementation, because we were not politically strong enough to work preventatively. This further supports my message about how valuable it is to have students with their ear to the ground looking out for the rest of us, and that we must bolster their authority through our active engagement. This fee has only been postponed, it’s not over yet.

The NUGSS board restructuring that occurred this year came as the result of a 2016-2017 NUGSS review committee, dozens of NUGSS board meetings, surveys, and open house events where students were given the chance to provide feedback and help shape our new board. The eventual product approved at the NUGSS AGM this last fall was designed and approved by all current board members unanimously. Key changes made to the board were not driven from fiscal constraints, but rather to better serve students. In fact, NUGSS board changes did not net a drastic cost savings as those funds saved from board honorarium were spent to hire a full time staff member. In February, NUGSS hired an Assistant General Manager whose primary responsibility would be the administration of Student Led Organizations (clubs). This new staff person offers students a more reliable, consistent, and available contact person then the prior NUGSS elected Director of Internal Affairs could. I should know, this was my position on the NUGSS Board this year, and I could not agree with this redesign more.

The other major change to the board structure was the creation of an Equity Council. The Equity Council is comprised of 6 representatives elected solely for this council with the mandate to ensure NUGSS provides equitable, fair, and inclusive processes and initiatives. This body is a supervisor to the NUGSS Board and some may argue it has higher or at least equal power in our organization. As such, the voices on this council are more empowered to push advocacy indicatives and represent the diversity of student voices here at UNBC than ever before. In doing so, we expanded the representation roles to include LGBTQ, Accessibility, International, and one lay person as well as continuing the positions of Sustainability, Women’s, and Aboriginal Representative. For the returning representative positions the restructuring gives them more time and more mandate to represent the concerns and challenge the barriers faced by all student here at UNBC. Never have minority student voices here at UNBC had such an agora to raise issues and collectively weigh in on university discussions.

Imagine a letter signed by the Undergraduate Student Union Equity Council to Dr. Dan Weeks, or BC Ministry of Advanced Education, or any other group. The political power in that letter would be so impactful it could not be ignored. This restructuring allows our student body to transition from one student representing one group of students to a collective voice on the advancement of progressive causes for all students. The unification of these voices in one empowered political body presents limitless possibilities for our students. That is why student engagement is so critical and why we can’t let this moment pass.

It was my frustration in seeing students seemingly ignore this power that lead me to write my initial letter. The real question of any political position is, did you leave things better than you found them? While reviews on me as an elected official might be mixed, I believe that the system and structure adopted by NUGSS is a clear improvement. I hope that students will come to see it as such, and decide to invest their energy and time into it. NUGSS and other student representation positions here at UNBC offer meaningful opportunities to have a say and make a change, and I wish those trying to do so all the best!

Respectfully,

Seth Jex