(*Image of Students’ Council [above] is courtesy of the Federation of Students)
In May 2018, at the start of my 4A term, I was elected as a Councillor to represent the Engineering department to our student union, the Federation of Students (Feds). Over the next 12 months, I got the chance to advocate for student interests, collaboratively propose advocacy and corporate policies, listen to students’ concerns, drive high-level change, and a bunch of other impressive-sounding buzz-phrases. I also got to observe student politics up close.
The purpose of this article isn’t to boast about my accomplishments or to tell dramatic stories; it’s to share lessons learned from participating in campus politics. For context, my background was not in governance, politics, or liberal arts; it was in Computer Engineering, and I didn’t have previous experience with campus politics. As a result, my mindset was adapted to solve technical problems. Some ‘mantras’ used in the tech industry include:
- fail fast and often (Python)
- test the waters with minimum viable products (lean startups know it’s better to build a rough prototype to see if there’s a product-market fit and then iterate upon it rather than to spend months fleshing out all the product’s details only to find out that there’s no market for it)
- solve mistakes early on rather than hide them (compiler errors >> runtime errors)
- meritocracy over personality (Torvalds can say all he wants about C++ but we’re still going to use it because it’s a solid language)
- be direct and minimize bullshit (if the program doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. No amount of bullshitting can convince me otherwise. Might as well as put time into fixing the problem than making excuses for it.)
- give honest feedback (code reviews. Giving bad feedback will lead to bad code, which will come back to bite us later)
Unfortunately, I would later find out that a ‘tech mindset’ was not very conducive to campus politics.
Before proceeding any further, I should say that I’m deeply appreciative of the friends I made at Feds for showing me the ropes, being patient and understanding. There are many dedicated representatives who volunteer hundreds of hours of their own time striving to make campus a better place.
With that said, here are the six lessons and insights I learned:
1 Build alliances
There’s the saying that “you go faster alone, but you go farther together.” It’s very true. In fact, without alliances, sometimes your ideas don’t even get going. If you’re starting a new project, it helps to invite colleagues to work with you, bounce ideas off them, or request them to review your work. Yes, reaching out to a colleague you barely know for assistance can be intimidating but it’s also beneficial for you. Not only are you gathering support for your project, you’re also building relationships and increasing exposure. In the first 8 months of being a representative, all of my motions were either written in collaboration or were reviewed by other representatives.
Bouncing your ideas off of others, especially those who hold opposing viewpoints, can bring out insightful new perspectives. At first, I was frustrated when others opposed my ideas, but over time, I came to appreciate opposing viewpoints and their nuances when drafting resolutions. As a result, some of my more radical ideas never made it to Council for debate, saving me a lot of potential embarrassment.
2 Don’t let fear stop you from participating
There are many types of fear: fear of rejection, judgement, imposter syndrome, etc. Here’s one example: when there’s a camera recording every word you say, and 20 people are silently looking at you waiting for you to speak, some of whom sit up to 10m away, it feels intimidating to speak. It’s like walking on eggshells; the scrutiny is scary. The first couple times I spoke at our meetings, I felt shy and was interrupted to be told to speak louder. Not a pleasant experience. But over several months, as I pushed myself to participate in discussions, the fear gradually subsided. From this experience, I learned it’s better to speak up even when you’re nervous and it’s outside your comfort zone rather than not to speak up because eventually, you’ll get used to it. (Click below to read this in more detail)
3 Recognize what you can and cannot control
Luckily, this is a lesson I learned early on. I was frustrated by slow progress: committees had a ton of backlogged policies, resolutions were slow to be implemented, the time it takes to adopt new policies would be measured in months rather than weeks, etc. There are many processes I would like to change but didn’t have influence over. As a result, getting upset at these processes was unnecessarily stressful. It’s more productive to focus on things within our control than things outside of our control.
4 Most people accept and rationalize the status quo rather than fight to change it
This isn’t to pass judgement. As the saying goes, “pick your fights wisely”. It’s better not to fight than to win a Pyrrhic victory. In October, another Councillor and I submitted a resolution to make past voter turnout and referenda questions publicly accessible on the Feds website by the end of 2018. The goal was to increase transparency, which Feds likes to preach about. Although our resolution was approved, it was never implemented. I followed up in subsequent meetings and deduced it was because people didn’t want to make such data public (yeah…so much for believing in transparency, more like hypocrisy). While we could have fought the inaction, we chose not to because the costs were higher than the benefits.
However, when you do fight, don’t hesitate. One of my greatest criticisms of Feds is how representatives are unwilling to challenge the university on key issues, in fear of risking ‘relationship-building’. Building relationships is great, but we ought to leverage relationships to make progress; not to let it become a reason to hinder progress. If a large number of constituents feel harassed by selective university staff (cough CECA), you got to be more aggressive in your advocacy rather than continue to quietly hope the university would make changes on its own. In this spirit, representatives should read about James Mattis. Sadly, Feds is more willing to be the university’s lapdog than students’ bulldog because leaders are afraid to rock the boat, much to the expense of the students they claim to represent.
Most people accept the status quo and are wary of change because it brings risk. I guess this is fitting for student governments; after all, governments are slow to change. Coming from a tech background, where it seemed like innovations are made every other week, I was frustrated by the slow pace of progress and the knee-jerk skepticism to bold ideas (eg, performance bonus for execs, filing Policy 33 on behalf of students, establishing an FOIR fund, creating a “TrudeauMetre” to track incoming Executives’ progress on their campaign promises). There was no sense of urgency and an overall acceptance of mediocrity; in fact, some people would fight to maintain mediocrity. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to do extra work? This was surprising because I had thought student representatives were role models and change agents. They were supposed to be the cream of the crop; I was quite wrong.
Policy creation follows a waterfall model: if your proposed policies haven’t taken into account every last detail, then they would be denied, even for policies that didn’t need to be fully fleshed out because they wouldn’t impact students. This process is the opposite of lean methodology and is unfortunate; it seems like the concept of making minimum viable policies to experiment on their effectiveness just doesn’t exist. There are times when we should take into account every detail, and there are times when we don’t need to; Council always erred on the former than the latter. Feds should be more nimble with less bureaucracy.
From this experience, I learned most people would rather rationalize the status quo than to accept that it’s broken and fight to change it.
5 People can come up with all manners of excuses to explain why something wouldn’t work
Learning to deal with other people’s excuses is part of life. At Students’ Council, I was lucky to have witnessed many flavours of excuses, ranging from the reasonable to the ludicrous to outright bullshit. What is most frustrating, but also understandable, is that the people saying excuses oftentimes do so intentionally and choose to hide behind layers of logic-defying rationalizations rather than speak the blunt truth. With all this said, it’s important to differentiate between excuses and legitimate reasons. The former is exasperating whereas the latter is thoughtful.
People made excuses because they either disagreed with the principles of policies or didn’t want to do work, both of which were understandable, but I still wished people were more honest and straightforward. Sometimes, I push back; however, knowing it’s the excuse-makers who were ultimately responsible for implementing a project, there really wasn’t much I could do if they had already set their minds against it.
Some people are so talented at making excuses that they’re willing to flip-flop on their own professed ideals if it suits their agenda. We see this play out in federal politics, and it’s no different in student politics, although with less frequency. On more than one occasion, student representatives championed for certain motions because they believed in a specific ideal. Several meetings later, another motion related to that same ideal is brought onto the floor; all of a sudden, they no longer supported the ideal!
6 Politics: Influence > Ideas. People tend to judge and talk. Reputation also sticks
Some people at Feds Council are kind, hardworking, and want to make a difference on campus. They are in the minority. Through co-op, I’ve participated in office politics and didn’t enjoy it. Unfortunately, Feds also had a strong dose of unproductive politics. From afar, it looked like everybody was cooperative but the closer you got to the heat of the action, the more you recognized how many hidden agendas there were (eg, Councillors may speak out against a proposal not because they disagreed with it but because they didn’t want to piss off another Councillor; Councillors changing their votes because they didn’t want to be the only ones voting a certain way; Councillors urging you to vote a certain way by using misleading information).
I wished the culture allowed more honesty because the process felt shallow and somewhat fake (eg, “Yes, I think that’s a great idea!” when you actually think it’s a terrible idea). I was also surprised how good people were at hiding their true feelings. In meetings, everyone seemed collegial but attitudes quickly changed behind closed doors. Although most people were forgiving of mistakes; a number of people would continue to judge you for mistakes you made months ago.
In a political culture, who you know matters much more than what you contribute. As long as you agree with the influential members, even if you don’t do any real work, you’ll be considered a good sport. But woe to those who dare to disagree, they will eventually be cast aside. People no longer evaluate ideas based on their merits, but based on who is sponsoring those ideas. The bureaucracy – the process – becomes more important than the end result. In short, the more political an environment, the less it is about meritocracy of ideas and skill of execution, and the more it is about gathering influence and staying in everyone’s good graces.
These insights I shared appear to cast our student union in a bad light. However, I know I’m not alone in my critique. I’m just more vocal than others. Many other students also view our student union to be a bloat of bureaucracy that takes ~$60/term from students, overpays its staff, and… doesn’t really do anything, other than having set up a program with StudentCare (Health and Dental insurance) and UPass years ago, which we pay administered fees for (not part of the ~$60/term). I think most students support the Student Choice Initiative and look forwards to opting out of Feds fees. My personal belief is that Feds can decrease half its staff and representatives with minimal decrease to quality of service.
Overall, I appreciated the privilege to represent Engineering students and am mindful of the trust students gave me. Although I would not be interested in staying on for another year (and I can’t, since I’ll be graduating soon), the experience I gained in the past year participating in campus politics was insightful and the friends I made are alone worth it! If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading!