This article has been edited as of Feb. 11, 2019
A previously published version of this article misquoted Ikram Farah. The quote has since been updated.
Students are often at a standoff with the MSU president. A commonly held belief is that the President cannot get things done, while presidents themselves often feel that they are misunderstood by the student body. Looking back at former presidents, we can see the difficult realities of their jobs. However, each MSU president has many opportunities to enact change, and it is their responsibility to work within their limitations.
It’s hard to keep all the eggs in one basket
“When someone is running for president they are running on 12-15 platform points, but that is not your only priority, you are a CEO, you are a manager of the whole institution,” said Ikram Farah, former MSU president for the 2018-2019 school year.
Every MSU president has and will continue to struggle with balancing priorities. Consulting past presidents and critically examining a previous year’s struggles is meant to help incoming presidents plan for the year ahead. New president-elects are given the opportunity to do this during their training period under the current MSU president, which lasts from February to April of each year.
Even with this transition process, neither Marando, Farah nor Monaco-Barnes were prepared for how much time would be taken up by priorities unrelated to their platform points.
“I didn’t realize how much of my time would be taken up with chairing various meetings, SRA, clubs, committees, events, and other things that you don’t really see the president do until you are in the role yourself,” said Marando.
During the transition period, outgoing presidents still have their own responsibilities and incoming presidents have their academics. It is unclear exactly how many hours are spent orienting.
“[After March] you’re out, and the new person’s in, and it’s up to them and their team to carry on their objectives but also carry on ongoing projects to full term,” said Justin Monaco-Barnes, former MSU president for the 2016-2017 school year.
Limitations of the transition period may negatively impact a president’s future ability to establish continuity, balance priorities and prepare for unpredictability. Farah faced the impact of the Ontario Student Assistance Program cuts and the Student Choice Initiative. Responding to these events took up much of her team’s time.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Farah.
Continuity is key
Longevity, according to Monaco-Barnes, can be an issue with a one-year term. A president must continue previous presidents’ work while attending to their own platform points and responsibilities. Marando, Farah and Monaco-Barnes highlighted the added pressure that comes from students wanting tangible results.
“. . . A lot of people probably don’t know I sit on groups that improve the university IT plan, or work on mental health support in classrooms. People don’t see all the time and energy that goes into working with our full-time staff and supporting business operations of the MSU. I think that if there isn’t a big promotion of something, people think nothing is happening. In reality things may span over a years — such as our new student space expansion — requiring a lot more resources than one might think,” said Marando.
The student space expansion came from Monaco-Barnes’ platform, whose Pulse expansion plans eventually evolved to include a new student center, the Student Activity Building.
“And then here we are, two years later, and it’s being built which is pretty cool,” said Monaco-Barnes.
Monaco-Barnes took an unpaid leave of absence to run two student-wide referenda and help secure funding for the expansion plans. During the second referendum, Ryan McDonald, the VP (Finance) at the time, also took an unpaid leave.
While the Student Activity and Pulse expansion are underway, future MSU presidents must see them through. Not all projects will survive this process.
At the end of Monaco-Barnes’s term, plastic water bottles were replaced with boxed water in Union Market. Union Market reverted back to plastic water bottles the following year.
“I don’t know how you control that. You hope that the continuity pieces that remain in the MSU leadership wise, you hope they will continue your original messages and ideas, but once you’re gone you can’t really control those things,” added Monaco-Barnes.
If this is a known problem, incoming and outgoing presidents should prevent it from happening as much as possible. Starting from scratch, as Monaco-Barnes noted, is a waste of time.
Who do you want in the room?
As Farah said, it can be easy to forget the significant impact that an MSU President can have in advocating for students. Advocacy could result in change that students may not link back to MSU, as such changes happen over the long-term.
“We need people with ideas and strategic vision. That’s where the Pulse expansion or student activity building becomes impactful. But we don’t always need that large action. Advocating for policies that enhance student life are incredibly important too; however, policy takes time though,” said Farah.
A president will have several opportunities to advocate for students. But it is not easy to get the job done. Monaco-Barnes said that higher-ups can wait out a president that they disagree with. There is also an intimidation factor at play, as the MSU president will interact with older and more experienced counterparts.
“It’d be very easy for a president to go in and do a lacklustre job if they are not motivated,” said Monaco-Barnes.
MSU presidents will make mistakes and struggle with their jobs. Their role is difficult to fully appreciate from an outside perspective. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point out their mistakes and challenge them to work around limitations. If we do not hold them accountable, then we may see less work being done. Is being MSU president hard? Yes. Does that mean that they cannot accomplish anything? Absolutely not.