As my year as Vice-President Finance of the McMaster Students Union draws to a close, I have been doing a lot of reflecting, thinking about what I have been exposed to in this role. What stands out the most to me are the interactionsI have had with so many impressive student leaders from all different parts of the student body.
Unfortunately, I find myself spending too much time in my role defending the value of student leadership to some members of the University administration, even to those who work closely with student leaders, delivering important programming throughout the year.
Many important initiatives on this campus have been launched by student leaders. These initiatives are inspired and guided by students’ holistic understanding of the needs and wants of their peers. Virtually every service that the MSU offers came from ideas created and developed by students, for students. We talked about sexual health when the University did not want to (SHEC). We started a medical response team from McKay Hall when a student realized that there was a gap in medical services for students on campus (EFRT). We negotiated a bus pass because we know students need an affordable way to commute to campus.
Similar ideas have been developed by student leaders at the faculty level. Recently, the McMaster Engineering Society launched a Peer Tutoring initiative, the first of its kind at McMaster. Students have been so receptive to the idea, that two of our MSU Presidential candidates championed a similar concept hoping to implement it across the campus.
Students are likely to think outside the box, try new things. And sometimes, they fail. Placing students in positions of leadership has its risks, but I am confident that the rewards outweigh them significantly.
As with any organization, we need to minimize our risk and ensure that groups are behaving and operating in a responsible manner. The MSU has long supported University efforts to develop consistent expectations of student societies and student groups. These include examples such as the development of responsible event planning guidelines, as well as the implementation of rigorous financial accountability mechanisms.
That said, as my term winds to its conclusion I worry that University administration is beginning to devalue the work that student groups do, focusing solely on potential risk. What happened with the Engineering Redsuits’ songbook is tragic, and the group(s) involved need to be held accountable.
Yet this culture does not reflect a campus-wide problem with student leadership, and it will be inappropriate if the University reacts by curtailing student responsibilities both during Welcome Week and at large during the school year.
When harassment at the faculty level was reported in the Degroote Faculty of Business, the University appropriately suspended and disciplined those who were responsible. The tenure system was not broken, suspended or destroyed in response. Rather, specific individuals who had acted inappropriately were identified and the situation was dealt with professionally. Why should issues at the student level operate any differently?
McMaster is a community of 22,000 students and sometimes things go awry. When they do, it’s important that we consider those accidents in the greater context; that we remember all the amazing work done by students on campus.
The University must balance their desire to keep students safe, with the reality that students can and should falter occasionally – this is just part of the learning process. When left to their own devices, students’ successes will far, far outshine the negatives.
The student experience will only truly be enhanced when student leaders are in the positions of decision making and authority over student life. Student leaders have the best understanding of the needs, wants and issues that face undergrads at McMaster University.