Renewing our campus democracy

The 2010 student election has come and gone. To call it a disappointment would be an understatement. We collectively witnessed our democratic process degenerate into alleged assaults, accusations of criminal wrongdoing and irrational displays of anger on both sides. Voter turnout was just over 10 per cent of eligible students, approximately half of last year’s total, and provided a clear example that students do not feel that our campus democracy offers anything for them.

The Moving Forward slate won what appears to be a convincing victory. But when one considers that they received the support of 87 per cent of those who voted, and that only 10 per cent chose to vote, that support equals about nine per cent of all U of M students. Clearly the vast majority of students no longer care about being involved.

Who can blame them? The disgraceful events and outrageous behavior of the past two weeks would discourage any sane person from wanting to get involved with campus politics. But it is precisely at this moment more then ever that we need people to share their views, their hopes and fears, so we can truly live up to the responsibilities of leadership.

We must realize that we are better than these last two weeks have made us appear. For those who opposed the Moving Forward slate, now is the time to accept the results and work constructively with the new administration to achieve our shared priorities. But just as importantly, for the incoming Moving Forward team, they must recognize that they do not have a blank cheque, and that they will be held responsible for their actions and their decisions. Successful leaders must listen to all voices, especially those who are critical, because only then can they truly understand and represent the will of the people.

Our university faces many challenges, and many of our students are struggling under the pressure. For those of us in student groups and in leadership positions, we have a responsibility to use whatever influence we have to make campus life better for everyone. But if we continue on our current path of aggression and open hostility towards each other, we will fail those we are supposed to serve. Leadership means discussion, understanding and fairness, and these are the values that must guide us all.

I believe that UMSU, like any government, must be held accountable, and I will work with those who believe in promoting democratic involvement on campus. But it is also important to define what “holding UMSU accountable” means. We must focus on UMSU’s actions and ideas, not on harsh and petty personal attacks. Attacks on the character or reputations of anybody have no place on our campus. No one should be afraid to make their voice heard, no matter what side they are on. We must focus on issues, not on personalities, and when we disagree, we must disagree respectfully.

I believe that many of you reading these words share the same feelings I do. You feel that you have something important and valuable to add to the leadership of our university, but that dealing with the anger and cynicism you see around you may be too high a price to pay. We all want to be able to disagree with someone without having to hate them. We all want to be able to get involved without being assaulted or accused of criminal activity. And we all want people to wake up and realize that this is university, and that we are all here to learn and grow and advance ourselves, not get involved in political games and turn each other into enemies.

Some of us, on both sides, seem to have forgotten a very basic fact: we all share the same fundamental goals. We all wish to get a good education to build a foundation of success for our futures. By focusing on our common desires, our common concerns, and our common hopes, we can realize that we are not enemies, but allies in a common struggle.

The challenges we face are many, and our ability to meet those challenges will depend directly on how united we can be. Unity does not mean the absence of disagreement, but it means that we build a culture of mutual respect for our differences. We must pick up the pieces of our broken campus democracy, put it back together, and begin anew. As a sign of respect, I call upon all of us to give our incoming administration the benefit of the doubt. We cannot attack our incoming leaders before they have even had the chance to lead.

We did not get to this difficult moment in one election, or even in one year. It will take time and effort to turn things around. But the difficulty of the task ahead is not an excuse to avoid it. Let us all work together to get more people involved, have more voices be heard, and once again make our campus a safe place to speak our minds. If we can accomplish these things, we will look back at this disappointing election as the moment when we began to renew our campus democracy.

Spencer Fernando is a University of Manitoba Student, and a supporter of renewing our campus democracy.