Letters to the editor

Re: The death of student activism

UMSU General Election 2014 candidates

As the dust settles from the recent UMSU election, it is apparent that it was not an election based on the serious issues that face students and challenge the quality of their education. Rather, it brought to the surface nothing more than trivial issues that overshadowed the purpose of our university student union, blocking the way for any meaningful discourse. In the rare instances that these issues were brought up, most of the candidates spewed out platitudes they hoped would get them elected, or re-elected in the case of a few. Those who were brave enough to challenge the status quo did so conservatively, likely for fear of political backlash that any notions of activism may cause. When Chris Hedges wrote of the failure of formal political institutions and unions, this is what he spoke of – candidates unable to mention the idea of activism for fear of political repercussions.

Campus spirit remains the primary focus for the newly initiated to university life, a remnant of what high school politics was all about. It is clear that UMSU has failed in communicating its purpose on campus – to advocate against student debt and restore funding to our education, to fight for affordable transportation, and address concerns around academic issues.

The main concerns brought forward by students on social media surrounded issues such as how many parties would be held, or what pop star would be playing at Frosh Week. Meanwhile, across Canada, universities are trying to distance themselves from Frosh Week for its promotion of rape culture – an issue that should be at the forefront of discussions. Many University of Manitoba students had no clue why some of the female candidates took offence when someone anonymously ranked them in the order he or she wanted to have sex with them on the Facebook page UManitoba Confessions 2.0. One candidate even liked the post, only un-liking it after some negative publicity. But, as has been the case over the last year, serious issues such as this have taken a backseat to the promotion of Bison Sports and parties in the name of campus spirit. Little thought has been given to promoting the music department (they put on an opera every year), the theatre department (the Black Hole Theatre has several shows a year), or the fine arts department. Only Bison Pride seems to matter.

There’s nothing wrong with supporting our student athletes, but I question if we are starting down the same path as campuses in the U.S., where sports are given dangerous precedence over creativity, ideas, and even morality. Those who wish to endeavour in such pursuits are marginalized, not just academically, but socially and politically. And while I would like to believe that there is a large segment of students on campus that think there are bigger issues to address, the election results show this is not the case. Sadly, student activism is not on the decline – it is dead.

There are 29,000 students at the U of M according to umanitoba.ca, making us one of the largest interest groups in the city; when combined with the other universities and colleges we become one of the largest interest groups in the province. Yet despite this presence, we seem to have little political clout at any level of government, or with the university administration. The apparent failure of unions at the U of M and U of W to obtain an agreement on the U-Pass that addresses the needs of transit commuters and those who wish to opt out reveals how little our interests are taken seriously, and brings into question if they are doing everything within their power to get the desired outcome.

Rallies and protests filled with people making noise does in fact have an amazing impact – just ask the people in Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, South Africa, and the United States. Approximately 5,400 students voted in this election. Imagine the power we could have at negotiations if those students showed up outside Winnipeg City Hall, holding signs and singing songs while our executive negotiates on our behalf. A rally that big can’t be ignored or easily silenced.

In UMSU council, prior to the election, the spectre of across-the-board 5 per cent budget cuts to faculties was brought up; as of yet, no information confirming or denying this has been provided by the administration. The lack of transparency on this issue is problematic as such cuts may result in increased class sizes or classes being cut altogether. Meanwhile the university has been ramping up its efforts, telling us we’re innovators and trailblazers.

While the majority of the student body fusses over trivial issues, students shove themselves into desks that are too small for adults, in classrooms that are rarely cleaned.

Earlier this year the university was brought to the edge of a standstill as the administration and our professors disagreed on academic freedoms. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association prepared to go on strike to defend what they believed in: providing us with a quality education through their ability to do research unhindered by the profit motives of a university continually relying on corporate funding. UMSU remained silent, unwilling to stir the status quo of our submission to the whims of the administration, whose interests are clearly not in line with ours. The university brands us as mavericks, but it’s hard to believe we can live up to such a title when we are expected to fall in line and accept the status quo. Real mavericks reject the status quo and fight against it by putting themselves on the line for what they believe in. The last time I checked, our right to party was never in jeopardy.

Unions forge solidarity amongst their members and fight for what members need. In Sweden, student unions have a prominent presence politically that gives them clout with their administration as well as with affiliated decision-making bodies. In Sussex, students routinely engage in protests and occupancy of administration buildings to make their concerns heard. Noise makes things happen. Silence does not. The status quo remains because it goes unchallenged, because for some reason the people in our leadership think that the administration, the province, and the City are immune to protest.

I challenge the re-elected UMSU executives to end their silence on real student issues; to challenge the status quo; to challenge the idea that we’re nothing more than hedonistic individuals, incapable of anything beyond finding our next pleasure fix.

If UMSU refuses to acknowledge these issues, remaining silent in the face of adversity, then we need to stand up against the union, and let them know that we want action to be taken, not silence.

Paul Bell is a student in the global political economy program, as well as a member of the Global Political Economy Students’ Association and the Association for Student Activism Through Research. 

29 Comments on "Letters to the editor"

  1. Concerned Student | March 11, 2014 at 12:44 pm |

    I do not want to write out a long response to this, but I’ll leave one comment.

    The purpose of the student union is not to be the beacon of left wing student activists. The purpose is to represent the student body and the student body has shown that it wishes to see more spirit; more campus pride and that does not extend solely to “parties and sports”.

    • Seriously Concerned Student (Dana) | March 12, 2014 at 10:55 am |

      This year, the UMSU elections were a wonderful example how processes of the modern democratic ideal often fail to engage voters with a critical assessment of the purpose and function of what is being voted upon. In this case, student leaders and representatives of the student union were voted upon. I would argue that we, the voters, failed to be critical of our current executive and to fully understand the repercussions of our decisions.

      It is possible that the majority of students are unaware as to the capacity of the union to influentially represent the student body and the importance of fulfilling the functions of a student union, which are to communicate with students and advocate on behalf of students to all levels of government (umsu.ca) — not to plan parties or lead cheers with spirit fingers. If the elected do not provide a fair and wide representation of our collective voice to society and powerful decision-makers; then perhaps in retrospect, we may fully criticize our reliance on the democratic process to elect a slate that fails to fulfill the roles of union leadership.

      Though the direction of the newly elected executive does not adequately meet the needs and interests of the wider student population (not just the minority who voted) and those by which the union was originally formed; this has been overshadowed by promises of parties and Bison pride parades. I think Paul articulates very clearly the ways in which these elections have confirmed that the majority of us have confused parties of the political-constituent type, which represent us and participate in governmental affairs on our behalf, alternatively with parties of the social-gathering type.

      The prioritization of the latter type of parties over issues of accessibility and affordability in post-secondary education, and the importance of bolstering our academic environment (and our willingness to accept and perpetuate this peculiar prioritization) is problematic. As Anu stated, this demonstrates that perhaps we, as university students, need to check our privileges and re-prioritize. High tuition, debt, transportation, housing, and child care remain as barriers to post-secondary education. The doors of opportunity remain closed to hopeful, willing-to-learn students who face these barriers. Part of the reason for this is due to lack of solidarity among students and would-be/could-be/should-be students, and the failure of our union to advocate on behalf of the underrepresented.

      Paul emphasized that we cannot always rely on our leaders from above for this. The student movement is a bottom-up process that involves community-organizing to prioritize our objectives and achieve accessible, affordable, and high-quality public post-secondary education. As student activists, our ideas and accomplishments may be shared and learned through student-led campaigns and conferences, Jazz at the Hub, and the Black Hole Theatre Productions. Much like athletics, celebrations of diverse academic opportunities and on-the-ground achievements deserve to be embraced and enjoyed.

      The framework proposed here requires student solidarity to fulfill the purpose and functions of a student union in order to meet our needs and interests. We may address barriers to post-secondary education by seeking to improve affordability and accessibility without undermining the importance of a creative and quality learning environment altogether — by prioritizing education over our basic desires for entertainment, in ways that encompass school spirit from the ground-up.

  2. Brilliant. Thank you for presenting the frustrations of many students on campus so articulately.

  3. This is a brilliant article with great insight. I am not a member of UMSU any longer, but I truly support what it once was and what it could be in the future.

  4. I absolutely loved this piece. You made some excellent points. I hope to see you running for election in 2015!

  5. Avid Partier | March 11, 2014 at 8:38 pm |

    Clearly most students value partying and Bison pride over decreasing student debt and getting a U-Pass. Just because people do not share your left-wing ideals, does not mean the electorate are uninformed. For me, tuition is not an issue, and I am against the U-Pass, and I feel the biggest problem we have on campus is the lack of school pride and events. So, naturally, I voted Refresh. Paul, maybe take a second to realize that maybe you are not the respective student before you write an article like this, because frankly, you seem to have a lacklustre understanding of how democracy works.

    • I don’t think you can say that “most students value partying” considering that only 21 percent of eligible students voted. Furthermore, perhaps you should inform yourself on your preferred slate’s platform:
      On the U-Pass issue, Pierce said that he would “like to see it happen but only if the students want it and only when the students are informed about each side,” and based on the referendum, “clearly most students”, according to your logic, value the U-Pass.

      As well, it would be nice to see some stats on the students who did vote because it seems like it is largely first and second year students, who are not as informed about campus life and those issues which will inevitably plague some of them in the future, who are attracted to the idea of campus spirit and events. The voting system for UMSU elections is broken. An online voting system may have resulted in a different or at least a closer outcome, seeing as, on Friday, only 640 students voted!

      It is true that the students who voted chose Refresh, but what I don’t understand is why students should have to choose “campus spirit” over so-called “left-wing” concerns that value social equality like the U-Pass, lowering tuition costs, attention to basic student services, access to resources, inclusivity, academic freedom and infrastructural issues. I would guarantee that most students would like both; to be engaged on campus AND have the access to basic resources without going into crushing debt.

      Many students on campus are privileged and don’t have to worry about tuition. Social issues don’t become a concern until you are aware of their effect on your fellow students or yourself and this only happens for many when they become more involved in campus or learn about inequality in their classes or their workplace or from their friends or all of the above. Personally, I was also concerned about “campus spirit” in my first year because it was hard to make friends but as I have worked and been at campus for a while I have been able to learn a lot more about my fellow students and their needs, as well as my own. If you have basic empathy, you will see that many improvements can be made to the system so that disadvantaged students have a fair chance to succeed. It is doubtful that a wealthy, teen-aged new student would have the same problems as a young father or mother of two starting University at the age of 27, for example. It is important that both students are heard.

      As an aside: it seems like, from your comment, that so called “left-wing” student activism is somehow “anti-partying”, and that you do not think student activists know how to have fun. I assure you that, because most of us work our butts off in school, work and activism, that many of us party harder than most. Again, the two are not mutually exclusive.

      • Robert Paulson | March 12, 2014 at 9:31 am |

        Get off your high horse. Just because student activism and social justice are your number one concerns does not require them to be the unions. Over the last two years students have spoken quite strongly, and made it clear that they want their UMSU fees to be utilized on student concerns. In fact the last Executive elected on a platform of social justice ran in an election with only 7% voter turnout, roughly 1/3 what we have had in the last two elections.

        UMSU is not a social justice/ activist organization, though I keep hearing that it is. I suggest these individuals read the UMSU Act as it clearly identifies the objectives.

        The fact of the matter is that clearly the ways are change and it is not a bad thing. The fact that students now know what UMSU is, and what it does for them directly correlates to this increased voter turnout.

        I fully understand the anonymous trolls that undertook efforts to undermine and influence this election are pissed, but how about you instead cuddle your small mountain of ripped Al posters and get over it! The students have spoken, just because you disagree does not mean they are wrong.

        • Hello Robert,

          I really like my high horse (his name is Spartacus) as it provides a great view of my large mountain of posters – none of them are of Al though, they mostly depict me burning a bra or whatever you imagine horse-riding activists do. Also, I would suggest that you reread my comment because I said none of the things you purport, my main argument is that both campus spirit and student concerns like poverty/debt, more money to student services etc. can and should be addressed. Moreover, I promise you that your beloved Al feels the same way, perhaps you should ask him yourself.

      • PREACH!


    • I guess when 80% of the student population is going to end up educated and jobless partying their lives a way the votes add up.

  6. Election was a popularity contest lead by the influence of jocks on football team. Parties and good times does not define University life. Refresh campaign was led by that idea

  7. U of M alum | March 12, 2014 at 7:17 am |

    “The last time I checked, our right to party was never in jeopardy.”

    Exactly! Well written article, Paul. And thank you for touching on the sexism that has occurred via the U of M Confessions Facebook Page. Rape culture, indeed. It is unfortunate that Turnbull was re-elected; let’s not forget his “cool story babe, now make me a sandwich” t-shirt, and his sexist Instagram posts. Barf.

  8. Paul, by your own admission, the activist vote at the U of M is as narrow as it’s ever been. Therefore your proposed efforts to “let [UMSU] know that we want action to be taken” will most likely be ignored by the student body at large. I certainly hope you’re prepared for that. And you might be inspired by young activists in Egypt and Venezuela, but you will never be anything like them.

  9. Bread and circuses, always been the best distraction to gain public approval. I feel the issue might be bigger than UMSU, but a general apathy towards public service, partly due to not caring or worse, knowing its broken and not wanting to gix it.

  10. The right to speak up! | March 12, 2014 at 1:13 pm |

    The incumbent and newly elected Executive Committee know that their public leadership role is in the spotlight. U of M students want their union exec to do well. That is OBVIOUS. The only way to keep their platform in check is to voice feedback! Thank you Paul Bell for sharing your concerns!

    Jaycie: We can all learn a thing or two about student solidarity from young activists in Venezuela and Egypt. Speaking up in a public forum is valuable. The young people involved in these movements did not accept (and still are not accepting) passitivity from their leaders. There is always someone listening and everyone has the right to have an opinion–no matter the size of the stage.

    • It takes a lot of audacity even to bring up activists in Venezuela and Egypt, when the majority of complaints from student politicians concern not getting enough money for this or that. Keep things in perspective, will you?

  11. The right to speak up! | March 12, 2014 at 2:02 pm |

    Wow, never knew people at U of M are this dumb. Honestly 80% of you arguing are going to finish your bachelor and end up jobless. Don’t take university politics so seriously. If You can’t figure out a bunch of high school minded goofs are running you’re school, clearly you shouldn’t be in charge either.

  12. Parties are a quick fix to boost campus spirit. The high wears off rapidly. Hosting a massive party is not the only option to join people.

    Paul makes a good point: our right to party is not in jeopardy….our involvement is!

    And the young activists involved in the movements in Venezuela, Egypt, Ukraine, South Africa…. they are making gradual progress in shaping the governments they deserve. They are doing so by engaging in crucial issues–not parties.

  13. Bored and Nothing Better To Do Than Reply | March 12, 2014 at 4:41 pm |

    Just a few thoughts:

    1. Paul fears sports taking a dangerous precedent over creativity, ideas, and morality. Has Paul ever been to a Bison game? The women’s volleyball team just swept their way through nationals and completely demolished other universities making not only provincial wide news, but nation wide.

    Their attendance for home games was embarrassing. The seats are far from filled. Look at any photographs from their games, you see empty seats every where. One of the best university sports teams in the country is right in our backyard, and nobody cared to go watch them. I’m sure that looks fantastic on a national scale. Regardless of whether or not you support the athletic programs, their victory is good publicity for the university, and we should be ashamed at how little this student body cares.

    2. There sure is a lot of dead time waiting around for things to happen at games. There are many intermissions. There are usually two games in the gym as well as a hockey game on Friday nights. That’s plenty of intermission time in the gym, and with hockey, well, you’ve got two 20 minute intermission periods. What do we do with that time, I wonder? What about music? You look at any big university or college in the States and, wow, guess what? They have bands playing! Yes! The campus drum lines, brass sections, and other musicians that are also students on campus! They’re enthusiastic, choreographed, loud, and entertaining. They even play respected musical pieces. Sounds like an excellent marriage of these two continually competing styles of entertainment (sport and music). The arts and sport do not have to compete with each other! People at big universities come out for more than just the “sport.” They come out for the atmosphere. The bands. The game. The food… The experience of a night out – on campus! But hey, why hasn’t the Faculty of Music approached the athletics about this idea? You’ve got an audience just sitting there twiddling their thumbs for 20 minutes at a time; might be a good way to bring people not only to view the game, but to listen and watch the pre, post, and during game musical entertainment.

    3. No kidding, student activism is dead. We can’t get people excited about regular events the university puts on. How do you think you’re going to increase activism if pride in the university is already so embarrassingly low? People don’t want to be on campus. The only thing that exists is a sense of detachment. We’re currently a parking lot university. Seems illogical to say that getting students actively involved in activism should be the goal when clearly nobody wants to partake in anything that’s going on as it is. You have to start somewhere. Grow the community, grow the connections, then you’ll get your activism. People will be more likely to be united against something if they already feel connection and pride within their school.

    4. If UMSU’s purpose has always been “to advocate against student debt and restore funding to our education, to fight for affordable transportation, and address concerns around academic issues,” then heavily advocating for school pride for once is in itself challenging the status quo. I’ve been on campus for years, and never seen such a push like this for school pride. People on campus are getting excited for once about this school, and I personally think that’s amazing to finally see the campus be excited about something.

    5. It’s such a ridiculous idea to expect the same student population that has such low campus pride to suddenly care about “shoving themselves into desks that are too small for adults, in classrooms that are rarely cleaned.” As I already said, if UofM students can become proud of their school, their campus, their faculties, and celebrate school spirit, then a need for better desks and maintenance will likely increase as well.

    Think of it this way: what sounds better? “Hey, we need better desks and clean rooms in order to have a great school” or “Wow, every one cares so much about this school, they’re excited about being on campus, and everyone talks about what we’re up to – we need rooms that reflect our pride in this place.”

  14. This year I decided to vote REFRESH. This exec have way too much responsibility to act like “high school minded goofs.” They clearly want to do a top notch job!

    Student government is open to all students belonging to the institution. There needs to be more involvement on campus so students can take charge of issues that concern therm.

  15. In defence of UMSU | March 12, 2014 at 8:21 pm |

    I appreciate the points you bring up with this article. These points are worth discussing further. They probably should have been brought up louder before the election.

    The strong arguments seem to be overshadowed by the dislike for the people and the process. I see too much finger pointing and not enough actual action. The people who voted and the people who won all used their best judgement in the election process.

    Where was your campaign during the election Paul? Where were you when this discussion could have been had in advance of the election? Where were your articles and engaging debates to push for change?

    At the end of the day, the vote was won by a landslide. Thousands of people cast their votes to give the election legitimacy. Complaining about it here is just complaining.

    • “I see too much finger pointing and not enough actual action…”

      “Where was your campaign during the election Paul? Where were you when this discussion could have been had in advance of the election? Where were your articles and engaging debates to push for change?”

      These paragraphs were literally one after another. That’s silly.

  16. Parties are a quick fix to boost campus spirit. The high wears off rapidly. Hosting a massive party is not the only way to gather people.

    Paul makes a good point: our right to party is not in jeopardy….our involvement is!

    And the young activists involved in the movements in Venezuela, Egypt, Ukraine, South Africa…. they are making gradual progress in shaping the governments they deserve. They are doing so by engaging in crucial issues–not parties.

  17. –Better seats and desks in older buildings.
    –Cleaner classrooms.
    –A sorted out UPass proposal.
    –Respectfully themed festivities
    –Equal promotion of art, music, and sporting events
    –Mature leadership

    = The dream. (%100 attainable)

  18. These are fair expectations mentioned in the letter:
    —Cleaner class spaces.
    —Initiating a plan for better seating in older lecture buildings.
    —Equal and genuine promotion of art, music, and sporting events.
    —Respectfully themed festivities with no negative connotations.
    —Mature executive leadership

  19. QueerBookworm | March 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm |

    Bottom line, it’s not UMSU that is effing up – it’s the EXECUTIVE at UMSU. The union itself has great employees that work hard to implement campaigns, advocacy, and part timers that work their fingers to the bone for the right causes.

    In addition…Refresh is an abomination of what matters for post secondary students. And they give absolutely NO effort to better student life on campus.

    Jeremiah Kopp spoke for everyone on campus by saying any student you talk to will tell you their life was BETTER because of Fresh this year. All I have to say is – how DARE you speak for me. My life was a living hell this year, and the most STRESSFUL and DISCOURAGING year of my life as an UMSU employee.

    They need a big wakeup call.

    But what can you expect when your student union is run by privileged, inexperienced children like the Turnbull show?

    It’s a joke.

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