On Thursday, Oct. 17, not enough students attended the UVic Students’ Society (UVSS) Annual General Meeting (AGM). The issues at hand were contentious; one was the UVSS’s ongoing dispute of pamphlets distributed by the Catholic Students’ Association (CSA). However, even with an issue this polarizing, few people bothered to show up—less than 0.6 per cent of the undergraduate population. This is not a new problem, and it speaks to the UVSS’s ongoing failure to engage with students, let alone with the interest groups that it’s often at odds with. This lack of student engagement is deeply troubling. The UVSS is debating issues that have a real impact on members, like funding, as well as weighty moral arguments that could serve to hone their critical faculties and shape the future of greater society.
One reason students don’t care about campus politics is that the UVSS seems to be constantly embroiled in disagreements with smaller student groups. Frankly, it’s a turnoff. The nature of the UVSS’s interactions with these groups often causes students to perceive the UVSS as unreceptive to advocacy or bent on suppressing free speech. It’s unclear whether this is a fair assessment, or a misconception born of a simple lack of engagement between the UVSS and students, laying some fault with both sides.
At the recent AGM, the main issue at hand would have been whether or not the controversial pamphlets presented by the CSA constituted harassment. Though the pamphlets’ content was objectionable according to mainstream progressive attitudes toward sexuality and gender, the CSA was not pushing the pamphlets on students. Even if a group is an ideological minority that draws ire from the mainstream, there is little justification for the board of the students’ society to spend time and resources harrying particular groups of students or combatting their messages. In the end, because not enough students were present, the issue could not be openly and directly addressed by students.
The lack of engagement doesn’t just extend to controversial groups, but also to groups that shouldn’t be controversial at all. For example, in its ongoing legal disputes with Access UVic Association of Disabled Students and other parties, mediation has sometimes seemed like a foreign concept to the UVSS—and at this point, they could use a strong dose of it. The board has turned over numerous times—fresh minds and perspectives are on it; yet its culture of exclusivity remains. This hurts all students, regardless of whether they are politically active. The UVSS has consistently struggled and often failed in recent years to achieve quorum at general meetings (the ones we’re all supposed to attend, as active members) held twice yearly by default.
It’s clear that the UVSS recognizes the lack of engagement. They have even offered iPads as an incentive to get students interested, which is mostly funny, but also sad. The hard approach, and the right approach, is to reach out to students, seek their input, and make them feel their voices are being heard, rather than silenced. They shouldn’t have to offer free iPads to do it, either—instead, they could spend their budget informing more students about how and when to participate. No, social media doesn’t count, and poster boards are too cluttered. Prominent display of minutes and agendas could help. So could taking meetings, avoiding in-camera discussions, and seeking, rather than dreading, face time with constituents. If we held town halls sometimes, it may not be such a stretch to attend an AGM.