Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Hubris of Youth

When I was 17 I started at UVic and one of the first things I did was get involved with student politics. I had been politically active since I was about 15 and politically aware since I was about 10 or so. I look back at what I thought and how I thought it and my hubris appalls me.

I sat on the AMS board of Directors at UVic for one year when I was 18 turning 19. I worked for the board executive in 1986-87 and I served on the UVic Senate for three years.

I think back to some of the things we did as a board when I was elected to it and how close minded and immature we were. The rules were more important than the outcomes, winning was more important than doing the right thing. We spent the majority of our energy on things that were not related to the day to day life of the students that paid the costs of the student society.

I raise this because of some reading I was doing last night. UVic student David J.A. Foster has an interesting blog - Eye on the UVSS. He is young but is much more mature than almost all the student politicos of my era or the current era. His blog is the sort of interesting coverage of student politics that the student paper the Martlet has never managed.

Foster's blog had a link to an very long, though fascinating, review of the Canadian Federation of Students by Titus Gregory. I got to know Titus in passing during the Yes to BC STV campaign, he is an honourable, thoughtful and decent guy. His paper is well researched and painfully well backed by sources. It is also a work of passion about how the existing structure of the CFS is an oppressive burden on students and not operated in along line of natural justice or administrative fairness. Every university student should read his paper.

He sent a draft copy of the paper to the CFS and Phil Link (this is a guy from my era and he is still in student politics as a staffer????) He got fairly serious negative comments from lawyers. Given the very thin skin and propensity of the CFS to spend time in courts, he is a brave man to cross swords with them. It also amazes me at how much time and energy the CFS is willing to spend on lawyers. Last time I checked there are much cheaper arbitration processes for disputes and lawyers really do not need to money for students to make a living.

I am amazed at the self righteous of the people elected to student unions across the country. I should not be as I was one of those people when I was young. Without mentors with wisdom, youth in their late teens and early 20s do not have the life experience to normally govern well or fairly.

The recent UVSS elections has yet again had some problems with the outcomes of the election. Two candidates were disqualified for flimsy reasons that have at best the patina of justification for what looks like a capricious political action to any outsider. Justin Bedi and Geoff Sharpe were the two to suffer.

In fairness of disclosure, I did manage to get the UVSS foreunner the AMS issued with a lawsuit in 1986 for how I disqualified some candidates in an election - I was the young electoral officer flexing his muscles and applying the rules very tightly. I was stupid in what I did and how I did it, it cost the AMS money which came involuntarily from the students at UVic. I was not a good steward of the resources I was privileged to handle. The AMS general manager had the good sense to reduce the losses and quickly settle out of court for a relatively low cost. The UVic AMS or UVSS was never better run than when David Clode was the general manager, I was too young to see it at the time but the ongoing regular fiscal crises of the UVSS bear out my comment.

When I look at how much a UVic student must pay to the UVSS I am stunned. A typical undergrad has to pay close to $140 a year for the basic operations of the student society. That certainly is an increase many times faster than the rate of inflation since I was at UVic. On top of that is the $146 a year for the athletic fee, the $122 bus pass fee, and the extended health and dental plan for another $285.60. This is $685 a year for a fulltime undergrad at UVic. Really!?!?! How is that is supposed to be making education affordable?

Many of the fees are small, but they add up. The $15.96 the student has to pay for the CFS may not sound like a lot, but it only highlights the nature of how there are numerous groups providing little or no measurable benefit to the student population at university but still getting money. The student has no choice in the matter and has to pay, no one asked the current students if they want to pay all of these fees. Yes there were referendums in the past to approve the fees, but the people that voted are long gone. It would only be fair for the UVSS to hold a referendum every three or four years to get a legitimate mandate from the students for the fees.

We viewed what we took from the students in the 1980s as our right and made no effort to provide an equitable set of services for the fees raised. It looks like it is the same now or worse. I was around when UVic joined CFS, the AMS was rather luke warm about joining at the time. Even then the CFS spent more energy on stopping student unions from leaving than on actually doing anything for students. I got my expenses paid for a trip to Douglas College at one point to argue the point with them that they should not hold a referendum to leave CFS.

During the university funding crisis of the 1980s the main advocacy for university education in BC came from a small group formed by the UVic AMS and the UVic faculty association - the Alliance to Defend Education. ADE operated on a tiny budget and shows that an ad hoc group of passionate people normally can do a lot more than an institutional entity like CFS. Poor Sue Stroud worked for less than starvation wages on the campaign, but the campaign was more effective than anything since then. ADE flourished in large part because we had the wisdom of the faculty as part of the campaign.

When I ended up being elected to the University Senate is when my hubris began to ebb. I really understood how little I knew and how much I had to learn when I served as the undergraduate representative on the committee seeking the new president of UVic in 1989. The committee was chaired by the Chair of the Board of Governors and he was the first person I had ever met that used interest based negotiations to resolve conflicts, though I do not think he knew the formal terminology of what he was naturally doing.

The hubris and inexperience of youth plays itself out with every new generation. The silliness of now will be there when my youngest gets to university in 16 years.

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