When Tolstoy dropped out of university, he might have thought to himself that successful students' unions are all alike, but that every unsuccessful SU is unhappy in its own way.
Student elections in high school occurred annually, if begrudgingly, as students fought with one another to see who was most popular. One editor at this paper remembers the campaign slogan of the winning candidate: "Why can you tune a piano, but not a fish?" When students enter university, it's easy to infer that the su here is about the same -- a powerless organization in charge of unimportant issues, focused on popularity (or reference letters) with little to offer most students.
Although some of these claims are true -- of all politicians, actually -- many of them are not. It's important, though, to separate the issues that matter from the ones that don't. The outgoing SU, under president Dylan Jones, has in many ways changed the image of the SU that comes to mind from negative to positive.
The biggest achievement of Jones's cabinet has been increasing the SU's presence on campus. This hasn't been in the usual ads-on-walls style, but actually walking around and talking to students. While in years gone by most students would be hard-pressed to name the SU president, Jones's approachable style, combined with the ebullience of Matt Diteljan and Patrick Straw, have put faces to the SU.
While the out-of-office campaign has been lauded, there is a more significant achievement of this year's SU: they have had a reasonable view regarding what they can accomplish. It is the election cry of every candidate that they will lower tuition and fees. And whenever university administration or the provincial government considers tuition increases, the SU beats its chest. Gullible students get the impression that the SU can effect that type of change, but when it fails all the other students decide that the SU is a waste of time.
Rather than focusing on tuition this year (although it did come up), the SU has taken on more achievable projects. When study space was an issue during Fall exams, Jones worked with administration to develop an efficient solution. Meanwhile, the other executives have similarly followed suit -- vice-president Ola Mohajer has focused on projects within her control, like the Undergraduate Research Symposium, which was a bigger success this year. Even the person in charge of off-campus issues, the vice-president external Matt McMillan, has for the most part moderated his rhetoric about changing the world.
Full-time students pay over $100 a year to the SU, so it's important that students demand that they get their money's worth. This money can contribute to a number of worthwhile projects without needing the approval of university administration. Not coincidentally, these worthwhile projects can be seen and felt by students, rather than the lobbying and committee work that is often associated with the SU, which, while still important, distracts from the achievable ways student life really can be improved.
Candidates would do well to learn these lessons. Every year students are told that the SU will fight to have tuition lowered, the student experience will improve and students will be proud that they attend the U of C. But this is exactly the language that hurts the SU's chances of success.
If Tolstoy had in fact said that all unsuccessful students' unions are unsuccessful in their own way, he would have been wrong. The ones that underwhelm do so because they lack scope every time. One year in office isn't long enough to accomplish most of the things candidates run on, and few are fooled by it. Candidates should take note.