A Seat at the Table

The following is the transcript of USC President Pat Whelan’s speech “A Seat At the Table”, delivered on November 25th to students, administrators, and community members. His speech addressed the importance of student advocacy in the context of a quickly evolving and ever-shifting post-secondary system. Watch A Seat at the Table for an appended version of this speech.

Welcome fellow students, Western administrators and faculty, and community leaders.  Thank you so much for coming this evening to discuss student advocacy at our university.

This is the second speech of this kind to be held by the USC.  Councillors, who are the elected students who govern the USC, directed Presidents to outline their goals at the start of every year.

With finals just two weeks away, we’re a bit later than the start, but for good reason. Our student organizations have had this building completely booked all fall, which I think shows us the activity of our student body.  So thank you to our council for waiting, I hope you’ll think it’s worth it.

Last year my predecessor started the conversation about refocusing the USC more towards advocacy, and we agree.  

We need to be a student government that cares less about our corporate interests and more about being the voice of students.

Advocacy is the practice of listening to students, hearing their concerns.  Researching best practices across the globe, and then preparing educated solutions.  By partnering with decision makers across campus, the city of London, the province, and the country, we ask them to take on these solutions and better the life and education of Western students.  Simply put – it’s hearing students, and making sure decision makers hear them too.

That’s my primary job, and it’s the primary mission of the University Students’ Council.

And it has been for a long time.  At Western, student advocacy has been organized since 1920, and we unified our efforts in 1947 with the founding of the University Students’ Council.  Since then, our campus has been shaped by student advocates:  Here are some examples.

  • The USC advocated for the original need for counselling, now we have the Student Development Centre and the Student Health Services
  • We advocated for students on our university’s governance, now we have 14 undergrads on the Senate and 2 undergrads on the Board of Governors
  • We advocated for supporting student entrepreneurship as far back as the 70s, and we’ve continued, building partnerships to join in providing the support
  • We advocated for the building we are all in right now, and as I said earlier the UCC hosts thousands of students and hundreds of student organizations daily.
  • We advocated for women’s rights in 30s, well I don’t think we can take full credit, we’re proud to have been part of the conversation.
  • We advocated for student course and professor evaluations, now they are a part of every course, publicly available.
  • We advocated for more student residences, now every first year student is guaranteed residence in first year.
  • We advocated for the need for an orientation to Western, and after starting both the Summer Academic Orientation and O-Week, our campus partners continue to take on more responsibility in providing an orientation.

So why the history lesson? Because what we are going to talk about tonight isn’t new, and it wasn’t new when my predecessor talked about advocacy last year, it will never be new.  It is our founding goal, and what I am talking about tonight is getting back to our roots.

So how does advocacy work? It’s a process, it’s a means, not an end.  We will always be advocating, because you will always have opinions.  There are three pillars of strong student advocacy, and I want to talk a bit about how we are going to better them for the future.  

They are:

  1. Effective listening
  2. Developing strong solutions
  3. Building lasting partnerships

Step 1: Listening

It was the number one reason I wanted to run for this job, listening to students needs to be at the core of everything a student government does.  Why? Because what I heard is that we aren’t being heard enough.  We have made some big strides forward this year, but it is something we need to continue to work on.

Two years ago over 10,000 students responded to a survey from the USC.  With a third of the student body responding, it proved students want to have input in decisions affecting their education and their life as a student.  In recent years, we have begun hosting ChangeCamps, Forums and Townhalls which have helped develop our policies and advocacy positions.  And most importantly, we continue to use our elected councillors, all (68?)of them, to bring your concerns forward.

Soon we will launch two new initiatives:

First, the Idea Forum, a campaign promise and a tool to listen.  Surveys are important, but they are limited by only gathering data based on the questions posed.  The Idea Forum is a platform where students can suggest ideas, as well as vote and comment on other people’s ideas.  It creates a campus wide dialogue, that will last longer than our four years here.  The USC will also be able to share developments related to suggested ideas, by publicizing its “status”, allowing students to see the work done on their behalf.

The second initiative is Concrete Speech, get it? Like Concrete Beach? The witticisms and puns are a secondary, but a crucial part of student government.  Concrete Speech will be a place where student leaders can share their opinions.  The public dialogue is currently limited to what myself and the Vice-Presidents think and maybe a few proficient tweeters.  We think that this needs to change.  As constituents, you have the right to know where all your elected leaders stand on any issue at any time.

These initiatives will strengthen the voice of students, but in future years the USC will need to continue to innovate and consider new ways of bringing more students into the conversation.

Step 2: Developing educated solutions

All of those successes over the past near century were a result of  well thought-out and statistically proven proposals.  Any intelligent decision maker wouldn’t make change unless the change you’re asking for has been fully thought out.  We wouldn’t do it at the USC, so why would we expect the university or our governments to make changes on a whim of a student advocate.

This is why we need to double down on our research and policy development.  Currently, our policy development is very ad-hoc and a lot of the decision making power still lies within the hands of the President and Vice-Presidents.  This is why my team will introduce a new process for policy development that will put the elected council back in control.

The process is designed to ensure that students’ needs and wants are prioritized; that researched, educated solutions are proposed and that council has the ultimate say.  This is what the me of two years ago, a keen social science councillor, thought council did.  Instead, we debated some renovation to the UCC or some policy that wouldn’t affect the lives of classmates.  I’m not trying to say that work isn’t important, or will stop, I’m saying councillors have a role in representing students.  They should be holding me accountable not only with my  ‘governing’ responsibilities, but also what I’m saying to decision makers on campus and throughout our governments.  

Students also have role… they need to hold their councillors accountable.  Our advocacy policy is only strong if it truly represents the needs and wants of students, and that accountability is crucial to accomplishing this goal.

We will be ready to introduce a better system to create stronger and more representative policies in the new year.

Step 3: Building Strong Partnerships with decision makers on and off campus

There are hundreds of decision makers that affect your life as a student at Western: university administrators, faculty, political parties and leaders, government officials, city leaders and other student groups.  To be effective advocates we need to build and strengthen our partnerships with all of them.

Our relationships vary from year to year: some years being very strong, and others fading away.  This, in large part, is based on our ability to transition relationships, and to retain trust.  Future leaders of the USC will need to remember that trust is a bank account: you make lots of small deposits each year, but it can take just one large withdrawal to put us back at square one.

Part of trust is a consistency in quality and a consistency of approach.  With consistently high quality solutions, and using an approach as one would with a partner, as opposed to an adversary, we will build trust.  We will work on building stronger transitions.

Speaking of partners, I wanted to thank Dr. Chakma and Dr. Deakin, Western’s President and Provost, their teams, as well as all of the other partners from on and off campus here tonight, for working with us with open minds for the past six months and showing your dedication to listening students by coming here this evening.

We will continue to build strong, lasting partnerships with key decision makers.

What are we advocating on now?

What have we been talking about this year? It’s the most rewarding part of my job.  I’m excited to share some with you:

  • We’ve been advocating for full definition of education, both the inside and outside the classroom pieces, and a strong commitment to support in Western’s Strategic Planning process.
  • We’ve brought mental health support deliverers from across campus together to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of our system on campus.  What are the gaps?
  • We’ve been advocating for the future of support for student entrepreneurs on campus and in the city.
  • We’ve been talking about the continuum of the student experience, from orientation to graduation.  A consistent and strategic approach to the ‘student experience.’
  • We’ve been advocating for better academic advising and teaching quality with the Provost and her team.
  • Last week, we brought issues with the Canadian Student Grants Program and Loan Program to the government in Ottawa.
  • Next week, we are talking about what limits access to university and how OSAP can work better with the provincial government in Toronto.
  • The City of London has literally given us a seat at the table, giving a seat on 8 city hall advisory committees to students.

Why is important now more than ever that we advocate?

We need student advocates now more than ever.  Universities are changing.  It’s not to say things will be bad, but they will probably be different.

A University like Western gets funding principally from two places, the provincial government and your tuition.  The provincial government is cutting some of its part of the funding.  Just a bit, here and there.  Universities will be dealing with shrinking budgets, we will need to eventually make tough calls about priorities.  Student need to voice what is sacred to them, what are the priorities that define our education and our experience.

Technology-enabled learning is the talk of the town in post-secondary education.  What does this mean?  How does this play into your broader definition of education – one that includes more than 20.0 credits.  What are its impact on our education?  Again, students need to start the dialogue.

The idea of differentiation, the idea of specialization.  Should our universities specialize?  What are the impacts?  What should they specialize in?  Again, this is a conversation that will go on without us, unless we are ready to advocate.

The city of London has extended us a great way to advocate.  How do we use this opportunity?  There will be a mayoral election in just under a year.  What bold, new plan will be proposed for our city, where will students fit in? Where should students fit in?

Our federal and provincial governments both will likely have elections in the next 24 months.  What will the Liberal plan be for Post-Secondary Education be? Where will Western fit into the Tories’ plans? What will the NDP do for students?

We should tell them.  We should start talking, start dreaming, get ready to share a vision for what university mean to us.  We won’t have the context decision makers live with every day, we won’t the ins and outs of fiscal pressures, or office politics, or the long-game, but we can share our context.

The next 24 months may dictate what may be a very transformative period for post-secondary education, and I’ve got a feeling we have some ideas that might help shape the future.

What we need to do at the USC to prepare? What is our current advocacy capacity?

In recent history we tumbled down into a corporate focus.  Oh the allure of the rat race, it was kind of like the movie Wall Street, the remake.  I’m kidding, there are a lot of reasons why we got there, but either way we did.  We were focused on food, beverage and retail.

In 2009, we struck the word business unit from our vocabulary, and started talking service.  Service for students.  What does that look like? Who provides it?

Which leads us down the road to where we are today, we are advocates and we are service providers. We’ve been climbing back up all this time and we are nearly at the peak.

A friend lent me the novel Into Thin Air about climbing Mount Everest, it’s terribly exciting and dramatic, but includes a stark anecdote.  Most people who have perished on Mount Everest die on the descent.

So the challenge we face today, as we approach the peak of being able to effectively advocate for students, is to remember that we are only half way there.  We need to get down the mountain and survive. We need to take what we’ve learnt and make sure we don’t fall back into a corporate focus.  We are the only ones who can advocate for students.  Someone else can serve you coffee or run a support group, only we can bring the student voice to the forums where real decisions are being made.

The USC should not be the one you ask, rather the one asking on your behalf.  This is our raison d’être.  It’s our founding mission, our root cause.  It’s the only non-negotiable, non-political part of student politics.

What does this all mean?

I’ve spent a good deal of time telling you all how the USC will bolster our ability to be your voice at the tables where decisions are being made.  But what does that mean for everyone else?

Firstly, to our partners on and off campus, Western administrators and faculty and city leaders.  Expect us to ask for a few more meetings, more opportunities to bring people around a table to try and solve some challenges facing our campus.  Expect us to want to be part of more conversations, and expect us to come with stronger solutions for you to consider.  We understand it’s a two way street.  In order to be at the table, we need to prove our value.  With 30,000 creative minds who all happen to be well educated a top institution, we are sure we can help Western be the best place to be a student.

To student leaders, run in an election.  Run for my job, run to be a Vice-President, or Faculty President or a councillor.  Be ready to engage.  Start talking to your constituents.  In addition to asking yourself, “what can the student government do more for students?”, start asking yourself, “what can Western do better for students? who can help that become a reality?”  In 3 months, we will have a new slate of advocates elected at the USC, make sure you are in the running.  There is nothing that I find more rewarding than representing students to the best of my ability, and you will too.

And finally–most importantly–to the 30,000 students who live, work, play and study on our campus and in our city: speak up.  Student advocacy is your civic responsibility to engage in.  It’s the key to more support, higher quality education, and a better life in the city.  Use us, we are a resource.  Speak up, talk about how to make our university the best place to be a student.  We have a lot of important discussions ahead of us, so make sure your views have a seat at the table.

Thank you all for coming this evening

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