Monday, April 7, 2008

An Open Letter to the AMS

Sometimes in times of crisis it's important to look at the big picture. So that's what I'm going to attempt here. Make no mistake - the AMS has as fundamental a crisis as it can realistically expect to face. Since it has mandatory membership its very existence is not at stake, but its ability to make a positive change for students, either by lobbying or by campus presence, is very much at risk.

The AMS' credibility is shot. The Lougheed and Bonfire Affairs have pretty much turned the AMS into as much of a joke as possible. Students generally used to be fairly ambivalent; it's safe to say that the tide has turned. Students on all sides of the political spectrum have some serious grievance or other against the Society, and students in the middle are completely and entirely alienated by the insane and fractious factionalism that makes the U.S. House of Representatives look downright civil by comparison. Indeed, the only unifying belief is that the AMS isn't worth students' time. Not only has the AMS lost respect of students, it's also lost the respect of those with whom it needs to have a productive relationship - the media, the University, various authorities, and the community at large. And so much time will have been spent on damage control, diverting energies from worthwhile reforms.

The root cause is the unnecessarily bitter factionalism that's driven a wedge within the society. What began as an ideological cleavage has rapidly descended into the poisonous, petty politics of personal vendettas. While tempting, there's no need to blame anything else.

There's an upside - the AMS is still a relatively healthy society, and students have many reasons to appreciate it. It's still in good financial shape, just passed a transformative referendum, and was on its way to becoming the centre of campus discourse once again. Moreover, the AMS has an opportunity this week, with a Council meeting and the Block Party, to take the first steps to make it right.

There are some relatively easy steps to take. My rules:

  1. A joint statement, signed by all the AMS execs. State what you agree on, and the areas that you can work on together to improve students' lives.
  2. Don't suppress debate - you're not going to agree on everything. But, when there's a disagreement, and it's intractable, put it aside for a couple weeks. A month. Take a cooling-off period, and spend this Council meeting looking for common ground. If people are disagreeing on something fundamental - move on.
  3. Let the exec do its job. That's hugely critical at this time. And let the exec speak for the AMS.
  4. Circle the wagons. You don't have to become mindless cheerleaders, but make it known when you support each other. Again, find common ground.
  5. Pay attention to words. No ad hominem remarks about who's sleeping with whom, or that people don't respect democracy, or are reckless. If a word gets a negative reaction from someone - drop it. Antagonizing people gets us nowhere.
  6. No gossip. Scandal and gossip are fun and as "fun" as things get for student politicians, but right now, they're adding fuel to the fire.
  7. Run a kick-ass Block Party. Channel your energy there, and give students an amazing send-off to the year. Be relevant!
But first, it'll require one side to "blink." In every intractable dispute, some party needs to be the first to stand down. Or at least take a step towards it. Please - do it. I'm not calling for a homogeneity of ideas, just a cooling-off period, and a focusing of the ideological cleavage in a productive way. Diversity of ideas breeds good policy and debate, but that can only happen if you find common ground to channel it. Mark my words - nothing constructive will happen this (exec) year without some consensus. The next few years of the AMS, and the student movement at UBC for the near future, depend on you.