Should I quit the student union?
January 11, 2022 5:37 AM   Subscribe

I'll start by explaining the situation. First, I joined this student union because I thought it could help me professionally and because I thought I could bring in some of my expertise into it. However, I am growing disaffected with its leadership.

I am not blameless in all of this. Sometimes my flaws get the better of me. To be clear, I decided to take matters into my own hands, acted like a loose cannon and went over the president's authority. Basically I contacted her boss to get some information I needed out of him. It was taking way too long, we needed a name from this person and they weren't budging. It's been two months, and he's nowhere to be found.

The president was understandably angry that I did this. I shouldn't have done it, it was just a bad idea.

However, even if that was a royal screw up on my part, I still have my misgivings about the organization and the president herself.

To start, it's been 4 months, the student union has basically done nothing. Nobody gets paid here, but I think nobody takes it seriously, either. For instance, we meet once every month on hour long meetings to get basically nothing accomplished. I understand this is volunteer work, but if people don't really want to take it seriously then why are they there? The president is also just absent. She's not there at all, she just isn't. Last week she pulled the plug on a meeting at the last minute, and she didn't even do it herself, she sent her friend to do it. More than this, she's not even here, she's in another country basically taking pictures of herself.

The other thing I'm not happy about is the way that the president reacted with this email issue. She's right to be angry, yeah, I sidestepped her authority and basically did whatever I wanted. She argues that we are a team and that we should always discuss these things beforehand. Yet, she also went on a diatribe about how I was blaming her or the school's director, even though I never said or implied that. I told her as much and she stopped. Nonetheless, immediately afterwards she scheduled a meeting with the whole team.

I feel like this isn't as much about anything that has to do with the team, me emailing the director or things not getting done. It seems to me like it's about her covering her ass.

I'm really not that happy with grad school so much anymore, I don't even care about it anymore beyond just getting good grades, getting my title and moving on with my life.

I'm really on the fence on whether I should just pull the plug on this student union thing. I would like to think the president is trying her best, but I've seen leaders like her before in my old jobs, and I know that 4 months is long enough to know how things will end up going, which is to say that it will be a waste of time and nothing will happen.

I'm wondering if anyone can give me advice. And yes, please be as truthful as possible. I am by no means an innocent victim in this thing.
posted by Tarsonis10 to Human Relations (20 answers total)
Best answer: These kinds of politics are common in almost every volunteering opportunity. Volunteering should be something you do because you truly enjoy it, and you are truly helping other people.

My experience with student unions is that when you enter them, you feel like you are helping your fellow students get the best possible outcome. But, I quickly realized, is that there were already 30+ people that had that same intention. Most of the effort wasn't making decisions to help people (those were obvious, didn't require decisions) it was about moving up and furthering the movement. So I left.

I've also volunteered for organizations who's main purpose is to perpetuate the organization. They have missions, but the mission is about awareness of some problem - which... ends up self-marketing primarily with some small amount donated to some charity for the mission. Sometimes they are fun and exciting but at the end of the day, very few people are helped.

I've also volunteered for Adopt a highway. After a few times doing adopt a highway, I asked what they do for highways that weren't adopted. They have a big vacuum-type machine that scoops almost everything up at 15 miles per hour. While our work saved the machine, and person running that machine money, it was less than what I spent on gas money to drive to the location. Again, fun to do, but not helping anyone.

I've also volunteered for organizations that actually help people. Building houses for people that can't otherwise afford them. Giving food at food banks. Working suicide hotlines. Helping old people with plumbing / odd jobs. Giving Christmas presents to people that can't otherwise afford them. Usually the work is harder, but ultimately implicitly and explicitly more rewarding. Usually they don't have the politics problem - they put anyone that wants to to work, as little or as much as you'd like.

TLDR: My recommendation is to re-evaluate your volunteering often. Prioritize what makes you happy and also makes other people happy.
posted by bbqturtle at 5:54 AM on January 11, 2022 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should leave the union. Nothing about it is stirring your soul and it’s getting in the way of the puzzle you really need to solve, which is whatever is making you question your academic goals. Work on that, go get great grades, help out at a local org that needs bodies and minds to make life better for people, and leave this entire situation behind.
posted by mdonley at 6:10 AM on January 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like this student union is a largely pro forma thing to put on your resume. If you think this will be useful/necessary, you could just be a silent/go-along-to-get-along member for the rest of your program.

A friend of mine ran into some similar trouble with a grad student organization. It didn't go well and ended up being a waste of my friend's effort to get things rolling again. If the organization itself is dead in the water, there probably isn't much you can do even if you put in the work. If you have good bonds with a few of the other members, that's one thing, but if it's just you trying to get stuff done yourself it probably won't go anywhere.
posted by Frowner at 6:11 AM on January 11, 2022

Response by poster: Yeah, you know, this situation is made worse because I actually like the president. She's a nice person, but professionally speaking that is irrelevant. She's an absent leader.

I could stay, do whatever, but I really hate going into an organization and doing the bare ass minimum just to write it down on your resume. That's just such hypocrisy.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 6:19 AM on January 11, 2022

Best answer: If you don't like the way the organisation is run, don't volunteer there. There must be loads of other organisations that would appreciate your time, and sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right fit for your aspirations, skills, aptitudes and personality. The great thing with volunteering is that moving on isn't as big a drama as it is with changing jobs.

But also (and it sounds like you're doing this), be sure to learn the lesson that this organisation has been able to teach you, that generally speaking, pissing off people whose goodwill you need to make progress, is counterproductive. If you've learned that you might be someone who is prone to doing that, you now know to keep a check on yourself, step back and consider what course of action is most likely to get the outcome you want given the personalities involved, rather than what will be the quickest outlet for your frustration. If you've learned that, you can still view these few months as having been of use to you and your development.
posted by penguin pie at 6:24 AM on January 11, 2022 [16 favorites]

Based on your posting history where you're new to Canada and I think North America, I think you may want to consider the possibility that (a) there's possibly some different expectations for what a student union is/does in North America than in many other places (not saying this is good, but e.g. there's basically a non-existent culture of such unions as functioning labor orgs), and (b) there's different cultural norms for managing conflict in work-like settings in Canada than in many other places (this is something I've seen people run up against again and again, from Europe at least).

As a faculty member at a North American university right now, I'll also add that last semester was extraordinarily rough for many students, possibly even worse than previous pandemic ones, and the general student flakiness quotient is very high right now in consequence. Personally I'm forgiving everything I possibly can...
posted by advil at 6:34 AM on January 11, 2022 [20 favorites]

Best answer: I would just stay a member and not expect much. But you never know when an unexpected benefit will come your way. To give an extreme example, I once belonged to a mega-dysfunctional student org, but got a KEY to a campus building as a side effect.
posted by 8603 at 6:42 AM on January 11, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Also, since it seems like you joined less to make a difference and more for whatever networking opportunities and prestige it might afford - change your focus to chatting with the other members, getting to know them, making some social connections, etc. And maybe treat it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about your new environment or to get a slightly unique perspective on one aspect of it.

But if you find that it keeps getting you down, do quit - keep your eye on the important stuff, not things that take you away from it.
posted by trig at 7:41 AM on January 11, 2022

Best answer: This won't be the last time in your life you are in an organization with leadership you perceive as absent or ineffective. You've already identified the public facing reasons that joining the student union was of interest to you. I also see the opportunity for you to use this situation to work in a super low-stakes environment on internal workplace and collaboration skills.
From what you've said, you like the leader at a personal level, and nothing in your narrative suggests active opposition. You just find their style absent and ineffective. It may well be. So, what is your passion, and what are you going to do about it? Maybe stick around and run for leadership yourself? Maybe develop a different way of communicating with the president. For example, before you went over her head, did you send a note specifically saying that you wanted to get this done, and if you hadn't heard anything in three days you were planning to ask their boss? Would that have prompted the conversation you needed? Maybe there is a different approach which could have moved towards your desired outcome without you feeling the need to couch your intro with taking some of the blame yourself.
This is a great way to try things out, make mistakes, and learn where you want to be in an organization. It's always fine to leave, but perhaps before you do you can find some other value you can get out of the investment you have made so far.
posted by meinvt at 8:13 AM on January 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Maybe stick around and run for leadership yourself?

I'd do that yeah, but she's a PhD student, I'm not. I'm also sure that I'll be getting out by the end of this year.

For example, before you went over her head, did you send a note specifically saying that you wanted to get this done, and if you hadn't heard anything in three days you were planning to ask their boss? Would that have prompted the conversation you needed?

I did and it went nowhere. I also told her, I could just do it myself, that I had methods of getting to this man and that one way or another we could get that information. I know his students, they could have arranged something. But she never budged on that, and she seems to not want anyone to have contact with him. Out of all the things I've been doing myself, getting mad over this one struck me as very odd. Like I said before, I feel there is something going on in there that the rest of us are not aware of. I understand why she would be mad, but I found her responses puzzling. I certainly didn't attack her or blame her.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 9:02 AM on January 11, 2022

She's a doctoral student, which means she's probably teaching classes (which means dealing with a lot of stress and performing a lot of emotional labor, especially in our current climate), writing her dissertation, worrying about the non-existent job market, all while living through a pandemic. Most student groups are pro forma and primarily exist so that people can put something on their resume. It shouldn't be that way, but it is that way and has been for a long time.

She's annoyed with you because you are not reading the room, you are not treating the student union the way that all of the other members are, and it is making her look bad. She does not need a master's student bothering her supervisor and telling him that she's not performing one minor aspect of her very stressful job. Being the president of the student union is probably very low on her list of priorities. I'm not saying that you did anything wrong, but that your expectations for the group do not meet the reality of the group. And your expectations of the president do not match what the president is able to do right now. Please cut her some slack and leave this be. It sounds like your volunteering time would be better spent elsewhere, perhaps by volunteering in your local community.
posted by twelve cent archie at 9:14 AM on January 11, 2022 [19 favorites]

Very important clarification: is this a "student union" as in an ASU or USB, aka a university-sponsored "student government" or association that schedules extracurriculars and like, manages the student recreation center or something, or is this the graduate student UNION, as in a collective bargaining labor organization that actually collects dues, negotiates employment contracts, and handles employee grievances?

If it's the former, yeah, these are pro forma and people get involved in these to buff their resumes. Simmer down and go with the flow

If it's the latter, you and every member of good conscience have a responsibility to fight by any means necessary to make it as strong and effective as possible, ruffled feathers be damned. If the president or anyone else is standing in the way of building an effective, fighting union, organize them into effectiveness or organize them out.
MeMail me if you'd like more specific advice and resources on this front. Good luck!
posted by Krawczak at 10:27 AM on January 11, 2022 [6 favorites]

...she's a PhD student, I'm not...

...Basically I contacted her boss to get some information I needed out of him. It was taking way too long, we needed a name from this person and they weren't budging. It's been two months, and he's nowhere to be found....

You have plenty of other good answers, but not too many addressing this piece of it.

I don't know about the particulars of your university or situation, but as a PhD student the only situation where it would be appropriate for an undergrad from a student organization I participate in to contact anyone that might be considered "my boss" (e.g., my thesis advisor, the professor who runs the department I work in, or the director of my PhD program) with a complaint would be if I were harassing you or putting you in danger.

If you sent such an email, depending on its contents, I'd be in for a serious conversation or two while my boss tried to assess whether you were okay (possibly involving other student-facing administrators), and then depending on the person you contacted, that might be followed by another serious conversation about how I don't get paid to participate in Student Organization, I get paid to do research, and I should really think about what my priorities are in grad school.

I share this not to berate you, but to contextualize her response.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:34 AM on January 11, 2022 [7 favorites]

Yet, she also went on a diatribe about how I was blaming her or the school's director, even though I never said or implied that.
I have no idea what kind of "student union" this is, nor do I think her behavior/response is appropriate, but if you can't see how you did just that, I'm not sure it's a good idea to stay involved with this group. I get the feeling that you think you aren't doing that because perhaps you aren't using those words or directly finger pointing but you are in fact blaming her for some failure to perform and making it known to others that you feel that way. Whether that is appropriate or a good idea or not I think is less relevant than the fact that you can't see it and barely acknowledge the idea of it, which I think is going to make this experience more and more negative for both of you, especially since you are dismissive of both the idea of working with her or stepping up yourself.
posted by sm1tten at 12:10 PM on January 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: especially since you are dismissive of both the idea of working with her or stepping up yourself.

I have never dismissed either one of those ideas. I would step up, but she's been the president for a while. I'm here for a few more months, she has two years left for her degree.

What am I going to do? Run for president in just a few months? I am also not an undegrad.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 12:28 PM on January 11, 2022

Best answer: I wonder if some of your angst and turmoil over this issue is connected to your general lose of enthusiasm for graduate school? Maybe taking a step back from the general graduate school community would be useful? You could focus on developing professional associations through school and volunteering elsewhere.

Also, I see that you are analyzing the doctoral student's actions through the lens of your previous work experience. Unless you have worked in academia, that is not useful. Academia has its own norms that are really quite unique.

Keep in mind that the doctoral student is not leaving the university---this university, perhaps, but not the academy. Her supervisor has a huge role in whether she gets a job in a very competitive landscape and the supervisor continues to significantly impact the shape of her career after graduation. Contacting the supervisor was a really big deal that could have outsized implications for the graduate student. Particularly if the supervisor only had limited knowledge of the student's union work or involvement. If this is a labor organization, why would you contact management for help? And if this is a student government group, why would you contact the personal supervisor of one member about the organization? What does that supervisor have to do with the organization?

Try to find ways to accomplish your goals that do not hurt others.
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 1:04 PM on January 11, 2022 [9 favorites]

What are you hoping to get out of continuing to argue in this question? Yes, you should quit. At the bare minimum there is an incompatibility between you and the others in this organization and based on your responses you are unwilling to consider how your actions have stoked animosity. You don't like how the organization is run, you don't think it is doing anything, and you have no interest in leading it yourself because you will be leaving (and if you are leaving within a few months you're correct, you shouldn't try to take it over). Invest your energy elsewhere.
posted by Anonymous at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2022

Yet, she also went on a diatribe about how I was blaming her or the school's director, even though I never said or implied that.

Yes you did, by going over her head to her supervisor you did exactly that. You might not have intended it but that is how it would have come across to me, whether I was the president or her boss in that equation (and I have been in both roles in similar situations). She's unlikely to trust you now, and that will not make things any better.

I have also been in your position, where I was volunteering my time for an organization whose leadership I did not respect. That is no fun, and it does sound like your student union is not very well run at the moment. It does sound like your time would be better used elsewhere, unless you can identify some kind of defined project where you can stay out of the president's orbit and work towards a result that will satisfy you.
posted by rpfields at 3:00 PM on January 11, 2022

Best answer: I'm also sure that I'll be getting out by the end of this year.

Then I think it would really be worth considering why you felt it was necessary or a valid course of action to go over the president's head. If you already plan on leaving soon, it's no skin off your nose if the org is run poorly, so what led you to decide that loose cannoning all over the place was the way to go?

You may well regret it now and realize that it was inappropriate after the fact, but as others have mentioned it's not gonna be the last time you're gonna run into this situation - whether in volunteer organizations or in paid work - and it's probably a really good idea to learn to recognize the signs of when and why you're getting frustrated and how to cool yourself off before you loose cannon in a situation with much more serious consequences.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:36 PM on January 11, 2022 [5 favorites]

Mod note: Couple comments removed. Tarsonis10, this isn't your first AskMe rodeo; you know you need to not get in arguments with people answering your question. Take what is useful and let it be beyond that.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:11 PM on January 11, 2022

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