It’s somewhat amazing that a multi-million dollar organisation can be run by a dozen students. For over a century, the University of Sydney Union’s student Board Directors have been running our food, drink, clubs and social events. Honi Soit chatted with the USU’s newly-elected President Hannah Morris (JD II) and Vice-President Tom Raue (Arts V) about their plans for a more consultative USU, redeveloped and refurbished buildings, and fixing some old USU problems.
Both Morris and Raue seem keen to get more student input into the often inscrutable USU decision-making process. The Board wants to keep using the USU Hub to poll students on what decor, food and merchandising they’d like. They’re also very keen on consultation forums. In an almost unprecedented move, the previous Board held open forums on issues like affirmative action and the LifeChoice society, to gauge members’ thoughts on the issues. While these forums usually attract a small audience of hacks and USU insiders, they’re a huge step forward to making the USU more open and in line with students’ views. Morris says she found them very helpful: “By holding consultations and reviews annually, we can tap into our knowledge of what’s going on campus currently, and make sure we’re constantly in touch with what students currently feel about these issues.” They mentioned women’s, queer and sustainability issues as potential future forum topics.
Many are still surprised by Tom Raue’s transformation from censured first-year Board Director to Vice-President. In his first term as a 2012 Board Director, he condemned the USU in Honi for approving the LifeChoice society; he later wrote on Facebook that he’d like to see the Atheist Society “boycott/protest” the USU Interfaith Week. These actions saw him censured (issued a formal reprimand) by his peers on board. While he “obviously disagreed with the censure, and found it upsetting, I’ve changed and learned how to get things done [on USU Board].” Despite a rocky start to his time on Board, Raue created the Environmental Officer position, encouraged USU support of the staff strike and is busy reforming the Union’s governance structures. He says the censure “taught me some valuable lessons, even if it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was at the time.”
The USU has some big plans in store for next year. Virtually all USU buildings will be getting a touch-up over the summer break. The biggest redevelopment will be the Holme building, which is being almost entirely redone. “It’s going to be incredible,” effuses Morris. The academic dress hire will be turned into a bar overlooking Parramatta Road, the Footbridge Theatre will become a projection room for movies. “It’ll be a much nicer, more social space,” Morris says. Thanks to a cash injection from the Uni, the Wentworth building will be getting a breakfast bar, international TV room and free charging stations. The various USU coffee carts will be redone, along with the bottom floor of Manning.
Unfortunately the USU’s other big goal – universal Access – seems to have become a more long-term goal. Although the USU still wants to make Access membership free for all USYD students, the board has “decided to wait until after the federal election” to pursue plans further. “We need to make sure we can get the millions of dollars necessary for it,” explains Raue. “It’d probably start with a gradual scaling back of prices and scaling up of services to make sure we can do it.” To achieve financial stability, the USU is considering external investments in businesses. “For example, would we want to buy the Rose [a local pub] and invest its profits back into the student experience?” wonders Morris. Raue thinks such investments are a “really good idea for students” because the USU’s revenue is otherwise limited to sales at Manning, Wentworth and Holme.
Both Raue and Morris spoke about the difficulty and even unimportance of achieving campaign promises. “If you run on minutiae, very specific policies, it’s a bit more difficult” to implement your policy, Raue said. “It’s a board of 11 students… it’s unrealistic to think you can do everything you want. Just like how when you vote for a minor political party, you know they won’t achieve all their policy,” he explained, then added “even with major parties!” This is partly because “your policy isn’t just your policy, it’s a signal about who you are and what you want,” said Morris. “A policy of Thai on campus represents commitment to higher quality food. A policy of solar panels represent a focus on the Union’s sustainability,” Raue agreed.
Morris says previous president Astha Rajvanshi was “very consultative – she came to board with every problem and consulted, heard our opinions.” As a leader, Morris would like to “lead by example” and be more hands on – “I’m going to try and be really involved in everyone personally.” Raue praised former Vice-President Brigid Dixon, but said that while Brigid is “very much a people person, I’m less adept at being everyone’s friend.” Instead he “wants to do governance work, creating structures and making things more transparent and accountable.” Both execs think this governance work is important – Morris attributed many recent USU controversies (such as the LifeChoice society and staff strike support advertising) to “communication flaws and flaws in the decision-making process.” Raue points out the “ongoing theme where if you have good policy, procedures and process, then issues like that don’t happen.” Hopefully his work into reforming governance will help eliminate incidents like these.
Leaving my chat with the USU’s two new leaders, I felt hopeful about the future. The newly-elected Board of Directors seems to cover a range of backgrounds, personalities and politics. Generally, I think they’re all very talented and capable. The senior Board Directors have shown they’re not afraid to innovate and try new things. The USU’s winning streak seems to be holding for another year.