What is a faculty society anyway?

Brendan O’Shea on the role and changing character of SASS.

The Sydney Arts Students Society (SASS) is the largest faculty society on campus. It aims to provide a “vibrant experience and dynamic opportunities” for its 17,000+ members, a figure that represents around 30% of the total student body. With these sorts of numbers, a rich history of contribution to the campus’ cultural life, and a reputation for attracting current and aspiring Big Names on Campus, SASS is a landmark institution at this University. And yet, increasingly, it does not appear to act in a way becoming of an institution that represents the Arts or USyd’s Arts students.

Three weeks ago, on the 23rd of March, campus observers were stunned to learn that the University of Sydney Union (USU) had declared last November’s elections for the SASS executive invalid. The background is detailed. In the lead up to those elections, the SASS executive attempted to pass several constitutional changes, notionally designed to prevent the “stacking” of elections. One of these changes, the introduction of clause 9.a.iii, aims to restrict eligibility for the key roles of President and Secretary to individuals who had previously served on the SASS executive. A similar mechanism exists in USyd’s Science Society. So far so good.

In July 2017, however, the USU Board of Directors vetoed this proposal. But despite then SASS President Jacob Masina also serving as a Director, his executive nonetheless administered the SASS elections as if clause 9.a.iii had been instituted. The subsequent election of Masina’s friend and fellow Young Liberal, Lachlan Finch to the SASS Presidency, may not have occasioned if the election was open to more competitors. As such, the Directors invalidated all executive appointments.

SASS art
Artwork by Brendan O’Shea

Many were pleased to hear this. Some, especially stupol hacks, watched on with schadenfreude as some of the most electable Liberals in many years jeopardised their control over a crucial base. Others, especially those Arts students craving improvements in campus life, hoped for a better, more representative SASS. One can hardly blame them—Finch’s SASS, like Masina’s and Ed McCann’s before his, isn’t really all that arts-y. So, with the deposed SASS executive now appealing to their prior efforts in their bid for re-election, it’s worth considering their record.

For many, a society is only as good as the events that it holds. For that reason, and the fact that events choices reveal important things about society’s priorities and preferences, it makes sense to examine the events this SASS executives organised. One would hope that their events are sufficiently varied, diverse, and obviously relevant to Arts students. Yet, by considering the events linked to and bolstered by SASS’s official Facebook page and newsletters, one might consider that they’ve run afoul of that consideration.

So far this year, SASS has held two sports events, one bar party, a first-year camp, and a “Leadership Night + LinkedIn Photoshoot”. Of these, only the first-year camp and pub crawl seem at all consistent with the historical SASS zeitgeist. For starters, a “Leadership Night + LinkedIn Photoshoot” has a distinctly corporate bent to it. While no one is suggesting Arts students shouldn’t have jobs, nor that they shouldn’t be in the best position to compete for those jobs, Arts students seem among the least likely to go into fields where corporate networking and inorganic headshots are crucial to success. One may even question whether this way of going about promoting employment is in the spirit of the Arts. It certainly seems at odds with both the Arts disciplines’ traditional commitment to learning for its own sake, and the romantic image of Arts students as intellectual rebels.

Equally, sports events seem like odd things to prioritise. Though inter-faculty sport was not suddenly invented when Ed McCann was President in late 2014, since then, successive executives have attempted to cultivate a culture of weekly participation in these events. While many Arts students obviously enjoy sport(s), it’s unclear why there aren’t opportunities for things that seem, you know, arts-ier. In 2014, for instance, the SASS executive organised poetry slams in Hermann’s as early as March. While SASS has never exclusively been about promoting academic or creative concerns, there seems something quite off about a society that doesn’t promote or engage in creative activities whatsoever.

That leaves us with the first-year camp and the bar party. The SASS welcome party in Week One was the latter. It makes sense—this is a university after all—with one only left to wonder why it received very little promotion in SASS channels. Whereas the first-year camp was relentlessly advertised, taking pride of place as the SASS cover photo, the welcome party got a minor mention in a weekly newsletter and a few plugs on the Facebook page. That the Facebook event for the party was only created one week in advance, while the camp and other events received far more space in the newsletter is all the more puzzling when its considered that the camp is only an opportunity for first-years. For many of SASS’ 17,000 student-members who aren’t in first year, who aren’t into sport, or who think leadership nights are as boring as they are irrelevant, it’s hard to see what this SASS executive offers them. Heaven help the ones that don’t drink.

But events only tell part of the story. The importance of SASS’ literary journal, ARNA, cannot be understated, especially in this its 100th year. And yet, SASS did not seem especially keen to promote their call-out to “all aspiring editors and creatives” very widely, or with nearly the same gusto as they promoted other events. Despite falling later in the year, ARNA’s editor application deadline was plugged twice on the SASS Facebook page, compared to the Welcome Party’s four. Similarly, SASS did not even mention the deadline in their weekly newsletter, the organisation’s most direct way of reaching the Arts community, until 3 days beforehand. That this deadline—March 25th—was itself a one-week extension, makes the radio silence before the original deadline all the more concerning.

While ARNA’s independent Facebook page picked up some of the slack, their ~670 likes are pale in comparison to SASS’ 4,700. So, while ARNA’s editors will likely do a fantastic job with the century edition, the executive does not deserve any credit for it.

There seems to be one final way in which the SASS team seem out of step with the Arts students they claim to represent. While the image of Arts students as radicals is somewhat stereotypical, the generalization comes from a real place. Arts disciplines often converge on progressive / left-wing conclusions. Though some complain that this is the function of brainwashing, there seems to be something about these disciplines attracting students already committed to these conclusions while also converting many of the remainder. And while it’s easy to dismiss the perception of ‘Arts students = left-wing’ as distorted by the vocal, radical minority, few would doubt that—were there are comprehensive survey of Arts students’ political opinions—more would identify with these sorts of conclusions than not. In that context, it seems puzzling that SASS has done little, if anything, to promote progressive causes. There has been no promotion of protests, no identification of injustice and no solidarity campaigns.

To be fair, to this most recent executive, they have not obviously aided right-wing ambitions, though the LinkedIn photoshoot veers dangerously close to doing so. But in many ways, this apolitical bent exemplifies what’s so off about the Liberal SASS dynasty of the past few years—it is boring, gutless, and dishonest about its motivations. Sadly, it is unlikely that this will undermine their prospects of re-election at the premature AGM to be held at 5pm on Thursday 19th of April, in Quad Philosophy Room S249. At least I’ll always have the memories of what once was.