What can VCs learn from SU officers?

We spend a lot of time inducting new SU officers into the ways that universities work. Phil Pilkington has some equivalent advice for those that lead universities

Dear Vice Chancellor,

The officers of the students’ union have a very wide and challenging range of responsibilities from everyday duties to maintaining a strategic vision. This can be a considerable burden, but do not assume this is because of their age or experience. You would probably find it an extreme burden in the same circumstances.

Unlike you, Vice Chancellor, they must balance the duties to the students’ union and its members and the interests of the university – a difficult task of potential conflict of interest which you do not have.

They have obligations

They are obligated to speak truth to power – you are that power and you need to actively listen to that specific truth. The officers may not know how to speak to you – can you help with the articulation needed? You may sympathise, but you should empathise.

The officers are elected, and can be removed from office by the students. You are not. There is an aspect of courage in standing for election with proven leadership qualities which should be recognised as an asset to the university.

You should know by now what the officers’ election manifestos contained. However fanciful you think they are, it is an expression of hopes, plans and wishes and a reflection of your students’ reality. Officers often believe vice chancellors are indifferent to those hopes and plans. Prove them wrong in that assumption.

The officers have a challenging learning experience throughout their term of office touching on all aspects of an organisation from employment, finances, representation, charity law, strategic development, education policy, and engagement with multiple communities.

As vice chancellor you are more distant from those experiences and have considerable supporting human resources which the SU president does not have.

Pace of change

The timescale of effecting change is different to yours. An SU officer has commitments bound by their term of office. Do not think this difference as the naivety of inexperience. It is a structural difference which should be recognised by both parties. The officers may think you are naïve about the students’ experience too.

If you are not in regular contact with the president and their team, then you should be concerned for the university and for them. Something may be going wrong, but you won’t know what is going right either.

Celebrate the successes that the officers and their team of staff and volunteers achieve. They also reflect on you and the university. An excellent university needs an excellent students’ union. You can be an enabler for that success.

Above all, you can learn from the officers as they can from you. That’s what a real educational partnership means, isn’t it?

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