WLUSU lacks input legitimacy

Governance of the Wilfrid Laurier University Student’s Union (WLUSU) has been the subject of 24-Hour Lounge gossip and chats lately – a place which is our equivalent of water coolers at the office. Unfortunately, it has been for all the wrong reasons.

Many students are outraged by perceived fiscal imprudence, a lack of transparency and violations of procedure. Despite the outrage, I find myself straddling the fence – not about to crack open a bottle of champagne, nor ready to organize a rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

I acknowledge the fact that some people may disagree with many of these recent projects (the Terrace expansion, smartphone application, digital sign, LCD TVs), but while I have an opinion on the matter, my aim here is not to evaluate the merit of these projects. My point is to identify the underlying issue that is seemingly at play in this controversy – a lack of input legitimacy.

Input legitimacy is legitimacy that is derived from people feeling like they were involved in the process and had a say in the decision being made. Conversely, output legitimacy is simply legitimacy derived from the level of acceptance of the outcomes or outputs of policy decisions.

Adequate input legitimacy ensures that decisions are made respecting procedure and that best practices and creativity are always inherent in the final outcomes. I would argue that, while certainly not impossible, it is very difficult to achieve output legitimacy without at least some measure of input legitimacy — the coupling of the two is an imperative in democracy, but also a very difficult task.

It is not like management is somehow aloof from students – the ultimate decision makers are students. Recently, there have been problems with transparency and process (for example, expenditures over $10,000 not being first approved by the board), but many people don’t realize that many expenditures have actually come under budget.

Somehow, students may agree with these initiatives (outcomes) but when management actually followed through there was outrage. This dichotomy is not merely explained by procedural errors – rather, by a lack of student input in management’s policies.

Management comes up with ideas and follows through current procedural channels which do not actively engage the larger student body.

Beyond the WLUSU board of directors, whose job is to try to represent the interests of the students but find that they have their own problems with input legitimacy, management’s outreach for student ideas is ad hoc and not institutionalized. And given that WLUSU elections boast a turnout of under a third of students, that WLUSU board meetings are sparsely attended and that the management team is perceived to be inaccessible by a large portion of the student body (despite being quite the contrary in my experience), it is quite evident that WLUSU management and governance cannot simply expect that students who have ideas will come and voice them through these current channels.

Moving forward, it is incumbent on WLUSU management and the board to find ways to bridge that gap between student input and policy outcomes.
While students have voted for the president and representatives on the board, input from students should not end there. I do not advocate that WLUSU adopt some form of direct democracy where every policy is voted on by every student before it can be approved, but there are things that WLUSU can do to engage more people in the process. Initiatives like the market research were great steps forward, but more needs to be done.

Instead of simply telling students to come to WLUSU, WLUSU needs to come to the students and actively seek their input. Acknowledging that perfect input and output legitimacy will never materialize is no excuse to stop striving for better – democracy should never be purported to be perfect.
Mistakes were made in the so-called “WLUSU spending scandal”. However, I think the outrage is mostly attributed to the lack of student input.

In the short-term, if the price tags for these projects were indeed the best deal we could get, then it’s time for management to not only say so, but also demonstrate it clearly to students.

In the long-term, we have to be more innovative in how we engage the larger student body in the decision making process.

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