Recently, I attended a meeting at the start of which I was asked to provide a short introduction to who I was and what my role entailed. It was a struggle. Not because I didn’t know what I did, but because it was so difficult to concisely verbalise what I do and how it impacts the membership that elected me as President.
At the Students’ Union, the ‘Executive’ comprises 5 Executive Officers (President, Vice President, Education, Sport, and Welfare & Diversity) and 6 Section Chairs (Action, Athletic Union Clubs Officer, Enterprise, Media, Rag, and Societies). Nine out of these 11 roles have clearly defined remits or student groups/activity that they oversee. For the President and Vice President however you are often (by the nature of your role) spread across multiple topics and areas of work, providing steer and direction in each. Given how closely the Vice President works with our Hall Students Federation (HSF) and Democracy & Representation Committee (DRC), the President finds itself as the only role with no students or student groups directly feeding into it. Instead, you oversee the development of all areas of student activity, whilst also taking on additional responsibilities as a Director of the organisation, leading on LSU’s relationship with the University and College, and enhancing the Students’ Union’s reputation in the local community.
As a result of the breadth of the President’s work you can often find yourself in situations where you need to decide which ‘hat’ you are wearing. Are you attending a meeting as the highest elected student representative? Are you acting as an ambassador for LSU, perhaps even the wider University? Are you thinking as an Executive Trustee or Director of the organisation? The list goes on. It is perhaps these three key hats that are most frequently worn, however. The real skill comes in managing and navigating situations to ensure these hats do not come into conflict with one another. Unfortunately however, there are unavoidable occasions when this does occur. Occasions when you are required to make a decision for the organisation that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the student population, at least not immediately.
Why make the decision then, you may wonder. The fact of the matter is that LSU, like the vast majority of other organisations, has come up against immense challenges this year and last as a result of COVID-19. I have had to make decisions that do not obviously benefit students, but at least ensures they have a Union to return to once the pandemic is behind us. It’s nothing to write home about, and it certainly doesn’t make you the most popular person, but it is the right thing to do.
Whilst there is always time to celebrate the achievements and successes you have in the role, let’s focus on the things I haven’t done, or at least neglected. An easy one that will immediately spring to the mind of most Presidents and their wider team are our distance and associate members. By that I mean the College and our London campus. Could you use the pandemic as an excuse for not making significant inlets into developing engagement strategies at both these locations? Sure, you can. Is that good enough for me? No it’s not. More than happy to hold my hands up – I’ve not worked hard enough to support these members. I visited our London campus for the first time in September. Since then I’ve made the journey only one other time, at £120+ a pop. Those visits, albeit few and far between (and certainly a way off from the once a week visit the Vice Chancellor aims to do), have shown me how different LU London is compared to our East Midlands campus. Where do you start when your Union is a single space on a floor also occupying student services, study spaces and a student population that may have never experienced LSU before? Suggestions welcome via email. I’ve attempted to pull together a group to start on a new LSU in London strategy but that ebbs and flows with every twist and turn that COVID throws at us. Fortunately, I’ve got until August to make some headway before my time in office comes to an end. Time to pull your finger out, Matt.
There are all manner of unpopular decisions I’ve made this year, and will continue to make, and other areas of work that I’ve undoubtedly neglected. But I challenge any of my 45 predecessors to confidently state they didn’t make a single unpopular decision or achieve everything they could possibly do in a year. The real skill comes in prioritising what needs to happen now and what foundations you can establish for your successors. I’ve taken some necessary decisions that still leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. But that’s the price you unfortunately pay for swapping hats when you don’t have a hat stand nearby.
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