THE UNIVERSITY AS POLITICAL: UNDERSTANDING THE PURPOSE OF A STUDENTS’ UNION IN WESTERN CANADA
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Students’ unions are important partners on university campuses, and although these organisations provide important services they have been almost entirely ignored in research (Baldridge, 1971; Jones, 1995; Mainardes, Alves, & Raposo, 2010; Tierney, 2008). Functionally, this dissertation is a case study of the role and purpose of a students’ union at a western Canadian university (Jones, 1995; Yin, 2009). I have used a theoretical framework based in a constructivist ontological and epistemological understanding of reality and how we come to know. I draw upon the writings of Habermas and Giddens as conflicting, yet complimentary critical social theorists who are based within a constructivist frame (Bates, 1982; Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Giddens, 1984; Habermas, 1979, 1981). Their focus on the interpersonal and power ties together my political and cultural conceptual framework, and positions it within the larger world of theory and praxis (Baldridge, 1971; Giddens, 1984; Habermas, 1979, 1981; Schein, 2010; Tierney, 2008). Within Baldridge’s (1971) political framework, the Students’ Union Executive was excluded from bureaucratic authority structures. The Executive was integrated into the university’s social system as professionals—similarly to faculty members—within the collegial governance authority system. The students’ union acted as ‘the voice of students’, even though the Executive did not claim to represent all students. The Executive argued that the most engaged students—radicals—wanted little to do with them. Regardless, many student representatives felt their experience within university governance structures was tokenistic and lacked real power. Due to this lack of access within the formal system, students had a limited ability to participate in the negotiation of the university’s organizational culture (Bates, 1981; Kincheloe & McLaren, 2003). Executive members tended to reject coercive tactics as they derived much of their power from the use of personal-influence resources (Baldridge, 1971). Student leaders relied on their capacity to use personal influence to assert power and affect change. This was very exclusive access to university decision making processes to which no other student was privy. Radicals, as such, were not able to pass the legitimacy test to which the student Executive was subject. To pass, students had to learn to operate within both the university and students’ union cultural assumptions by becoming cultural chameleons. These different basic cultural assumptions between the students’ union and their university counterparts were all legitimate and valid; they existed as part of the layered culture of the university. In the end, the students’ union and the university administration had the same basic understanding of the purpose of the students’ union: service delivery and representation of the undergraduate students. However, individuals within the Executive and university administration approached these ideas very differently. Within this theoretical framework those approaches were all valid, but were not given equal weight in the negotiation of culture. This dissertation did not uncover reality in its totality, but it did advance some questions about how that reality is actualized at academia’s home.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
CommitteeCottrell, Michael; Newton, Paul; Phillips, Peter
Copyright DateMay 2017