A couple of weeks ago, inspired by the recent experience of attending Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council, I made a couple of Tweets about how I thought some of the way Council was run – including the #CouncilBants hashtag, taking a break midway through to eat sweets, and the official SU account being used as a platform for in-jokes involving the President – were overly “cutesy” and detrimental to the Union’s overall mission, not to mention coming off as exclusionary and insular; part of a wider “hack culture” that I and many people felt existed around the Union. I didn’t think much of it. It got more traction than I expected from other Trinity students, yes, but I tweet a lot of things.
The next evening though, I checked my phone to discover that I had been tagged on the personal account of Paraic McLean, TCDSU’s Communications and Marketing Officer, in a thread outlining all the ways in which I was wrong, Council was incredibly well run, and hack culture wasn’t an issue at all, no matter what I or anyone else might say. It was liked by President Shane de Rís, which I assume meant he broadly agreed with it.
This was odd, to say the least. I’ve talked a lot before now in many public venues about problems I perceive with the SU, particularly its failure to adequately engage large sections of the student body. But I have never, before now, received a public callout, let alone from a sabbatical officer. Even taking myself out of the equation though, in several ways, this incident exemplified both the problems I identified in my initial thread and the wider identity crisis the SU is evidently undergoing (or certainly should be undergoing).
Firstly, it paints a picture of an organisation deeply in denial. You personally, as a Trinity student, may or may not feel TCDSU represents you adequately – but that’s a conundrum for you to resolve yourself. It is an undeniable fact that quite large numbers of students feel very much that it doesn’t. It’s evident in the consistently low turnout at elections and preferendums, it’s evident in the wafer-thin margin by which the opt-out proposal was defeated, and most of all it’s evident because lots of people will tell you how they feel if you ask them. I said that it’s how I felt when I made that Twitter thread, and other people seemed to agree when they liked it and retweeted it.
Given that, it is genuinely bizarre for a sabbatical officer, one of the half-dozen or so people inherently most represented by everything TCDSU does, to try to explain to students that they are incorrect when they say they feel left out. It’s also bizarre that I have to explain this. If some of your constituents say they feel disenfranchised, then there is by definition a disenfranchisement problem. Telling them they’re wrong about how they themselves feel is not only almost Kafkaesque, but is certainly going to exacerbate those feelings. The SU will never be able to solve its engagement issues as long as it refuses to acknowledge they exist, and those issues will continue to spiral as long as it is so obviously dismissive to those who raise concerns. Unless, the Union doesn’t want to get more than a quarter of students to vote in elections.
Secondly, this thread was perhaps the platonic ideal of hack culture. It feels to me, and to many other students I have talked to, that there is a relatively insular clique of people who are “involved in the SU”. It comes off as somewhere between intimidating and impossible to participate meaningfully in the running of the Union if you’re not one of them; they all have existing relationships and tend to vote for each other in elections. If you haven’t attended every Council since entering college and been on three to four committees, your views on the running of College are worth less and are less impactful.
That impression was apparently entirely and unequivocally confirmed as correct here. SU hack culture is so deeply entrenched that those who are included within said culture feel more qualified than those outside it to discuss whether it itself exists. There is elitism and a perceived hierarchy of expertise even on the issues of elitism and perceived hierarchy of expertise. The SU isn’t opaque and impenetrable; I would know the best, because I’m the fourth highest ranked person in the SU.
Finally, this really was the last nail in the coffin on the Union’s lack of professionalism. I mentioned an unprofessional attitude in my initial tweets, but didn’t think this was a core problem. This entire incident was, everything else aside, a catastrophic failure of public relations. I would posit that sabbatical officers should not make what are effectively callout threads of random students if they wish to appear approachable and receptive to student concerns. I didn’t direct my Tweet at any sabbat or official SU account, I just fired off a few thoughts on my personal profile. I was not looking for a Union response, and I didn’t want one. A paid sabbatical officer took time out of their day not even to reply to me, but to indirectly write a thread about me and all the myriad ways in which I was wrong.
There are so many ways this could have been done better. A few examples just off the top of my head; a reply to my Tweets, asking me if I’d like to chat in person about my concerns at some point to see if they could be addressed. A private message, asking the same thing. Encouraging me to bring a motion to Council. Perhaps most wise of all would have been to do nothing. It was a tweet with a few dozen likes, and the world would have continued to turn.
And this is the issue: it was suggested that TCDSU was perhaps, particularly in the form of its social media strategy, not coming off as a very serious political organisation dedicated to vindicating students’ rights. The response was to start Twitter beef. It swears blind that it’s a professional representative body, but if we point out ways in which it’s not acting like that, the reaction is the kind you’d expect from secondary school students.
The Union is caught up in a paradox. It wants to be treated like a national-stage political actor, but it doesn’t want the responsibilities that come with that. It wants the student body to respect and support it as their unquestioned representative, but it still wants to conduct itself like a glorified social club – allowed to have public spats and personal drama. It can’t have both of these things, and as long as this happens, it’s going to continue to alienate students, reduce its own influence locally and nationally, and stumble into embarrassing PR mistakes such as this one.
There are lessons to be learned from this. It’s indicative of why deep change to the SU’s structures and practices has never felt within reach. Not only is there clearly an unwillingness to accept criticism on the part of those running it, but these kinds of public callouts by influential campus figures, intentionally or not, serve to discourage students using social media or other public venues to air their frustrations – something they absolutely should have the space to do. Most people probably don’t want to be visibly derided by the Communications and Marketing Officer, and President, of the SU.
The incoming sabbatical team should take it as an example of how not to deal with questions and criticisms that students will level. For all that is wrong with the Union right now, it remains an incredibly important institution to have. If those in charge of it from year to year are willing to listen earnestly to students’ worries and at least admit the need for reform, the process can begin. We can and should do better.