During the course of the last week, several Facebook groups have emerged attacking the University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) for its recent facilitation of boycotts and bans.
Last month, USSU became the first student union in the UK to boycott Israeli goods through referendum. Other bodies at the receiving end of Sussex boycotts include Coca-Cola and Nestle products. The Union also operates a ‘No Platform’ policy, which refuses the organisations it deems ‘fascist’ the right to speak at the University. The latest proposal to cause controversy is an environmentally friendly ban on bottled water sold in Union run outlets.
Membership of one particularly popular group, ‘Ban Everything from Sussex Campus’, totalled close to 1000 students in its first week. This satirical group mocks the left wing radicalism commonly associated with political activism at Sussex.
“Ban books: such a waste of paper and really bad for the environment”, the group jokingly suggests. The list of proposed prohibitions continues: “Ban Chinese goods: really bad human rights record, man. Ban Swiss goods: Switzerland is, like, always neutral about everything. Ban Zimbabwean goods: see Chinese goods.”
Ellie Margolis, the group’s creator, explained that the recent USSU boycott of Israeli goods incited her to take action. “The boycott is dogmatic, bigoted and in many ways just veiled anti-Semitism”, she said. “Israel has become a punch bag for the left, who continually ignore the human rights abuses crippling countries all around the world, China being a prime example.”
Nevertheless, Margolis was explicit that she does not condone Israel’s actions and does not intend for her group to represent one side of the Israel-Palestine debate. “My group is about the fact that any boycott should be personal and not institutional”, she said. “We should be free to make personal decisions about whether or not we buy products from Israel, or any other country. The views of others should not be forced upon us.”
Leaders of the Ban Everything from Sussex Campus Campaign are currently in talks to organise a peaceful protest, aimed at drawing attention to “the hypocrisy and absurdity of ‘banning’.”
Another Facebook group to galvanise a vast student response last week was ‘The USSU is not me’, which accumulated almost 500 members in just three days. It’s creator, Dan Baldwin, said: “The attention that our group has received really wasn’t expected. Yet it clearly reasserts my concern that there is a deep seated discontent with how the Union operates and communicates with its students. Many of us feel excluded from USSU decisions.”
However, Baldwin added that although many students have become passionately fired up in their condemnation of the Union, “It wasn’t intended to be a ‘bash the USSU group’, nor do we intend personally to attack current Committee members.” Nevertheless, a few students got somewhat carried away, hurtling barbs at the Union, such as “mentally challenged hippies.”
Others have defended the USSU, however, stressing that the result of the referendum to boycott Israeli goods was wholly because of votes by students, not those of the Union Committee.
“A silent majority is never going to win anything. If you want people to listen, then you have to be a vocal majority”, one student wrote, encouraging his peers to let their votes do the talking rather than whinging on social networking sites.
A meeting was held last Tuesday between students and Union Officers. Following the meeting, USSU Education Officer, Josh Jones, said: “I’m happy to say that we’ve had an open and mostly productive dialogue with students. Some of the accusations made on Facebook discussion boards were libellous or reliant on misinformation. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the people posting them, but there was clearly a lot of misinformation going around. A lot of misunderstandings have been resolved and we have found a lot of common ground.”
Jones has drafted a refined set of Proposals for Democratic Reform in the USSU, which aims to improve the accessibility of the Union’s decision making process, to get more students involved and to help make Elected Officers more accountable, ensuring that the Students’ Union maintains its commitment to representation and democracy.
All students at Sussex are entitled to submit a motion for discussion at the Annual General Meeting (AGM). Students can attend the meeting and collectively decide whether to pass, reject, or amend each of the motions received. The results amount to a set of policies, each lasting three years, which mandate the Union to act upon the motions passed.
In recent years, turnout at the AGM has been poor and the meeting has often struggled to reach its quorum of 5 percent. Last year a Badger survey revealed that only 10 percent of students felt that the AGM represented their views.
The AGM takes place on Thursday 19th November in Mandela Hall. It remains to be seen if turnout in 2009 will exceed previous years.