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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Professionalism and Camaraderie

A few weeks ago, I attended an All Candidates’ Forum organized by the Muslim Students’ Association. The purpose of the Forum was to allow MSA members to gauge the candidates prior to the election of the executive committee. Candidates were to give short speeches outlining their reasons for running and their goals if elected into office. Members of the MSA were given the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates at the end of their presentations.

I ran for Communications Director, and part of my speech focussed on my desire to help the Muslim Students’ Association become more professional than it already is. I described a two-pronged approach. Internally, the Communications Director needs to consolidate MSA’s policies and its Constitution so that both are comprehensive and up-to-date. This ensures that the MSA is a stronger and more permanent body on campus. Externally, the Communications Director is the face of MSA; this role involves interfacing with other campus groups, professors and the university administration to ensure the Muslim voice is heard and to demonstrate to the campus community the value that Muslim students bring to UofT. Together these two approaches enable the MSA to maintain its position as a permanent organization for Muslims and as a strong representative of the Muslim voice on campus.

After I had completed my spiel, a student asked me a question I hear repeated regularly within MSA circles. He asked whether adopting a more professional image and enacting policies and procedures would mean sacrificing the more down-to-earth, friendlier face of MSA that draws students in rather than hindering their involvement.

This is a valid concern. Students have been complaining for some time now that the MSA Executive Committee is too far removed from the MSA member body. I served on the MSA exec two years ago, and it was extremely business-like and professional. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy being with the other exec members around the table; it was in fact an incredible experience. It’s just that we weren’t friends sitting together. We were professionals and business associates. On the worst days I felt as if I was working at a job I hated. The delightful enthusiasm for Islamic activism had been sucked out of me by the system. Thankfully the MSA has softened its image since.

Yet one cannot deny the need for professionalism. Many years ago, it might have been possible to run the MSA in a loose, more flexible and open fashion. Not anymore. The MSA at UofT (St. George campus) is one of the largest student groups, and it is also one of the most organized and influential. With this status comes greater responsibility. If one does not establish rules and policies to guide the actions of the executive commitee, the MSA cannot function to its full potential.

Why is it important that the policies of MSA be strengthened? Yes, it may seem like a hassle, and yes, it may turn off members who want to take an active role within the MSA, but policies and procedures ensure fairness within the system because there are standardized rules that all members must abide by. For example, let’s say Ahmad wants to organize a sandwich run for the homeless. Ahmad needs to follow a series of protocols to ensure the event goes ahead as planned. For example, he has to get executive approval for the event. He has to book a room where the sandwiches will be made. He has to advertise the sandwich run on campus. All these steps require certain time frames. If an event does not fit into these time frames, then the exec may decide it cannot go ahead. The decision is not an arbitrary one; it is based on certain standards that were set prior to the case now coming before them and that are intended to ensure all events are successfully implemented.

Now let’s imagine that Fatimah decides she’s going to organize an event too. She wants to organize a formal, with music and mixed dancing. If there were no rules and regulations in place, Fatimah’s event might slip by the MSA exec. They might not notice until it was too late that the event was going ahead under their name. But with policies in place, there is a set of rigorous procedures that check an individual’s ability to act on his or her own whims in a way that would damage the organization.

Established policies and procedures also ensure permanence. Ever wonder how the government bureaucracy keeps chugging away even while elections are being held? The bureaucracy is forever, though the government changes. Similarly, the MSA should be entrenched on campus. It doesn’t matter who is elected or who isn’t. The core of the MSA is set in place through its consolidated Constitution and its policies and guidelines. Future MSAers can always come in and continue the work, guided by the documented work of their predecessors.

The Constitution limits the power of the Executive Committee. One MSA in Canada changed its election system a few years ago so that only the president is voted into power. Then, in an ameer-like fashion, the president is able to select (from within the MSA student body) the executive committee that will work with him. Let’s say the executive at UofT decides it wants to change its whole voting structure. It can’t do so without receiving the approval of the MSA student body. How do we know that? Because it’s written down in the Constitution. Students are required to vote on such a measure during a General Meeting. The Constitution provides protection for members if the executive committee chooses to make significant changes to the workings of the MSA.

Having a clear internal structure makes the MSA as an organisation strong. Unless the MSA is strong, the executive cannot credibly go out and represent the Muslim community on campus. If the MSA want to play a bigger role on campus, its members must constantly improve themselves, and that improvement comes in part through continuously revisiting and updating policy documents and procedures.

At the same time, the MSA executive members must make an effort to draw in Muslim students. The exec has to be the warm and friendly face of the MSA. Its role is to ensure an inclusive and welcoming environment for Muslim students. In that vein, policies should always be made with the interests of the electorate in mind. That means heavy-handed policies are unacceptable. Members must always be able to voice their concerns and to make decisions within the committee structure. New policies and procedures have to be properly communicated to the volunteers who might be affected. And when members collectively demand that policies be changed, the MSA exec must take those concerns seriously.

This entry is the first in a series on the organizational capabilities of the Muslim community. It will include, as you can see, an analysis of the Muslim Students’ Association. This entry is not a campaign pitch; I was elected as Communications Director several weeks ago. Nevertheless, I want to stress that all ideas expressed here are personal opinions. They do not reflect the views of the present or future MSA executive team.


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