LUCY ALDOUS talks to those (kind of) in power to see how they're finding the burden of responsibility.
March. Spring is in the air and the times they are a’changing. Words like, ‘hustings’, ‘referendum’, ‘manifestoes’ and ‘quorate’ being bandied around like no man’s business. And for a small handful of people across the university, it’s the month when weeks of campaigning, debating and generally being nice to everyone in college finally pays off and they are elected JCR president.
But what does it really take to be JCR president? And do our leaders go to bed at night with that warm fuzzy feeling of having served their college? Or do they endure sleepless nights of worrying about how they can keep our rents low and morale high, and generally stop college screwing us over.
Optimism. This is what all JCR presidents hopefully start their reign of power clutching bagfuls of. Of course they can battle down the kitchen fixed charge and get a new bikeshed with elite motion sensors to stop the bastards stealing your bike. Of course they can prolong freshers week to the usual ‘week’ found at other universities to allow the next generation of freshers to get battered at their first bop without having to be up at 9 the following morning to sign the matriculation book. There is also the optimism that as a JCR president you can inspire people to really care. James Tiffin, newly elected JCR president at Clare College dreams of a time when JCR meetings are quorate (enough people to actually pass a motion forcing the JCR to carry out a proposed action on behalf of the student body) and describes this as his ‘Number one goal’. Happily, all the new JCR presidents I spoke to had a positive outlook on their imminent reign of power. I give it two weeks.
Commitment. The presidency is a full time job. When you’re not attending Fellows’ meetings/student council/Gardens’ meetings/College council etc you’re still trying to find the time to show your face in college. You need the time and patience to talk to every person who stops you in the buttery or the bar to have a quick chat about their rubbish supervisor or their broken toaster. The commitment of JCR president comes with an unspoken ‘open door’ policy which means that people can open your door and come in to rant at you whenever they fancy. In the space of just one day everyone’s problems have become your problems; you’re in for a bumpy ride.
Leadership. The JCR president needs to co-ordinate the whole exec. Great roles include Green officer – turn your fucking lights off when you leave the room please. Vice President – please can someone start caring about CUSU elections? And Social Secretary – just come to my parties, please? The president needs to know what everyone is doing, at all times and make sure that no one falls behind. Easier said than done. JCR meetings are renowned for being grumpy, long and frankly quite dull. Meetings will usually take place on a Sunday, everyone will usually have somewhere better they could be. Nevertheless the exec is a team of hard working and motivated individuals and Ali McWhirter, newly elected president at Downing college describes one of his main goals during his presidency as:
‘To create enough buzz about what the JCR is doing that every position in next year’s election is contested, especially that of President’.
Leadership of course also comes with the good bits. You get to have president plastered across your back throughout freshers’ week and your name is the first the newbies will learn. If you do something particularly good then someone might even buy you a pint in the college bar. However, if the college bills do go up then don’t be surprised to find the pint in your face instead.
Be prepared. Like a boy scout the JCR president needs to be ready for whatever problem comes their way. Former JCR president Tim Jones also warns that as JCR president you need to be prepared to receive limited thanks for the effort you put in. Big changes often only affect a small group within college or don’t seem so big from the outside. People will probably never realise how much you’re doing as JCR president, so expect this, grit your teeth and soldier on. Presidents also need to be ready to act as diplomat from time to time. Relations between college and student body can become strained. Kitchens will get trashed, vomit will appear in formal hall and ‘clunge’ will at some point be shouted out during grace and when this happens you are the person whom college will turn to for answers. Diplomacy is your best tactic when dealing with angry (ancient) fellows. And that winning smile…
All in all it looks great on your CV and well done for putting your head above the parapet, but the sad truth is that our JCR presidents will never be heralded as heroes. You will never have ladies knickers thrown into your path as you waltz majestically around the college grounds as you might have dreamed. In fact, what you will get is worry, pressure and stress. But if you like that kind of thing, then go for it. All the presidents I spoke to didn’t regret their decision to shoulder this responsibility, Ali (Downing) even told me, ‘I came into the job knowing that JCR president was often a thankless job’. Those former presidents I spoke to were still all pretty glad to see the role passed on to their successors.
It’s not quite the same as being the party animal drinking soc president, nor does it have the glitz of May Ball president but you are making a difference to college life every day and I for one are full of admiration for those who can do all this, still get a degree and still keep smiling. Hats off.