There’s a Kingston corporation that employs 800 people, has an annual budget in the neighbourhood of $16 million, and gets a new CEO every year.
Queen’s Alma Mater Society (AMS), the oldest student association in Canada, is unique among student governments in its almost complete reliance on undergrads to run its affairs, including in the role of president, who is elected annually.
Given that the society has been around since 1858, it adds up to one heckuva lot of former AMS presidents (152 at last count), many of them still knocking about in post-Queen’s pursuits: the president and CEO of CARE Canada, for example, or the retired hospital chaplain. And let’s not forget the beekeeper who fronts a popular Japanese pop band.
Early last year, Stewart Goodings (Arts’62) and Jane Matthews Glenn (Arts’63, Law’66) – back-to-back AMS presidents in 1961–62 and 1962–63 – began to wonder about all the presidents who preceded and succeeded them. They wondered if they, like themselves, had been significantly impacted by their experience.
“When I thought back to my time at Queen’s, everything started there,” recalls Mr. Goodings.
Through much of the ’90s, Mr. Goodings served on the university’s board of trustees, and met with each of the AMS presidents during those years. “Every one of them was impressive – committed, exciting, dynamic – and it was a great thrill to think that these young people were kind of like I was, except better.”
Mr. Goodings and Prof. Glenn began tracking down former AMS execs willing to share their experiences in student government. Sixteen other presidents agreed to respond to a survey about their tenures. The earliest is Prof. Iain Gow (Arts’55, MA’58), elected president in 1954, and the latest is Jennifer Li (Artsci’17) who served during the 2017–18 academic year.
Respondents were asked about their challenges, accomplishments, and relations with the university’s administration during their terms. They were additionally asked whether the experience affected their lives after Queen’s.
What Mr. Goodings and Prof. Glenn discovered was a lot of similar experiences and a lot more that had changed with the tenor of the times. If you look at yearbooks from the early ’50s, Prof. Iain Gow notes in his response, “one sees that it was almost entirely a white class of graduates each year, mostly men, but with some excellent women students and leaders.”
In 1951, says Prof. Gow, Queen’s “was more like a village than anything else: there were no fraternities or sororities, no alcohol to be had on the campus, and no men’s residence.” Enrolment was just over 2,000, and the AMS Council met once a month. These days, the AMS serves almost 18,000 students; runs pubs, a coffee house, and the Tricolour Outlet, and funds entire student-led offices to deal with everything from academic and municipal affairs to social justice and human rights.
In the early ’60s, says Mr. Goodings, being president “was hectic and interesting and memorable, but nowadays it means leading a medium-sized business, with scores of employees, significant programs, and extensive involvement with the administration on a range of student issues.”
Some of those issues haven’t changed much through the years. Relations between the student body and the larger Kingston community – town and gown issues – have had remarkably similar flashpoints, the survey shows.
In September 1953, writes Prof. Gow, a “freshman riot” prompted the AMS to adopt a policy of assessing damages from such melees to the organizing body (in this case the arts and engineering faculties), rather than the student body as a whole. In the 1959–60 academic year, Bruce Alexander remembers accompanying longtime university chaplain Marshall Laverty to the police station to negotiate the release of a freshman who had “commandeered an OPP cruiser and driven it around town before abandoning it in a field beside Morris Hall, with its siren and emergency lights on.”
During Stewart Goodings’ tenure (1961–62), the AMS had to negotiate with CN Rail after students damaged railway cars taking them to a Gaels–-Varsity Blues football game in Toronto. Rev. John Lougheed (AMS president 1984–85) says he had to negotiate with the vice-principal, mayor, and chief of police after a record-setting street party attracted more than 1,000 raucous students, some of whom might have faced eviction without the AMS’s intervention.
When Prof. Jane Matthews Glenn became president in 1962, she was only the fourth woman to hold the post, according to Mr. Goodings’ research. The first was Dorothy Wardle, chosen in 1941, two years into the Second World War. There have been just 12 more women presidents since Prof. Glenn’s tenure.
Prof. Glenn credits her time in student government with broadening her horizons. It led to her participation in a summer seminar in Pakistan sponsored by World University Service of Canada. The opportunity required participants to return to their university in the year following the seminar. Prof. Glenn enrolled in the Faculty of Law, thinking she would stay for a year and then find work as a legal secretary. Turns out she liked the law. Called to the bar in B.C., she earned a doctorate from the Université de Strasbourg and spent her career teaching law at McGill University.
Though women had played senior roles in the AMS by the time of Prof. Glenn’s tenure, there were still gender-based divisions on campus. The first liberalization of gender divisions at campus residences, for instance, didn’t come until the 1969–70 presidency of Ross McGregor (Arts’70). The looser rules meant longer visiting hours and eventually open visitation at segregated residences, McGregor writes.
In the late ’80s, women’s issues on campus took on a darker colour. Prof. Emily Moore (Sci’92) was an “enthusiastic student organizer” with the Queen’s Engineering Society in the fall of 1989, when a group of male students responded to an AMS “No Means No” campaign with misogynist slogans plastered on residence windows. Weeks later, the Montreal Massacre happened.
“I literally became a feminist on Dec. 14, 1989,” recalls Prof. Moore. “When I was approached to run for [AMS] president that spring, my newfound feminism got me to make the commitment.”
Debate over response to the “No Means No” incident dominated the campaign, she recalls. During her term, the AMS was forced to defend its non-academic discipline system from a lawyer hired by the parents of the offending students.
Prof. Moore notes that in her year, the AMS made a conscious effort to hire students of colour in its senior salaried positions. A few years later, in the 1994–95 academic year, Queen’s students elected their first minority woman as AMS president: Taslim Pirmohamed Tagore (Artsci’95). Her experience suggests the campus still had a ways to go in accepting diversity.
“I… experienced a lot of pushback, racism, misogyny, and challenge to my leadership (in big and small ways) simply because I didn’t fit the AMS presidential mould,” Ms. Tagore writes in her survey response. “As you may know, Queen’s was a culture of assimilation. We all joined in to sing the Oil Thigh, to attend football games, homecoming. [There were] purple engineers, and a school culture that was very white and European,” she recalls.
“So much of what really mattered and defined me had to go ‘underground’ at Queen’s so that I could behave as the majority white student population did,” Ms. Tagore recalls.
Similar doubts about the university’s diversity almost convinced the AMS’s first Black president, Gregory Frankson (Artsci’97, Ed’99), not to run for the 1996–97 term. He had been asked to run on a ticket with Annette Paul (Artsci’98, MPA’16) as VP of University Affairs, “but I didn’t think it made much sense for two people of colour to run for AMS executive on the same ticket. I feared that 1990s-era Queen’s wasn’t ready to vote for it.” History proved him wrong.
Mr. Frankson also chaired the Robert Sutherland Task Force, which recommended the commemoration of Canada’s (and Queen’s) first Black university graduate. Sutherland matriculated in the early 1850s, practised law, and left his entire estate to his alma mater, the largest bequest Queen’s had ever received. “It led to two of the proudest days of my life,” writes Mr. Frankson, “the official unveiling of the Robert Sutherland Room in the JDUC in 1998, and the ceremony to rededicate the Policy Studies Building as Robert Sutherland Hall in October 2009.”
Despite such advances, racism was still an issue for the AMS’s 2010–11 president, Safiah Chowdhury (Artsci’11). As a visibly Muslim student, she had felt the sting of prejudice and decided to run, in part, because of it. “My year in the AMS was the most difficult year of my life thus far,” she recalls.
“I was personally targeted weekly, from letters to the editor attacking my intellect to anonymous violent and misogynistic text messages to my cellphone. As a 21-year-old, it was a lot to deal with.”
Ms. Chowdhury says her interaction with Queen’s administration was much more civil. “We worked well together in transferring power from the administration to the student government for the Student Life Centre,” she writes. “I also found them to be more amenable to anti-racism and equity measures.”
In general, the respondents reported cordial and even genial relations with the administration. Hugh Christie (Artsci’78, Law’81), AMS president for 1977–78, recalls regular poker games with the VP of Finance. Tyler Turnbull (Artsci’06) writes of becoming close with Board of Trustees chair John Rae during his 2004–05 term and being influenced by Mr. Rae to enter into what has become a very successful career in advertising.
Maynard Plant (Artsci’98) remembers starting his 1997–98 term as part of a group that occupied the principal’s office to protest tuition increases. “But in time,” he writes, “we developed a great working partnership.”
Mr. Chuck Edwards (Arts’65, MSc’69), however, recalls a different experience during his abbreviated AMS term in 1968. “I found the administration’s attitude to the AMS paternalistic,” he writes. “This was the late 1960s when the world was changing rapidly and the Queen’s administration was resistant to any change.”
Mr. Edwards was the first AMS president in Queen’s modern history to be directly elected by the student body. Previously, the president had been chosen by AMS representatives from each faculty. The change was opposed by Mr. Edwards’ AMS predecessor, George Carson (MD’68), who felt direct election would favour candidates from the larger faculties.
Mr. Edwards, however, writes that “choosing the AMS president in a secret conclave” was an example of how “the AMS was disconnected from the student body.”
According to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall (Queen’s University, 1691–2004: Testing Tradition), Mr. Edwards and his running mate, Jan Lichty, reflected the emergence of student radicalism on campuses in the late ’60s. They participated in a “tent-in” on the lawn of the principal’s home to protest a crisis in student housing and pushed the AMS to support striking workers in the Kingston community and provide buses to out-of-town Vietnam war protests. Mr. Edwards’ agenda got pushback from other members of the AMS.
“Cut off from the capacity to pursue the changes I thought necessary and had promised in my presidential campaign, I resigned,” Mr. Edwards writes. This led to a second election and the shortened presidency of David Pakrul (BSc’69).
The following year, Ross McGregor pursued a less provocative course towards some of the same goals Mr. Edwards championed, including a student-owned residence, the first student pub, and the formal incorporation of the AMS.
Mr. McGregor writes that in this turbulent period from 1968 to 1970 “[Queen’s] moved from an in loco parentis environment where the administration managed or influenced almost everything, including students and student [government],” to “an era of much stronger student engagement and self-determination.”
Barbara Grantham (BAH’83) recalls her time as being “much tougher than I expected: to run and have responsibilities for a large student society, a corporation that employed full- and part-time staff, etc.”
Christine Fisher (BSc’05), president during the 2003–04 year, says the job’s notoriety made it even harder. “I was at the centre of a lot of public attention and had to face the negative scrutiny,” writes Ms. Fisher. “The pressure and stress were hard for 21-year-old me – frankly, I think the job would be hard for the current 39-year-old me!”
Jennifer Li, president for the 2017–18 academic year, notes a sad facelessness that accompanies the office. “It meant people forgot that when they make critical Facebook statuses and comments, there was a human behind the screen reading it all and taking the hits.”
Despite this, the experience was invaluable, Ms. Li writes, a sentiment echoed by many other respondents. “My year as AMS president laid a strong foundation for skills that I use every day at work – leadership, written and oral communication, strategic planning, stakeholder management, community organization, and project management.”
“It sounds crazy to say this,” Ms. Li writes, “but being AMS president was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I do not take for granted. It shaped a big part of who I am and what I chose to do after Queen’s.”