Volume 82 | Issue 5
October 2014

Around the World  in 100 Years

Marsha Herman-Betzen

I would guess that most of us are well aware of the origins of the union movement as debating societies in England and Scotland, citing Oxford and Cambridge as the earliest bastions of free speech through debate. Last year, on a trip to the United Kingdom, I asked my National Union of Students host to make sure we could include at least one of these resplendent institutions on the itinerary. Being a history lover and feeling like I was going back to our roots, my excitement was palpable. I couldn’t sleep the night before and didn’t even finish my scone that morning for breakfast. The entire way there, I couldn’t stop talking about how this one visit to the debating chamber was going to round out my career. I had the picture planned of me, standing in the great debate MHBchamber as the first female executive director of ACUI, soon to be tastefully framed and placed in my office for all to see. When we arrived, I was absolutely crushed and dumbfounded to find the doors locked with a sign that simply stated: “Oxford Union Closed. Ring Bell for Assistance.” I made a spectacle of myself, not letting up on the bell with one hand while banging on the door with my other hand—to no avail. Unfortunately, the only pictures of the Oxford Union I would take would be an obscured view of the courtyard from my vantage behind locked iron gates.

In addition to England, my role with ACUI has enabled me to travel to campuses in Scotland, Wales, and Canada. Just within the past few months I’ve visited Australia twice and Italy once. The “I” in “ACUI” is an important part of our organization, especially as the world becomes more interconnected.

Almost from the beginning, the Association had members outside of the United States. In 1922, the University of Toronto and McGill University—both in Canada—were among the 12 members who reorganized the Association eight years after its founding. They drafted a revised constitution and elected the first president, J.B. Bickersteth, warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto.

Association leaders began visiting universities in other countries as early as the 1930s. Porter Butts’ State of the College Union around the World, which ACUI published in 1967, grew out of his travels to Asia during the 1960s. The Association of College Unions added “International” to its name in 1968, when no other organizations for unions existed. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the Australian campus service industry gathered yearly under the banner of Region 16. And in 1986, ACUI Region 1 hosted its conference in London.

Since then, ACUI has worked with other higher education associations to develop a biannual study tour program, which has visited Australia, Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East. Next year, the study tour will be held in the United Kingdom. Additionally, in recent decades, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia each have developed associations for union and activities personnel. I’ve attended three conferences of the Association of Managers in the Canadian College and University and Student Centers (AMMICUS-C), one of the National Union of Students, one of the Student Union Senior Officers Conference (which later became the Association of Managers in Students’ Unions), and in September spoke for the second time at the ACUMA conference (formerly the Australasian Campus Union Managers’ Association).

When I visited Australia in 2001, I was hosted by the ACUMA executive director and visited the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology–Sydney before keynoting the conference in Launceston at the University of Tasmania. Returning in August 2014, I was privileged to see the University of Sydney in all its grandeur as not only the oldest union in Australia but as a vibrant $26 million, self-supporting enterprise. The story of the University of Sydney Union was being filmed for a new segment of the Visionaries series to air on PBS in 2015. The University of Sydney also hosted the ACUMA conference, which I keynoted in September.

What I, and those who have participated in the Association’s international programs, have determined is that we are more alike than we are dissimilar. Each of the unions I’ve visited served as the community center of the college. Each union organized an extensive variety of cultural, educational, social, and recreational programs and activities. Each union saw its role as integral to the educational mission of its university, even if the administration could not articulate that idea. Each union encouraged self-directed activity and created opportunities for growth in social competency. Each union provided many necessary services and conveniences, and each union served as a unifying force that honored and valued diversity.

Currently, ACUI has members in six countries, and each region has at least two countries as part of its geographic area. As we look to the future, I believe we will become even more globally interconnected while valuing the nuances that make us who we are. While I might never have my photo taken at the birthplace of college unions, I’m proud to lead an organization that is borderless, enabling the union movement to reach and teach students wherever they may be around the globe.