The president is the chief representative of the Students’ Union and the 30,000 undergraduate students attending the University of Alberta. They oversee the rest of the Students’ Union executives, the organization’s operations, and sit on a number of university governance bodies including the Board of Governors and General Faculties Council.
This year, three candidates are hoping to get the top job including Joel Agarwal, sixth-year biology student and current vice-president (academic), Yiming Chen, third-year international student and current arts councillor on Students’ Council, and Luke Statt, fifth-year business student and current vice-president (operations and finance).
The following interviews have been condensed and simplified for clarity.
In one minute, can you tell us why you are running for Students’ Union president?
Joel Agarwal: I’m running for president because I think students need strong, dependable, and genuine advocacy in light of the budget cuts and a president that represents the diverse demographics and needs of students on campus. This year there are challenges from tuition rising, performance-based funding, and changes to university administration. This year as vice-president (academic), I have been in university meetings fighting for affordability and the quality education students really deserve. I believe that these qualities are essential to have in a president and I will bring the experience of uniting student voices to the president’s role by advocating to the government and the various stakeholders involved.
Yiming Chen: I want to engage with more students. The Students’ Union is a great opportunity to have a voice to advocate for all the different communities on campus. I have been on Students’ Council for one year now and I have seen some challenges that we need to overcome. For example, I would like to build a council feedback system to make our organization more transparent to students. That way students can also reach out to their councillors more easily. I not only want to support our students but our councillors as well. As a councillor, we didn’t receive enough training in order to be comfortable in our position. I want to change that.
Luke Statt: As you know, I was the Students’ Union vice-president (operations and finance) this year. I did a lot of operational improvements, but also found new ways to support students through the bursary program and gave them more options with the health and dental plan. What I realized in my role was we haven’t had a vice-president (operations and finance) as president for over a decade and there is a lot of room within the Students’ Union to improve it’s own capacity as an organization, to fill all the gaps that keep getting created under current leadership.
Students are left out to dry. In my mind, the Students’ Union needs to step forward more as an organization to catch some of these students, to create a safety net to support them while fundamentally taking a look at things that everyone will always agree are important advocacy asks. The key thing for me is student employment. Students want a job when they graduate, so I’m trying to work on improving advocacy that supports everyone.
Can you concisely explain your platform?
Agarwal: This year has been really challenging for students with tuition increases, essential services being cut, and the ongoing deferred maintenance. My platform centers around affordability, fostering a healthy campus community, and representative leadership. This year as vice-president (academic), I advocated boldly for affordable education and gave students the tools they need to save thousands of dollars on textbook costs, but there needs to be more. We need to take steps to push the government to increase up-front, non-repayable grants, to re-instate the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP) that employed 12,000 students, all while working with our provincial and federal advocacy groups Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Association (CASA).
Another aspect is fostering a healthy campus community. This year I have been in a position where I understand how challenging university can be to mental health. There are a lot of issues with clinical and counselling services such as trying to include more cultural lenses in mental health and pushing for mental health funding. This year I really want to push for a non-credit course that students can take to learn about mental wellness, academic success, and fiscal responsibility — something that would help address this issue on campus. I think we need to start talking about the loneliness epidemic on campus and start partnering with student groups and initiatives across campus to really address this issue.
I’m really passionate about international students and one of my platform points is pushing for an internationalization strategic plan for the Students’ Union to really understand what the needs of international students are and how we, as the Students’ Union, can push towards helping international students on campus.
Despite the previous cuts to the budget, I think we need to ensure the university is maintaining a high-quality education that students deserve.
Chen: I have three major ideas. First, I want to build that council feedback system online. People can submit their ideas or complaints, with their name or anonymously, so that we can get problems in real-time.
Secondly, I will be more focused on external funding. Our students cannot pay more fees. They increase and increase. Many students don’t really want to pay that much for the Students’ Union. I want to build connections, like with alumni or businesses to get donations and more funding from there.
Thirdly, I want to support truly innovative programs within the Students’ Union. We have so many resources. I want to look critically at what we offer and see if this is actually what students want. We offer so many things that it can get quite expensive. I want to make sure we put money towards things that students actually want or use. If there are useless or under-used programs maybe we need to look at cutting them. We don’t have a good history of objective or critical analysis of ideas implemented at the Students’ Union. I want to change that right away. I will also encourage students with new entrepreneurial or innovative ideas to share them and see if we can implement them.
Statt: Advocacy is important, but a lot of advocacy you would normally expect to see in a presidential platform isn’t necessarily present in mine. Not necessarily because I don’t care about them — it gets redundant. I could have pages and pages of advocacy asks if I wanted to list everything, but the vice-presidents have those present in a lot of their platforms. What I’m trying to do, using my background as vice-president (operations and finance), is focus on how I can improve the Students’ Union to serve students better.
I will advocate for victims and survivors of sexual violence. I will advocate for financial stability. I will connect with our Students’ Union members, other students’ unions, and students for new opportunities. I will grow the capacity of the Students’ Union, the long-term sustainability of the Students’ Union, and the student community across campus.
Two candidates for president this year are current Students’ Union vice-presidents and one is a councillor for Students’ Council. What distinguishes you from the other candidates?
Agarwal: This year as vice-president (academic), I have brought bold advocacy to university administration on the many General Faculties Council (GFC) sub-committees I sit on. This year I fought for affordable academic materials and I fought to keep the quality of education strong. That is something I think is important to bring to the president’s role as the president does a lot of external advocacy with the government.
This year I also chaired the Council of Faculty Association (COFA) and unified the voices of 14 faculty associations to come out with a statement against the budget cuts. This is something that is important as president — to be able to unify student voice and be able to represent a diverse body of students to the government and university administration.
Chen: A difference is our experience. The two other candidates have established experience in the Students’ Union as executives while I am starting out. But if we don’t look at those titles for a second, I don’t see many other differences. I see myself with lots of potential to explore and make our organization better. I am more focused on community connections. I value the importance of searching for advice or help from others while the others running may not see that. They may think they have all the answers. Also, I see a problem where we have meetings in council or with faculty associations and we actually don’t work together. I want to change that. It is time for us to rethink how we meet with each other and how we action change.
However, the biggest difference is this idea of hierarchy. If we want students to connect with us we can’t just have these positions and show them all the time. We need to have more than just organizations or groups connecting with the Students’ Union, we need students.
Statt: Once again, I would point back to my experience in my current role. I do have a unique advantage when it comes to my focus as I understand the operations of the Students’ Union like the back of my hand. I know all the directors, I know how to get things done, I know how expensive it is to do certain activities. When I was building my platform, I was building it with a lot of tangibles. Not saying I’m going to ask for this with advocacy, but saying I’m going to do this as the president of the Students’ Union — creating a safety net to support students when all our asks go unheard.
It’s important for the Students’ Union to look at its own ability to improve itself, rather than always going and asking for other people to step in. Advocacy is fundamental to the role — it’s fundamental to the existence of every students’ union — but the capacity of the students’ unions has been left unattended across the country, quite frankly. There is a lot of room for students’ unions to improve their capacity, instead of asking and hoping that mental health supports will be maintained on campus. What we can do instead is improve our own capacity and then invest that money into the Peer Support Center — I know how to do that.
The greatest advantage I can bring forward is competency and understanding of how to lead the organization while trusting and supporting my vice-presidents when it comes to advocacy.
In the past two years, several other students’ unions in other universities are at the epicentre of controversy involving corruption and financial mismanagement. How will you prevent that from happening here?
Agarwal: I think it’s unfortunate that’s happening at other university students’ unions. It really tarnishes the name and the good work students’ unions do. I think the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union is very transparent in our finances, as well as its operations. We have a board of student representatives from different faculties, we have an audit committee. I think that being transparent is really key to making sure that student money is being used to best represent all students on campus.
Chen: Corruption cannot happen. What I am not really happy about is we increased SU executive compensation this year, including travel and health benefits. We didn’t actually talk to students when we passed this. Students may not even know about it. I know our students want money to pay for more student services, not executives. It sounds like a privilege. To avoid corruption, we need a better way of getting feedback. This is why I want a council feedback system for transparency and feedback. We need to show students where we spend money.
Statt: I actually have a point in my platform about participatory budgeting which is not commonly done, but I think it’s a great part of accountability. As vice-president (operations and finance), I instituted the Your SU Townhall, which is very similar to an annual general meeting. I did this to improve and enhance low-barrier ways students could interact and engage with the Students’ Union, to hold us accountable for what we do. I also created the Student Advisory Group to bring student voices directly into those backdoor discussions about business decisions. I think the natural next step in both accountability and enhancing the ways the Students’ Union serves students is participatory budgeting.
The other way to avoid corruption is looking at students’ unions as a body of organizations that serve students across the country, not necessarily as existing within our own silos. One of my platform points is called the students’ union operational coalition. The intent of this is to enhance knowledge and resource sharing among students’ unions, not just within Alberta, but across the country. If we look at the closest model, we have Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) and Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), which are great, but they only focus on advocacy. They don’t look at operations, they don’t look at how we can improve our services. I want to take that same model and look at what we can do. By bringing multiple students’ unions into the room together, it will generally reduce corruption because we will all be aware of what students’ unions are trying to do.
In my current role as vice-president (operations and finance), I have never done anything even remotely in the direction of corruption. I have had even more opportunity in my current role than I would as president, so I hope at this point I have generated enough trust with the student body with my actions and they can continue to trust me in the same capacity.
This year, the Students’ Union has faced criticism for not officially attending the climate strike or for not responding quick enough to the provincial government’s 2019 budget. How will you ensure the Students’ Union effectively responds to events as they arise?
Agarwal: With the release of the 2020 budget we are going to be at the forefront of potentially more cuts to the budget, but the fact is, we don’t really know what is going to happen. It is imperative for the Students’ Union to be at the forefront. I think there is improvement that needs to happen — there needs to be quicker action. We need to find an effective way to communicate to students faster than last time and take a two-pronged approach to advocacy: advocating to the government in ways that we have seen work in the past with the tuition freeze, Bill 19, and the UPass, while also bringing the student voice together and making sure their voices are heard.
Chen: This question assumes responding to an event fast is good. I keep a level head. Some events happen quickly and we need to consider the pros and cons not as quickly. The Students’ Union is a non-partisan organization. What I see as the priority is not responding to an event but responding to students. I would respond in a way that students actually want.
Statt: I can say we will be active in the way we respond to issues, but I think the best way is to show it. During the elections, we will see the provincial government’s 2020 budget drop, and I encourage anyone following the elections to watch my response to the budget. Despite the fact that it will be a very busy time for me, I do think it’s important to have a timely response for students, even if it’s simple, quick and easy to read. We have to show we care and part of that is responding quickly and effectively. I will be taking on that responsibility, even as a candidate, to demonstrate that if elected president I intend to continue with that same timeliness.
In terms of the Climate Action Strike, all the executives were there in their capacity as students. I think it’s challenging once we start to move out of the realm of things specifically related to student experiences on campus, in terms of advocacy, to draw boundaries. There are so many social issues, all across the world, that need attention and I am 100 per cent behind those. For example, sexual violence is present not only on campus, but across the world. What we can do is focus specifically on our campus.
The Climate Action Strike — I am 100 per cent behind it — but I think what the Students’ Union can do to show their support is focus on sustainability. I will be doing this by working on a strategic plan for carbon net neutrality of the Students’ Union by 2050 and calling on the university to stop using single-use plastics, starting with residencies and then moving across campus. It’s not always necessary to be at the forefront supporting causes, but it doesn’t mean we can’t support them directly through other ways like making our campus more sustainable.
If elected president, how would you connect with your 7,700 international constituents and how would you advocate on their behalf?
Agarwal: International students bring a rich, diverse community to our campus, and one of my platform points is for the Students’ Union to put out an international strategic plan so that we can understand the diverse issues international students face on campus. It’s often challenging being an international student coming from a different country, having no family and learning a new language. The support available on campus is often misunderstood or not used to their full capacity. We need to create a stronger partnership with the International Student Association and UAlberta International to bring together a strategic plan that we can use to best meet international student needs.
I have proven through being the chair of the COFA that I am able to bring diverse student voices together, and I think that is a quality that will be helpful in addressing this issue.
Chen: I am an international student. I have deep emotional connections with many groups here. We need to help international students more, especially since they may not speak out or seek help. Sometimes it is just because they don’t know who to ask or where to go. We have to be ready to help them. An example I would take on is helping international students get permission to record lectures. Many are learning English and need that extra time to understand some of the big words professors use in class. I want to really help connect these students with everyone else on campus. Maybe we need a new committee on Students’ Council or other places to effectively talk about these issues. Lots of work needs to be done here.
Statt: International student presence on campus will likely increase past 15 per cent. That means we need to better target services to support international students. There are a lot of initial steps we can take as an organization to make ourselves more accessible for international students. We’re in the process of completely overhauling our website, something I started as vice-president (operations and finance). There is a lot in having more languages present for international students. Having our materials in multiple languages is very critical for the community to be able to engage with all the activities we hold and to feel included.
In terms of international student advocacy, we need to continue to fight on their behalf in terms of tuition increase. They already pay a lot more than domestic students because they’re not part of the Campus Alberta Grant. Something I was able to advocate for as vice-president (operations and finance) is dropping international student tuition increase from what was going to be seven per cent down to four per cent.
Joke: You get trapped in one of the Students’ Union Building infamous elevators. What do you do to get out?
Agarwal: First of all, being trapped in the Students’ Union elevator is an indication of the deferred maintenance we have on campus. The U of A says there is one billion dollars in deferred maintenance and students are being stuck in elevators — students are struggling! I would probably push the call button and continue my advocacy through the call to make sure the elevator gets fixed, not temporarily, but indefinitely so that students are free to head up to Room At The Top, grab a drink, and get on with their day.
Chen: Oh my goodness this would be bad. So bad. Very bad. I would stay put and call the police right away. Elevators are scary and the ones in SUB are bad.
Statt: I always thought it would be cool to see if I could pry open the doors and I honestly don’t doubt that I could because sometimes the doors close too quickly and you have to pull them back. I would probably try to pry open the doors and scale the elevator. I’m thinking of one of the Mission Impossible movies where they did that and climbed the pulley system, so I think that would be very cool.