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Students’ Union far from transparent | The Gateway The Gateway Archive | The Official Student Newspaper at the University of Alberta since 1910
August 18, 2014
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Students’ Union far from transparent

Ryan Bromsgrove
Business Manager
Sep 05, 2012

This is where the Editor-in-Chief delivers wisdom to the fresh-faced first-years about finding out this university thing ain’t all beer and sex. Mine comes down to taking an extra year to finish your degree and do some extra-curricular activities.

One activity we Editors-in-Chief suggest — in the interest of fairness — is the Students’ Union. And yes, there are some awesome opportunities in there, but for the love of God, take it seriously.

Because the Students’ Union we have right now is seriously mismanaging its response to the Lister changes, from the initial press releases to the more recent closed-door approval of $50,000.

They said they recieved “No consultation” on the changes — before eventually admitting to heated meetings around the staffing structure and the first year curriculum plan in January. Certainly, some changes were decided upon after those meetings, but the situation is more nuanced than the rhetoric implied.

Next, the Memorandum of Understanding (or Memorandum of Agreement) that the SU maintains was broken — probably because few actually read it. It reads “this is not a negotiation process,” “all final decisions are made by the University” and later “intermediate issues (e.g. unauthorized murals, behaviour which creates health and safety issues) will result in a response that will be communicated to all affected parties within 7 days of the decision.” Nothing under that clause requires the university to have contacted students before the decision, and that seven day deadline was met.

What the SU is apparently hung up on is the earlier, “in an emergency, the University will communicate with the LHSA and University of Alberta Residence Hall Association (UARHA) as soon as possible.”

One major thing to fault the university on is how it initially communicated the motivations for the changes. It sounded like some specific emergency occurred, but lacked details. On two separate occasions, Students’ Union executive members made public statements at Students’ Council implying their belief in this unnamed emergency. One of these was given three weeks ago at an Aug. 14 council session, the other a day after The Gateway reported that this was not a specific event but the result of the Dean of Students Office’s investigation into the general health and safety situation in Lister.

The problem in both cases? The SU was told in clear terms what “health and safety concerns” meant on July 23. Within a week, the SU was given documents detailing some of the concerns.

The Gateway obtained a version of the same documents the SU was given via a freedom of information act request — following little enthusiasm on behalf of the SU for revealing what they had. Yamagishi described it as “pages upon pages of empty information.”

This empty information includes but is not limited to a list of all judicial incidents that occurred and were recorded last year, links to YouTube videos of events such as the anal waxing of a Floor Coordinator on SUB Stage and other information dating generally from 2006 onwards. The document is not empty, nor is this information, as Yamagishi claims in an interview, largely stuff from 10-15 years ago. He gave a five-10 years-ago figure when asked in an Aug. 28 council session — which is more accurate in that it isn’t absolutely false, but still obscures the full range of dates.

While it’s true that reported incidents are down — not that an excess of 60 serious incidents last year is at all acceptable — these are reported incidents. Following the Sept. 2011 implementation of the restorative justice program, many student-staff have admitted to their supervisors that they didn’t report all incidents. And besides all of this, the fact that Lister accounts for 80 per cent of all disciplinary incidents within the university residence system with less than 40 per cent of the residents is damning.

Despite having the documents and explanation to know better, the SU alluded to a sketchy-sounding “emergency” in the same council meeting that later saw an unbudgeted $50, 000 in spending approved. They did this in camera — which means The Gateway was forced to leave chambers while they debated, and prevents any councillor from freely discussing the matter.

That $10,000 is going to LHSA training fees, with the other $40,000 paying for Lister-related legal fees. These facts were confirmed by four different members of council — the identities of whom we will protect because the same SU that pretends to value transparency would punish them for living up to that ideal. These funds may not necessarily be depleted, and I’m not here to argue the legitimacy of the spending — but I am here to say that unbudgeted spending on this scale for a cause that affects a minority of SU fee-paying students is a conversation that cannot happen behind closed doors.

And it is a conversation that should not have happened after SU executives gave councillors false information. The memorandum was not broken, and just a single disastrous “emergency” isn’t the problem, the concerns being not one incident, but all of the incidents. This is not an SU committed to transparency, consultation or even truth. This is an SU run by a president willing to put secrecy, denial, omission of important details and outright obfuscation ahead of fairly representing all students. And it’s only September.



Comments

Dear Editor,

I read with interest this week’s editorial “Students’ Union far from transparent.” The article rather missed the point, and I would be happy to provide some clarification.

First, I want to address your concern that this “affects a minority of SU fee-paying students” and with that your concern about the $40,000 in professional fees. Lister Hall is the largest student residence at the U of A, and the Administration has refused to follow proper processes with our students there. There is a natural power imbalance between a university and its students, and agreements for consultation between the two are one of the ways to ensure that students have a say in their university experience. We are a $10 million organization representing over 30,000 students, and while the SU runs events, businesses and many other services, ensuring that the Administration cannot unilaterally force changes over students is one of the core reasons we have a Students’ Union protecting the student voice. Since we need to negotiate and deal with other groups within the U of A community, including the Administration, it is understandable that there needs to be an allowance for closed-door discussions among elected student representatives, much as the university Administration has scheduled closed and in-camera sessions to discuss strategy and matters that must be kept confidential.

The SU is digging in over Lister not just because it is our largest student residence, but also because if the Administration can decide that agreements and Board of Governors motions do not apply to them in this case, why should we expect them to hear student concerns in any other situation? The editorial discusses the Memorandum of Agreement that the SU is “hung up on” but declines to discuss the Board of Governors motion that directed decisions regarding Lister to be made by the Lister Hall Students Association and the Administration nor does it reflect the fact that all major changes to Residence Codes must first be passed through the GFC Campus Law Review Committee – a major step that was undoubtedly forgone. The U of A is a public institution, which means it is run by a public Board of Governors that keeps it accountable to the citizens of Alberta. If the Administration is no longer accountable to the Board of Governors regarding Lister, than the Administration can walk over students in all other facets of university life as well.

Now let me address the concerns that the Administration has raised. None of the Administration’s concerns were regarding incidents that happened during the summer. If these incidents were of concern over the school year, the proper thing for the Administration to do would be to discuss changes with the LHSA, not to announce the changes in July when most students are away from campus. Consultation involves working with stakeholders to create change, not announcing that you have already made a decision and informing the stakeholders an hour before the changes are implemented and released to the public.

The Administration raised concerns with events in Lister from years ago that the Students’ Union would never condone, but is confident that the LHSA has dealt with. The evidence the Administration provided to the SU included a mix of links to Youtube videos from years ago, exaggerated and inaccurate depictions of tower competitions that have changed multiple times in the last decade, and pages of screen captures from the University of Alberta memes Facebook page. It seems that a primary concern of the Administration was dealing with its institutional image on social media, which is concerning considering that the Administration then decided to publicly paint Lister as a residence “that fosters and celebrates alcohol abuse and vandalism.” This was offensive to thousands of U of A Alumni who have lived in Lister, as well as current students, who have seen and experienced an entirely different picture of residence life.

The U of A has proposed changes to address what they have called health and safety concerns. The administration’s actions make clear where their concerns actually lay. The have banned alcohol from public areas, where students formerly could monitor each other’s behavior and take care of students who have over consumed, and instead directed students to drink in their bedrooms, away from the common areas. Adults can drink in Alberta when they turn 18, so many U of A students are going to drink regardless of the rules. Instead of drinking in a safe setting with their peers, they may over consume behind closed doors in their rooms, or off campus where we have no ability to monitor drinking at all. While this might address concerns with our institutional image, it does little to put the health and safety of students first.



Posted by Saadiq Sumar on Sep 05, 2012

I agree with what Saadiq has stated.

I would add that the $10,000 in student association training fees was to cover training for LHSA staff that is normally provided by the Administration through Residence Services.

As Residence Services failed to actually employ enough RA’s for the start of the school year, leaving the health and safety of Lister residents in jeopardy, the Students’ Union felt that it was necessary to assist the LHSA in this extraordinary situation and ensure that their staff were properly trained for conflict resolution, crisis intervention, etc. which are no longer a part of their job description but that they FC’s are volunteering their time to do in the absence of hired/trained RA’s to ensure our students’ safety.

The SU has ensured that these funds have only been spent on training fees, including training materials, costs for trainers and speakers. Yes, the LHSA did attend a training retreat at Camp Hela but all of the related costs for these activities were covered solely by the LHSA.



Posted by Colten Yamagishi on Sep 05, 2012

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