Ryerson University student Maklane deWever was so baffled by the documents in front of him that he had to read them a second time. The $200 paid to a music store, $800 spent at the LCBO and $2,500 for a recreation room were not the typical items he was expecting to find on his student union’s bank statement.
It was the 2019 winter semester, and Mr. deWever had been trying for months to get financial information on the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). In his capacity as student groups director, Mr. deWever was a member of RSU’s board of directors.
“To my opinion, bylaws were not being followed,” said Mr. deWever, who grew concerned when RSU executives had not reported their finances to the board, as required by the union’s constitution. “I guess that initial frustration behind the lack of financial transparency grew into suspicion. When I saw the credit card statements, it clicked.”
The papers he finally obtained revealed questionable purchases over eight months totaling a quarter of a million dollars. One of the credit card bills was under the name of the union’s former president, who was eventually impeached, before Mr. deWever was elected in his place. The scandal received national media coverage and prompted Ryerson University administrators to freeze student fees paid to the union. But this type of controversy is not unique to the RSU. Recent allegations of mismanagement have stained the reputations of several student unions across Canada.
A nearly identical scandal unfolded around the now dissolved Student Federation of the University of Ottawa in 2018. Its executives were accused of misappropriating student funds for personal purchases, leading the university to terminate its long-standing agreement with the union. As well, students voted in a referendum to create a new group, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU), and SFUO shut down this past April.
In the West, meanwhile, an investigation by The Ubyssey student newspaper exposed ongoing cases of mismanagement and conflicts of interest at the student union in the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. And out East, an independent review found the student union at the University of Prince Edward Island had mishandled a harassment allegation against its president in 2017.
Oversight measures not always followed
These controversies raise questions around how effectively student unions manage themselves, even though most do have oversight mechanisms embedded in their policies and constitutions – as, for example, the RSU executives’ requirement to issue quarterly financial reports to the board of directors. “But just because something is written on paper doesn’t mean it’s actually happening,” said Mr. deWever.
The lack of oversight enforcement might be due to a culture of impunity that surrounds some student unions, according to Sam Schroeder, the advocacy commissioner of the new UOSU. “Student unions … don’t listen as much as they should,” he said. “In the SFUO, there was a culture of ‘we are the executives and we can do pretty much whatever we want.’”
There are also instances when unions simply don’t have adequate policies in place. With UPEI’s student union, a third-party investigator found that its policies did not meet minimum standards for addressing harassment in the workplace. The student union subsequently updated its governing documents and provided “more holistic training” for its staff on human resources issues, according to the student union’s director of communications, Caroline Simoes Correa Bizulli.
University’s role must strike a balance
Student unions are legally separate entities from universities, with a separate governing structure. While most universities collect fees on behalf of student unions, they do not exercise direct control over them. This means the university’s relationship with its student union has to strike a balance between the union’s autonomy and the university’s responsibility to ensure students’ money is used properly, said David Graham, vice-president, academic, at U of O.
“Every university needs to take a very hard look at the agreement with its student association to determine whether it allows for oversight,” said Dr. Graham. He said one of the problems with U of O’s former agreement with the SFUO was that it did not set clear standards for good governance and financial transparency. “We did not require anything like the level of detail that we came to require following the allegations (against the SFUO),” he said, referring to the new agreement signed with the UOSU. He added: “The university’s ability to mentor and provide advice to any student association is strictly limited by the willingness of that association to seek and receive advice.”
The Canadian Federation of Students, of which SFUO was a member before it ceased operations, opposed U of O’s decision to pull the plug on its agreement with the union. In a statement, the federation argued that “the university does not have the right to dissolve the corporation with its many contracts, employees and services.” Dr. Graham said that while he understands why the CFS was upset with the decision, the university felt it had no other choice. “We came to the conclusion that our confidence could not be restored in the executive body’s ability to manage its own affairs,” he said. “That was why we took the decision to terminate the agreement.”
Rebuilding student trust
With student unions often running on multimillion-dollar budgets generated largely from student fees, it’s no surprise that controversies around lack of oversight would spark frustration among students. This relationship is becoming especially fragile in Ontario, where students will be allowed to opt out of paying student union fees starting this fall. Premier Doug Ford even referenced the RSU scandal in a tweet touting his party’s policy, arguing students “are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.”
Within a couple of months after becoming president, Mr. deWever decided to publish the RSU’s financial audits and reduce the size of the board of directors, in an attempt to restore students’ faith in the union. As for the new UOSU, Mr. Schroeder said allowing students to give their input will be integral to regaining their trust and funding. That’s in addition to the written proof the union is required to submit to the university to ensure student fees are going towards student-related services.
Mr. Schroeder’s advice to other student unions: “You’re always going to have individuals try to take advantage of the system, so it’s important to take make sure you have a system that doesn’t allow that to happen,” he said. “If it happened at the University of Ottawa, it could happen in other schools if you give it enough time.”
As the previous President of a Student Union with no allegations of financial mismanagement in my time at my institution, I think this article misses the point a little. At institutions where a campus culture of collegiality is fostered, and doors are left open between student union executives and university upper administration, great success can be achieved (while also maintaining a critical back and forth debate).
While I have had my fair share of disagreements with my University’s Board of Governors and upper administration, we were always able to maintain mutual respect for the other party’s mission and context (usually within government policy). The administrators at Trent make time for student leaders and care for our wellbeing and success, even when we disagree. When I was President, we were able to host controversial events and engage in protests (even against our administration) without creating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality the current Ontario PC government is fostering with the Student Choice Initiative.
What I have learned in my time at my home institution, and my time with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), is that the cornerstone of any student union are its policies and its staff who ensure these policies are upheld. Do I think some issues upholding best practises for financial management exist within student unions? Yes. Do I think the answer is de-funding them? No. Student Unions need to have an open door through which they can ask for help in bettering their processes without the worry the University will run a referendum to eliminate them (as is borne out by what happened at the University of Ottawa this past year). Student Unions are responsible for holding administrations accountable for their actions and are also the source of innovative new programs and services that benefit every student in the short and long term. Let’s not forget that someone within Ryerson’s board spotted the problem, held folks accountable (through impeachment) and helped the board get back on track. If that isn’t effective oversight then I don’t know what is.
While the media has been doing a good job highlighting where student unions have been struggling as of late, I wanted to take some time to remind everyone that most unions have been flourishing. The Trent Central Student Association (TSCA) here at Trent is entering its third year of having a brand new Student Centre. Additionally, the 10.5 million dollar loan the TCSA had to take out to finance the construction of the building was guaranteed by the University because of the sound processes and oversight mechanisms the TCSA has in place (which also allows them to oversee a University-wide student health and dental benefits plan, and the Trent Express transit routes that service the university every 10 minutes).
While I must admit that here at Trent, things have not always been peaceful between the administration and the students’ union, the hard work of recent student leaders and university administrators has generated a culture of care and collegiality. I hope folks take articles like this as an example of exceptions to the high standards to which student unions are held by themselves and the institutions they call home. Student Unions across the country should not be held to the standards of the few who have struggled recently, and I would like to personally call on those reading this to investigate the great work being done by the student union operating at their institution and take the time to get to know the people putting in the effort to make this work happen.