Admin pressures campus unions to relinquish control over finances
by Erin Seatter and Mat Nelson
The Carleton University administration is threatening to withhold levy fees allotted to the student unions and specific third-party levy groups for the rest of the year if the student unions do not agree to relinquish financial control to the administration, according to the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) and the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA).
In an open letter to students, GSA president Kimalee Phillip and CUSA president Alex Sirois called the administration’s withholding of fees “unprecedented in Canada.” The two student organizations have filed an application to have a judge force the university to turn over the fees.
Student levies are voted on as part of CUSA and GSA elections. The student unions have traditionally transferred the levy fees passed by student referenda to third-party groups including the Garden Spot, CKCU radio, and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG).
A proposed agreement would require the unions to disclose their finances, ostensibly to ensure that the money earmarked for levy groups ends up in the right hands. But the wording of the agreement is more ambitious than the rhetoric surrounding it, giving the administration effective veto power over student levies.
“The agreements would give far-reaching powers to senior administration such as the power to refuse to collect new levies that were decided by student referendum, terminate leases for offices, service centres and businesses like Oliver’s and Mike’s Place with three months notice, and take over management of the campus pubs,” state Phillip and Sirois in the open letter.
The agreement would give the administration the power to withhold fees if it does not like the way the student unions have spent their money. Phillip said the administration is “pushing the student unions to accept language that would enable the administration to overrule decisions on the internal spending of the student unions.”
According to CUSA and GSA representatives, the administration first presented the agreement in Oct. 2009, saying the university’s auditors had recommended that the university receive assurance that third-party groups slated to receive levy fees through the student unions had indeed received the money they were supposed to receive.
The administration told the student unions they would have to sign the agreement in order to receive their levy fees. The student unions responded that it was illegal to withhold their fees, and the administration transferred the levies for the 2009-2010 academic year.
Negotiations over the agreement resumed in Jan. 2010, and since then, “the student unions have never refused to bargain, even as the administration has dragged its heels and issued a series of deadlines,” said Phillip.
In the spring, a motion was presented at the Board of Governors to withhold the fees, which was subsequently deferred. The administration then said an agreement had to be made in October or else it would not transfer the levy fees.
In August, CUSA and the GSA proposed to provide letters from their auditors verifying that money allotted for third parties had been transferred appropriately to third parties. The administration rejected this proposal.
Last month the Board of Governors passed a motion to withhold the student unions’ levy fees if there was no agreement by Nov. 1. It said that the student unions could submit documentation showing how much money they needed for operations to apply for an allowance for Nov. and Dec. It also threatened that if there were no agreement in place by Dec. 31, it would withhold the student unions’ levy fees for the remainder of the year.
“CUSA is an incorporated body accountable to its members, which are undergraduate students. If undergraduate students want to see financial statements, they can. CUSA also holds a yearly audit meeting with its councillors and the CUSA budget is available online,” said Meera Chander, vice president finance of CUSA.
“It’s reasonable for the university to have assurance that fees are going to their intended destinations,” Chander said. “However, I do believe the administration has taken the recommendation from its auditors and used it as a launching point to try and open up a series of agreements to place some serious restrictions on the autonomy of the student unions.”
The denial of funding directly affects students, Chander pointed out, both in the services it undermines and the jobs it puts at risk. “The administration’s actions may put in jeopardy the 150 jobs, the health and dental plan, clubs and societies, the student union-run businesses, orientation programming, the service centres, and financial assistance provided through the student unions.”
Phillip said, “We understand transparency and accountability. We are willing to provide documentation showing that the money for third parties is being transferred appropriately. This agreement is part of the administration’s attempt to control every aspect of life on our campus, including the autonomously run student unions.”
According to Sarah Jayne King, vice-president finance of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), “Like any other non-profit organization, the SFUO conducts annual financial audits. However, we are not required to provide them to the university administration. We are an autonomous organization.”
Third-party levy groups have also been affected by the administration’s withholding of the levy fees.
An email from University Communications to the campus community on Nov. 11 claimed “no student groups or campus clubs have been denied the fees required to operate their services.”
Discussions with student groups indicate that might not be accurate.
Steph Kittmer, the finance coordinator for the Garden Spot, said, “The G-Spot was supposed to receive a levy, but so far the administration hasn’t given us any money or contacted us to explain why. The levy that students pay covers our operating costs, including the rent for the off-campus kitchen and gas and hydro bills.”
The Leveller has found a list of third-party groups drafted by the Board of Governors to which it says it will transfer the appropriate levy money. On the list are CKCU radio, OPIRG, Legal Fund, the Garden Spot, and student health, among others. Conspicuously absent is the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the Millenium Villages project, and the Leveller, which was granted a levy of $1.50 per graduate student in a referendum last spring.
Carleton University Vice President Finance Duncan Watt did not to respond to questions about why the CFS and the Leveller were omitted from the list.