An excuse to move backwards
// Gurpreet Kambo

Kwantlen Polytechnic University President John McKendry recently made it clear that he believes universities' administration should be allowed to intervene in the affairs of their campus student organizations. According to a story that appeared in the Vancouver Sun recently, Kwantlen is lobbying the provincial government to make amendments to hard-won provincial legislation that protects the right to organize – and the funding – of student organizations. The story also states that this is not the first time that Kwantlen has tried to have the relevant legislation changed either, once in a submission to the group currently reviewing the Society Act, as well as in a letter to the province in 2008.

His reasoning for advocating for this is likely related to the sordid state of affairs at the Kwantlen Students’ Association, a registered society independent from the University, that exists on the Kwantlen campuses. Campus student organizations are typically democratically-run, non-profit societies, with the mandate of providing services, on-campus events, and advocacy in the interest of their student members. Nearly every public postsecondary campus in BC has its own student organization to which students attending that institution are required to pay fees to. The students, who are elected to sit on the board of directors typically for a term of one year, run these organizations. The idea behind student organizations is to provide a strong, united voice for the students at that institution, that advocates to the university administration, the government, and wherever else is deemed in the interest of students.

Over the years, the KSA has had a checkered past that includes a history of financial mismanagement, electoral irregularities, and lawsuits (it is currently involved in three) – basically a Master’s thesis on “What Not To Do in Student Governance.” To be fair, there have also been periods of relative stability, where the KSA has done great work on behalf of its students, and I have great respect for many of the hardworking individuals I met in the KSA during my time in student politics.

However, the KSA pendulum has recently swung back to extreme volatility. For the past few years, the KSA has been pursuing a lawsuit against Aaron Takhar (and his associates), a former director who was allegedly the architect of a major scandal that made national headlines in 2006. Full disclosure: a younger, more naïve version of myself was a student at Kwantlen at the time, and was quite taken by this admittedly charismatic individual. I ran in the election on the same slate as him, though thankfully, in hindsight, didn't win.

Unfortunately, the ghost of Takhar still haunts the organization. The KSA recently made headlines across the country again when it was uncovered that two of the newly elected directors are both related to Takhar; his sister and his cousin. One of their first acts in office was to instruct their lawyer to stop pursuing the case against Takhar, and to appoint the Director of Operations (who, as was widely reported recently, is Takhar’s sister) the sole liaison to legal counsel. A flurry of controversy emerged after the Runner, the student newspaper, broke the story about the connection between Takhar and the Director of Operations. She resigned, though his cousin continues to serve on the board of directors despite calls for her resignation as well.
McKendry, understandably, has a bone to pick with his University’s student organization. Underthe Kwantlen name, the KSA has generated reams of bad press that has tainted the university by association as well. "It’s the independence of the body that allows them to go off in various directions that the institution may not feel are in the best interests of the institution, its reputation, and the students that come here for an education,” he said to the Province. This point is especially important because members of the general public may not realize that student societies are independent organizations, and may simply associate the Kwantlen Student Association with Kwantlen University.

While the situation in the KSA is tragic, especially for those students whose hard-earned money has been mismanaged, McKendry is going to have to accept it and just do a better job at making it clear to the general public that the KSA is an independent body from the University. The truth is that the vast majority of student organizations operate quite well. These are democratic organizations that are bound to have some built-in instability, particularly because of the high turnover of students elected to their boardof directors. It is a philosophical choice to accept the risks that come with the benefits of a democratic system. If Kwantlen students are outraged enough at their current student government, they will throw them out of office. If they are too apathetic to care, then perhaps it is their fault if their money is wasted. And finally, if McKendry believes in the concept of democracy at all, he should not be trying to undermine it in the KSA.

Furthermore, one of the primary functions of a student organization is to lobby on behalf of its members, often to the University administration and to different levels of government. It would be entirely inappropriate for universities to be able to interfere in organizations whose job it is to scrutinize them, and to essentially act as their “official opposition.” The Capilano Students’ Union has organized campaigns and events on campus that were critical of the University before, such as during the recent ABE cuts, or “Boycott Aramark Day,” where an enormous number of students expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality and price of the food on campus. Yes, the university wasn’t happy about the criticism, but should they have the power to withhold fees or shut down the organization because of it?

The mechanisms to provide accountability already exist, without external oversight. The University Act of BC already states that if the student society fails to make its annual audited financial statements available to members, the University may withhold their fees. There are also, under the Society Act of BC, provisions through which members can call a general meeting and subsequently overrule any decisions of the board of directors, remove them from office, amend financial statements, bylaws, etc. – but only if it has enough membership support. Back in 2006, a group of Kwantlen students were able to get Takhar et al. out of office over allegations of mismanagement.

Allowing universities to interfere in the affairs of democratically run student organizations would be a frightening step backwards that would completely undermine the fundamental concept that these organizations are meant to be the “voice of students.” In a delicious bit of irony, the KSA recently withheld the fees of Kwantlen student newspaper, the Runner, over concerns about “journalistic accuracy” after a series of articles that were critical of the KSA. The fees were remitted after Kwantlen intervened. But, above it all, perhaps McKendry needs to take another look at his list of lobbying priorities. Lower tuition fees would be nice.

// Gurpreet Kambo
News Editor & Columnist

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