I write to you, as I am sure many individuals will, in the wake of yet another scandal that has hit the student body, at the University of Ottawa. This scandal, to put it bluntly, is not a surprise to anyone, such as myself, who has spent any time in student politics. Neither is this a surprise to any student who has been at the university since the news broke two years ago about the amount of debt that the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) was dealing with. As such, the question becomes, does the student body care enough to actually do something about this—this time?
First off, I would like to apologize to you, the student body. Most of us in student politics go into it because we want to improve your experience at the university, not make you stress about scandals and the acts of certain individuals. We do not all go out and buy expensive sunglasses or shoes, nor do we go off on expensive trips. Most of the student bodies are volunteer run, i.e. no money goes to your elected officials—it goes straight back to you. Yet here we sit, at the crossroads of yet another scandal involving money. However, I urge you to make a distinction between the SFUO and their actions, and the actions of your student associations.
As has been pointed out in the letter by Mr. Kazakov, there seems to be a distinct amount of apathy within the student body at this time, especially concerning the state of the SFUO. He says, prove me wrong, and I respond, students are.
They are the students who are in the student associations associated with the various departments and faculties at the university; the students who sit on the Board of Administration; the students who show up to the General Assemblies; the students who tell their friends about the goings on within the world of student politics. There are plenty of students working with professors, with the administration of the university, in order to assure that the true needs of students are heard and are implemented. Yes, that is not the majority of the student population, but that is a start.
However, these associations need to be granted more power to call out fraud, to be able to contact outside legal and financial advice for investigations, and to work in partnership with other associations in such a way that keeps things transparent and accountable to the student body.
It becomes arguable that in our world where we have access to information right away, where breaking news is easily shareable by tweet, post, or snap, that we expect results to happen immediately. The sad truth about this is results cannot occur right away, especially when most student leaders are limited to their effectiveness by only being “in office” for a mere 8 months.
That is not enough time to have the social events that the associations plan, let alone effect change that actually can last. I was involved in student politics for 2 years, one as a president of a student association, and I can personally attest to the work it took to even begin building upon the foundation I had inherited from the previous presidents, let alone leave a mark myself. Yet that is something that all democratically elected leaders face – and we learn to work around it. The question dear Editor, that I am sure anyone who is reading this, will ask, is what then, should the students do?
There is no easy answer to this question, but if I were still in student politics, I would urge my fellow student leaders to do what they signed up for—lead.
Lead the way to the offices of the university administration, and ask them to collaborate with the students during this investigation. Urge the president, the deans, vice-deans, administration and professors to recall their own days as students, and ask to be heard.
Attend faculty and departmental meetings and be present and use the voice that you have been given as a student leader. Hold General Assemblies, and ask the students what they want to see happen with student politics, and discuss amongst the other associations how this can be implemented.
Destroy the rotting foundation that exists in the student politics system and rebuild out of those ashes with partnerships and transparency/accountability that is done in partnership with the administration of the university.
Fair warning to all, this will take time, patience, and a lot of communication between the various elected leaders over this coming year and the ones following.
I know for some of you, you will balk at this idea. We are supposed to be independent, you will say, we do not need to work “with the Man”; Student unions do not need oversight from the administration, we can do so ourselves. My response to you is: where was the oversight here?
Independence is earned, not given, and student politics has clearly taken this independence for granted, to the loss of the student body. One cannot be both the overseer and the overseen. As much as the SFUO is supposed to have the best interests of the students in mind, the positions in the SFUO are made too cozy to force these individuals to look outside of their castle to the townsfolk below. This makes it virtually impossible for individuals on the inside to call out corrupt acts—for as we have seen this time and in scandals past, whistleblowing only occurs once the individual has left the organization. From the outside, the impenetrable ranks make it difficult to feel involved or included in the decision making process.
In my view, creating a separate commission or auditing service, like the Charbonneau Commission, that reports back not to the SFUO, but to the administration and to the other student associations is just an example of making it harder for corrupt individuals to abuse the great amount of power that the SFUO wields—financially and for the spirit of the university.
We need to understand that good things come to those who work hard and fight for what is wanted. The warriors, dear Editor, are already out there on the front lines, trying to make things right. Now it is up for the general student population to support them. We do not have the luxury of being disgusted with our fellow students—instead we must work on actively suggesting and implementing solutions to the problem. Apathy is simply no longer an option.