Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pam Hrick: next National Director of CASA?

Spring must be hiring season in Canada. After a long and cold winter, who doesn’t want to bust out of their rut with a new job, a new desk and maybe even a new computer? RFP is hiring, perhaps you’ve heard, but we’re not the only ones.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations
(CASA) announced on February 24, that they will be hiring the next National Director of the organization. Current National Director, Zach Churchill, is one of the resume receivers, so presumably, he will not be re-running.

The hiring committee will submit a short list for an election at a national on March 26. The successful candidate will follow in the footsteps of former NDs such as Alex Usher.

Ryerson students have never been members of CASA, and so their structure is elusive to many of us who are familiar with democratic structures like CESAR or the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). CASA’s structure is a bizarre hybrid between hiring and democracy, and begs the question, doesn’t CASA trust its member organizations to elect the best candidate on their own, rather than twisting it into a semi-hiring process?

One unlikely candidate for this position is Pam Hrick. Pam is former president of the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa (SFUO), a federal Liberal and the lone woman in the finals for last year’s CBC’s show Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.

Pam has never been a member of a CASA student union. In 2008 the SFUO voted to join the Canadian Federation of Students.

Interestingly, there are no requirements for potential applicants included in the job description. There are requirements, though, on the home page job announcement. There are no provisions that the National Director be a student: the successful candidate must have a degree or the equivalent combination of education and/or work experience (the jury is out on what amount of work constitutes a degree. According to the government of Ontario and many other provinces, it is a degree only that constitutes a degree).

Pam has never been a member of CASA but she meets all criteria for candidacy: experience “dealing with media,” experience in management, strong Liberal bias…

CASA doesn’t take enough heat in the student press for its version of democracy. While Pam’s candidacy is currently only rumour, it would be a big story if she were to become CASA’s next National Director. If she gets hired, student unions represented by CASA will have a chief lobbyist and official spokesperson who has never been a member and, whose former student union is now a member of the CFS.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Student union drops health insurance broker citing inflated fees and unprofessional behaviour

The Concordia Student Union (CSU) recently announced that it was ending a 12-year relationship with insurance broker Lev Bukhman and his firm, Quebec Student Health Alliance (ASEQ). Instead, they voted to institute a new student-run health plan office.

"It appeared to us that over the last few years our health and dental plan was delivering more value to ASEQ and Sun Life than it was to Concordia students," said CSU president Keyana Kashfi in a media release citing over payments of over $1.3 million over the last three years.

"Every time Concordia student representatives asked more probing questions about our plan's performance, Mr. Bukhman's behaviour became more threatening and erratic," she added.

CSU representatives also expressed concern at Bukhman’s refusal to solicit quotes from insurance providers other than Sun Life during last year's renewal. The students’ union points to Mr. Bukhman’s “affinity relationship” with Sun Life, related to the volume of business he generates for the insurer, as a possible motivation for this.

Concerns by the CSU that their insurance interests were not being properly represented were met with a call by Bukhman that the Concordia administration to step in and meddle with the student health plan affairs.

The role of an insurance broker is to represent the student union’s best interests when negotiating with insurance providers. The details of the negotiations should be fully accessible, not just to assess the broker’s competence, but as an important check against the possibility of contracts that benefit the broker at the expense of the client.

Unfortunately, broker-client problems are not limited to the CSU-ASEQ. Representatives at other student unions have cited similar concerns of brokers pulling the wool over their eyes only to discover later on that contracts have disproportionately benefited the broker.

For example, the Ryerson Students’ Union has a long history of troubles with Gallivan and Associates with whom they have been “shackled” into a contract since 2004.

Part-time students at Ryerson are currently without health and dental insurance. While it is important for the CESAR to investigate this needed service for its members, they must learn from the lessons from the CSU and RSU and not duplicate them.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Concern over Gazan deaths prompt expulsions and sanctions by university administrators

Around the world those critical of Israel’s attacks into the Gaza refugee enclaves have been facing intimidation and even arrest. For students at Carleton u, this recently hit home. The Ottawa Sun reported that some Carleton university students may face expulsion and other sanctions from Carleton's administration for "hurtful and discriminatory" actions.

These actions? The Sun reports that "Students Against Israeli Apartheid made waves last week when posters depicting an Israeli warplane firing a rocket at a Palestinian child were circulated around campus, and promptly ripped down."

But hold on here, artistic licence aside, just how far from reality is such a depiction?

Palestine has been called an “open air prison” in the mainstream media. In Israel’s latest offensive into Gaza, it has been widely reported that over 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Among those were more than 400 hundred children. Despite the Israeli Defense Forces’ attempt to reduce the impact of these numbers by claiming that most (including children) were “terrorists,” demands are being made for an investigation into the apparent deliberate attacks against civilians. Such attacks and its alleged use of banned weapons have resulted in the real possibility that Israel will face charges of war crimes at the UN.

Whether or not Israeli Defense Forces specifically targeted children in Gaza is an open question right now. But depictions on Carleton campus of children being affected by the Israeli military can not be so far off that debate should be stifled and students expelled. Unfortunately, this is not the first time university administrators have used university resources to demonstrate their support for Israel.

While university administrators are working behind the scenes to derail free speech on issues they or their donors disagree with, they act outraged when the right-wing media concoct stories of censorship by students. Confusing? It is. But don't be surprised, the common denominator here is the attack on progressive campus organizing by any means available.

The attempt by Carleton University to silence debate on Israel’s militarism amounts to more than siding with the aggressor. It also chokes off public discourse on an issue that desperately needs debate now more than ever. No matter what one thinks of Israel or Palestine, the politics, the religious debates or the history, it is wrong to not speak out against the indiscriminate killing of civilians and children in Gaza. Students by-in-large recognise this.

At Ryerson, students have also been victim of this type of repression. In years past, a more political Arab Student Association was threatened over space use and status by the administration. Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights almost didn't exist because of similar friction, not the least has been rumoured to come from inside the Ryerson Students' Union itself.

Progressive people everywhere need to do a better job at unifying in the face of regressive push-back from university administrators and media. Only public pressure and a united progressive campus movement will stop the unchecked right-wing onslaught on our campuses.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ryerson Commerce Society looking to pick business students’ pockets with 200% fee increase

Somewhere in North York, Ted Rogers is rolling over in his grave. The Ryerson Commerce Society, representing 6,000 business students in the faculty named after Mr. Rogers, will be asked from March 2–5 to approve a fee hike which would bring their fee up to $60 per student. This represents a tripling of the current $20 RCS fee. According to the Eyeopener, this will amount to a $170,000 windfall for the RCS. Other estimates put the boost closer to one quarter of a million dollars, leaving the RCS executive members with a total of $360,000 dollars to control. Either way, this move is likely to rub business students the wrong way.

According to the RCS constitution (Article 6), any fee increases must be approved by the membership via referendum by November 15 in order for those fees to be implemented in the following year. The University’s Board of Governors must also approve the fee.

This massive fee hike not only directly affects business students, but is also of concern to all Ryerson students given that many of the architects of the fee hike are vying for control of the Ryerson Students’ Union. Five members of the RyeChange slate are outgoing members of this years’ RCS board, including presidential candidate Abdulla Snobar. The others include: Jordan Becker, Naeem Hassen, Aishah Nofal, Natasha Williams. Only one RyeChange candidate from the faculty of business is not currently affiliated with the RCS board. None of the business candidates from the major competing team, Undivided, are members of the RCS board.

Observers see the timing of the announcement of the fee hike as somewhat curious. With the RSU election freshly underway, disgruntled business students may seize the opportunity to voice their opposition to the massive RCS fee increase by rejecting the RyeChange ticket. Time will tell.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

RSU audit: scope narrows, price tag balloons

The Ryerson Free Press has just learned that the initial price tag for the audit of RSU will be at least $85,000. The audit was imposed on the RSU by RyeChange executive candidates Dana Houssein, Osman Hamid, Abdul Snobar and their supporters currently on the RSU board. We have to admit that this whole thing seems a little fishy, especially the administration's willingness to fund this grandiose expenditure based on unsubstantiated allegations by one slate in the RSU election. Interestingly, even though the initial allegations by Snobar and company focused on financial matters, the audit's scope has been narrowed to look only at election procedures and the RSU's health plan. No longer caring about the $400,000 that Snobar alleged was missing from the RSU, he now claims that this change in scope is all he ever wanted in the first place.

Michael Parent, a representative of Deloitte and Touche and former executive director of the Humber Students' Federation, is coordinating the audit. An initial opinion was expected today, just two business days before the RSU election begins. Did we say this whole thing sounds fishy? Stay tuned.

Friday, January 30, 2009

On guard for sell-out student leaders: lessons from the past

To some in the student press, the recent election antics by Abdullah Snobar, Dana Houssein and Osman Hamid of the RyeChange ticket, reveal more than their weak grasp of financial management. They demonstrate an unparalleled sell-out of students by opening their unions, and potentially their news outlets, to administration supervision. Unfortunately, this is not the first time elected student leaders have double crossed those they purport to represent. There have been opportunists among us for years. Here we look at three culprits who have climbed high in their careers thanks to their self-serving efforts as sell-out student leaders.

Leslie Church
Looking back at Leslie Church’s ascension from student leader to inner-circle federal Liberal is like reading a careerist’s playbook. Church started out with the admittedly difficult existence of being a Liberal in Alberta and got her start in student politics as the president of University of Alberta Student Union. Soon after that she was hired as Executive Director of Ontario University Student Alliance (OUSA), where she lobbied to increase student debt through OSAP, until she left in 2003. From there she was installed as a member of Bob Rae’s Ontario postsecondary education review advisory panel (2004-2005), which concluded that the Liberal government of Ontario should deregulate tuition fees (see, for example, pg 21 of the final report). She also served with Claude Lajeunesse, (former Ryerson University president and recently fired Concordia University president) as a board member of the Liberals’ beleaguered Millennium Scholarship Foundation. After finishing her Law degree at the University of Toronto, Church worked with war advocate and torture apologist Michael Ignatieff to help install him as Liberal leader. With years of dedicated Liberal party loyalty Ms. Church has recently been awarded the plum position as Communications Coordinator for the new Liberal leader.

Church has used student issues to deal herself a formidable hand and is now positioned to be the right hand of a future Prime-Minister. We can hear the young party members salivating.

Justin Falconer
Justin got his start in student politics when he served under Jon Olinski as vice-president of the Conestoga Students Inc. (CSI) in 2002-03 and then as CSI president until 2005-06. As president, Falconer helped usher in hefty ancillary fees for capital projects on campus, some of which were contested by students who proposed a class-action lawsuit. For a brief time, during his presidency, he served as president for the College Student Alliance (CSA), a proven cheerleader for the Ontario government. His tenure there was short, just long enough to play a supportive role in the Rae Review. Evidently his work supporting government initiatives was enough to earn Falconer an appointment within the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities itself, where he now serves as Special Assistant, Outreach and Operations to the Minister.

Falconer’s short track to the big leagues shows that even regular Joes can get places if they are willing to use their time as student representatives to advance the government’s agenda.

Alex Usher
Alex Usher first jumped on the student scene in a big way as the first National Director for the Canadian Alliance of Student Association (CASA), a breakaway group from the Canadian Federation of Students in 1995. This at a time when the federal government was cutting social funding and the student movement was in high gear fighting off the downloading of costs to students. Unsurprisingly, the federal Liberals were credited with propping up CASA during these tumultuous times as documented by insider Edward Greenspon. The new organization CASA hit some bumps early on. Usher was reported to have called for a stop to an investigation of fraud within CASA. To this day, CASA stays true to the initial vision of Alex Usher and the Federal Liberals. Usher then went on to work for the federal Liberal’s Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation. There he co-authored research documents with a specialty of downplaying concerns about rising tuition fees by focusing on other costs students face (Price of Knowledge 2002 and Price of Knowledge 2004). After that, Usher moved to the Education Policy Institute (EPI), a think-tank that is especially versed in selling the virtues of higher tuition fees and higher student debt. His work on spinning tuition fee reductions as “regressive” was both heavily recited by Bob Rae during his review on post-secondary education in Ontario, and attacked by economist Hugh Mackenzie.

Usher has enjoyed a long history of undermining students’ calls for a less financially burdensome system of education. He also demonstrates that if you say it enough times and there are enough people in high places who regurgitate it, you end up being taken seriously. This lesson seems not to have been lost on some RSU election candidates who have made wild accusations.

So as we turn our attention back to RSU elections at Ryerson, we implore voters to remember the past while they consider their choices. Do not give another careerist the chance to use Ryerson students as a ladder rung to step on.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Election Aspirations Opens RSU to Admin Oversight

The Ryersonian and The Eyeopener went to press last night and both covered the Ryerson Students’ Union audit fiasco. The RFP doesn’t go to press for another two weeks, so you’ll have to wait for our story. But the motion passed warrants some publicity as the precedent it sets is something that all dues-funded organisations at Ryerson should be worried about.

The Ryerson Free Press is funded by student money, like the RSU. Like some student papers, we are funded directly by the part-time students’ union at Ryerson, CESAR. This motion was passed at the last RSU board meeting by a vote of 13-11, breaking down with team lines; Ryevolution in favour and Renew RSU opposed:

Whereas several executives of the RSU have consistently ignored directions of the board of directors,
Whereas cash reserves within the RSU have been allegedly mismanaged and misappropriated,
Whereas the RSU has been accused of a lack of transparency and flawed governance structure,
Whereas low staff morale and high staff turnover and medical leave rates have slowed the efficiency and functioning of the RSU,

Whereas there have been several allegations of election fraud and unwanted third party intrusions in RSU business,

Be it resolved that the board of directors of the Ryerson Students’ Union request the Ryerson University Administration to conduct a review of the RSU which would include an audit of staff relations, election procedures, services, finances and overall functioning.

Be it further resolved that the executives, staff and board members of the RSU provide any assistance or records required by the university administration during this review.

Be it further resolved that the board of directors elect four directors to sit on the review committee to assist with the review.

Be it further resolved that the Ryerson administration report back to the board of directors with the results of the review and recommendations by February 5th, 2009.
Moved: Dana Houssein Seconded: Osman Hamid
Somehow, political maneuvering has resulted in grave consequences for the RSU, and potential problems for the RFP, CESAR and The Eyeopener. It sets a dangerous precedent of administrative interference in the affairs of an autonomous body and for what? Dana Houssein couldn’t quite explain what they were looking for the night of the board meeting, but Abdul Snobar has alleged that there is some amount of missing money without actually explaining to what he is referring.

According to The Eyeopener, its $400,000. According to the Ryersonian, its $300,000. Neither paper makes an attempt to see what Snobar is referring to, if anything at all. Instead, it paints the current executive as culpable for this missing money and incapable of handling it. There is also no significant mention of the RSU’s last audit which was not qualified and indicated no misspending or misappropriation of funds.

In 2004, the RSU switched health and dental plan providers from Green Shield to Gallivan and Associates. At the time of this switch, the RSU had saved up hundreds of thousands of dollars in the health and dental plan reserve. Because they had to increase health and dental premiums when they switched to Gallivan, then-president Dave Maclean and his executive decided to apply the health and dental reserve to every students’ premium, thereby offsetting the amount the health and dental plan was going to cost per student. In doing so every student paid an artificially low premium at a very high cost. This move, while tactfully questionable, was not illegal and wiped out nearly $400,000 from the health and dental reserve in only one year.

Could this be the source these claims? A mistake made in 2004 when most RSU members were still in high school?

Of course, outlandish claims at the time of RSU elections are nothing new. But when these claims set dangerous precedent for other autonomous student-fee-based organisations on campus, it becomes a major problem.

False or misleading allegations that help buoy one side or another during an election are annoying and do not serve students in any way. When the outcome of these allegations leads to broader implications threatening other autonomous bodies, especially the student press, allegations of this kind are completely inappropriate. Would we bow to a motion to allow the administration to audit our operations? If the board of the Eye was to pass such a motion, would the Editor-In-Chief or other editors allow university auditors through the door? Most likely not.

If Sheldon Levy wants to remain in the public eye as a student-centred president, he’ll know better than to interfere with the affairs of the RSU. We’ll be sure to report on how this unfolds over the next week so watch back here or the RFP website.