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.