Big changes ahead for Students’ Union

By Brent Constantin

An overhaul in government is always tedious — one need look no further than the push for an elected senate in Canada or attempts to amend the federal constitution — but the University of Calgary Students’ Union is aiming to do just that.

“The SU is looking at itself to ensure that it is set up best to represent students and connect the governance side of what we do here to the operational side,” said Joey Brocke, SU vice-president operations and finance, and the chair of the governance review committee.

Currently U of C undergraduates are represented by a union whose governing body is headed by a five-person executive team — the president and four VPs: academic, operations and finance, external and events.

Each VP has four commissioners. The president, VPs and their commissioners make up the Students’ Legislative Council, the SU’s highest governing body .

The second half of the governing body is the Students’ Academic Assembly, which consists of the president, the VP academic and one representative from each faculty — from engineering, with 3,000 students, to veterinary medicine, which will have 70 students next fall.

Together SLC and SAA, under the direction of the five executives, make up the SU.

While anything is possible with the proposed changes, Brocke said there are several specific areas he hopes to see amended this year, starting with the restructuring of faculty representatives.

Currently one student representative from each faculty is elected, regardless of the number of students they represent. But, with the coming faculty merger, many elected officials felt the current structure wouldn’t work.

The amalgamation of four faculties into one — humanities, fine arts, communication and culture and social sciences will become the arts faculty April 1, 2010 — has raised the question of how the SU can best represent students, said Brocke.

“If you look at the number of full-time and part-time students this year in the arts faculties, it’s actually 8,200 students, and you’re asking one person to represent them,” said Brocke. “I was a faculty rep last year in fine arts and I represented 600 people and I never had a lack of things to do. [With] 10 times the amount of students, I can’t even imagine what the workload would be, so it’s really brought up the question of proportional representation as opposed to the current system we have where one faculty gets one representative and one vote.”

To solve this issue the SAA is considering determining the number of faculty representatives by threshold, so a faculty would receive one representative for each certain amount of students enrolled.

Brocke said the SU is looking at a sliding scale for each new faculty representative, with benchmarks rising by 1,000 students for each new faculty representative, which would maintain the level of representatives before the merger and limit the amount of elected officials to a reasonable level.

“While one person for 8,000 is daunting, six or seven for 8,000, in my opinion, is equally daunting,” he said.

With one third of U of C students in the arts faculty there has to be a change from the status quo, said fine arts representative Lindsay Ogden.

“Any less than four representatives would be a disadvantage to the arts faculty,” said Ogden.

Coming from the smallest of the four faculties being amalgamated, Ogden said she understands some of the resistance to change from representatives of smaller faculties, but noted the change is no reason for them to be worried.

“Just because there are more reps doesn’t mean [larger faculties will] gang up on the smallest faculties,” said Ogden.

Brocke said he hopes to make use of the new faculty representatives by changing the make-up of SLC. If the proposed plan gets passed, SLC would be composed of executives and faculty representatives. Commissioners would be hired, meaning they wouldn’t be able to sit on a governing body.

SAA, the council on which faculty reps currently sit, would essentially be disbanded, with a committee created to research and write academic policies.

“Faculty representatives are often described as the best link to the students on campus, the people that an average student will be able to connect to. They sit on this sub-committee [SAA] and they have no voice and no vote on our top council [SLC], the one that makes all the important decisions on money and strategic goals. So there’s a weird disconnect between our most tangible link to our students and our governing council,” said Brocke.

“With moving faculty reps out of SAA, which is a toothless tiger, and putting them into SLC, they’ll have direct influence on the governance,” agreed Louden.

Brocke said this change would create a more direct link between the SU’s decisions and the overall opinion of the student body.

“A good example is last year, there was a reasonable amount of contention about the Quality Money allocation, certain faculties were not in favour of spending $90,000 over three years to upgrade Bermuda Shorts Day,” he said. “And because it was going through this commissioner structure . . . opinion gets a little bogged down. So moving it into the direction where faculty reps actually have a say will give a stronger indication of the actual will on campus so that we can see ‘OK 20 per cent of our students don’t actually like this, is there some way we can change it so that less students are opposed?’ “

Ogden said it’s only logical to have faculty reps sit on the highest governing body.

“Having them on SLC will guarantee them a voice,” she said.

The move to an SLC made up of faculty reps would change commissioners from elected positions helping govern the organization into hired positions for students more interested in a specific portfolio.

“There’s kind of a messed up accountability structure currently where a commissioner works for, reports to and is paid by their vice-president, but then at council it becomes the commissioner’s job to hold that executive accountable,” said Brocke.

Commissioners are essentially paid by the people they’re supposed to keep responsible, said Brocke.

“We’ve spoken to all the executives and asked them how many commissions they legitimately feel that they need and it turns out that most of them don’t need four. In fact, none of them [except events] need four,” explained Louden. “[We’re looking at having] two presidential commissioners — which is a new thing — two for external, two for academic, one for operations and finance and then events would have a pool of four to six.”

Louden, currently an academic commissioner, feels the change to a hired structure makes sense as he’s had problems in the past trying to represent students.

“If I want to find out what the students think, it’s not really clear who my constituents are, so unless I want to take some kind of ridiculous sample survey of everyone in the school I have no idea how I’m supposed to stand on things besides what I think,” said Louden, adding that faculty reps are a much better fit for this role, as their mandates are established by a specific segment of the student body.

Other changes Brocke would like to see happen include clarification and amendments to executive portfolios, reporting procedures for the university’s Board of Governors and Senate representatives, resolving code of conduct issues, the power and scope of committees, as well as changes to financial procedures.

An example Brocke noted was the $10,000 limit the SU can spend before it needs to request ratification from council, a figure that was calculated in the mid-1990s and one that Brocke said is no longer reasonable.

“We’re spending more than $10,000 on a weekly basis on things like cleaning contracts or when we order food for the Black Lounge and Den and it’s just a standard operating cost,” he explained. “But according to our current bylaws the approval for that money should come from council, but it’s just an unreasonable expectation that just slows down the system.”

When asked about the project’s timeline Brocke knocked on wood.

“Getting these passed so the next general election [mid February to early March] will see a new structure, we have to have an affirmative vote . . . in early December and then our bylaws would be re-written for January,” he said.

Brocke said despite the tight deadline he’s confident much of the change can be made.

The final date for all of the proposed changes to be voted on will be Tues., Dec. 8.

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