Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) are withholding student funds from the Student Association after it failed to provide audited financial statements for the 2012-2013 school year.
Universities have, on occasion, intervened and exercised their power to withhold money from student unions acting against the wishes of their membership. Student union executives typically respond with a sad attempt to take the moral high ground, repeating variations of the following: "student unions should have autonomy over their own affairs."
The Durham and UOIT Student Association President, Peter Chinweuba, for instance, stated:
The decision is unfair as it infringes upon the autonomy of the Student Association.
The University of Guelph in 2012 stopped collecting fees for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) after students overwhelmingly rejected the organization in a referendum. Guelph's Central Student Association (CSA) originally stood up for the result of the referendum in court, but recently decided to settle with the CFS and pay the fees. However, students were not consulted on the matter at any point, deliberations were made in secret, and a deliberate decision was taken to ignore the democratic voice of students. A few months ago, the University, concerned with the lack of consultation, conducted another survey on whether students wanted to continue paying CFS fees (again, it was overwhelmingly rejected). The CSA responded with a press release that noted the University's position:
[...] Means that the CSA is not empowered to make a decision in our own affairs without the approval of the University administration.
This is the same flawed argument: it is not student unions who should possess this power, but it is one that should ultimately lie with the students! What a radical concept. When a student union clearly acts against the wishes of its membership, the only recourse students have is their university administration. Individual students cannot really access the courts due to issues of cost and time.
Let's look at another model "student leader," Sam Minniti (age 35). He was the executive director of the McMaster Association of Part-Time Students (MAPS), which represents a relatively modest 4,000 students. Yet he earned a six-figure salary of $126,151.99 in 2011 and $124,429.20 in 2012. A number of allegations were made in a letter to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, including that MAPS staff used student fees to purchase iPads, video games, minivans, BlackBerrys, laptops, a flat-screen television, an espresso machine, and vacations to Rome. McMaster University conducted a review and found "substantial and serious issues that have created deep concern for the University" and subsequently held MAPS fees in trust until it was clear that reforms were implemented by MAPS.
And Minniti?He sued MAPS and McMaster University for "wrongful dismissal" in the amount of $500,000 (of which $100,000 includes damages for "mental distress").
Haanim Nur, former chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Saskatchewan and University of Regina Students' Union president, was caught forging multiple cheques totaling $700. Once caught, Nur was interviewed by the student paper. Never once apologizing, Nur stated:
You hear rumours of other student union people being able to -- I shouldn't say the term loosely -- but getting away with stealing funds. I know it was a stupid thing to do, and it was the dumbest thing I've ever done.
She further noted in her interview that individuals from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) knew about the forgery, but did not inform the University of Regina Student Union for some time:
I spoke to the people from the Federation [about this first], so we spoke about the matter, and figured out a solution. They just said, mistakes can happen, people move on, never do it again. And so, I continued to work with them during my term as president. Nobody from URSU knew at this point. It was just me and them. They [CFS] were like, you know, you continue doing your job as president and just make sure it just doesn't happen again.
Once student union executives are elected (unless they run for subsequent terms), they no longer have to remain accountable to their constituents. As we've seen, entitled "student leaders" can abuse the system and make a handsome profit on the backs of students. Legislation should be passed which allows students to opt out financially when student unions engage in behaviour against the wishes of their membership. Until then, the average student must rely on the university to correct the wrongs done by student unions, particularly where student unions ignore the democratic voice of students, fail to consult students, or abuse student fees.
Originally published in The Prince Arthur Herald.