Disengagement, Transparency, and Accountability in the Wilfrid Laurier Student’s Union

The Wilfrid Laurier University Student’s Union represents 17,000 + members and manages millions of dollars in revenue for the student body. The executive of the Union consists of a president and a board of directors, and are assisted by execs for special interests, such as student clubs, finances, etc. On February 4th and 5th (2015), an annual election was held online for students union members, the undergraduate students of WLU, to elect a new president and board of directors, as well as student’s union representatives in the WLU senate and board of governors.

While the Union serves the social and financial needs of students, providing important programs for students ranging from a food bank to orientation events, its chief purpose is to represent the student body to the university and community. The elections this winter demonstrate the major failure of the Union however: the Union does not represent the students.

Voter turnout for the 2013 elections was a mere 30%, with the president securing only 36% of the vote. Females were more likely to vote than males, making up the clear majority of the vote (31% of eligible females voted, compared to 28% of males). The Faculty of Business were also crucial, with business students (39% turnout, out of 4075 students) being more likely to vote than their peers in other faculties, including the large Arts faculty (28% turnout, out of 5569 students). Arts voters were twice as likely to be female (approx. 500M to 1000F). Even amongst those groups tracked by the Union (faculty and gender), there are serious deficiencies in political participation. The Union has done little to actively promote elections to the vast majority of students who are not frequently engaged in Union activities. By the 2014 elections, voter turnout was down to about 26%.

The number of candidates in 2014 was troubling – sixteen board of directors candidates competed for fifteen positions. This continued in 2015, with sixteen candidates again “competing” for fifteen positions (and it was tough to even get 16) with eight of those sixteen acclaimed (a guaranteed win). Additionally there were only two eligible presidential candidates in 2015, down sharply from the healthy five in 2013 and 3 in 2014. In 2015 there was only one candidate for two seats on the Board of Governors, and 2 candidates for the seven seat on the Senate. The lack of candidates – especially in 2015 – gives those students who do vote troublingly few options to choose from.

Those candidates voters could choose from this year were depressingly dull. Candidates typically addressed vague student concerns, such as lack of study space, and the few specific platform issues that were addressed were either impractical, ill-advised, or miss the point. Most worrying are the statements such as “I will advocate for students”, “I will build relationships” or “I will represent students”, etc. without providing any specific details. Candidates should have both a clear plan to improve the Union and the student experience in general, and should indicate a genuine desire to do so. Board of Director candidates promised to “hold the executive to account” without explaining how they would do this, for instance. The platforms avoided real issues and meaningful change, focussing electorate attention on candidate’s vague promises and personality traits. The Union’s Strategic Plan itself offers little in terms of specifics – while “engage and reach student body” is listed as a goal, there is no specific vision or plan to do so, at least as published.

In 2014, 43 students out of 5000 chose to spoil their ballots, and only 5000 out of 16,700 actually voted. The disengagement of the electorate combined with the lack of suitable candidates for the electorate makes the entire process a façade, an illusion of democracy, involvement and engagement, and merely offers candidates an experience to add to their resumes. Those students that took the time to spoil their ballots demonstrate the lack of electoral engagement amongst the Union, but those 11,000 odd students who chose not to vote demonstrate their displeasure and lack of engagement even more clearly. The Union and the internet has made voting easier than ever, with a simple and quick way both to vote and to gain the basic information needed to make a reasonably informed decision. Voters have a very long period in which to vote. Platforms, debates, opportunities to engage with candidates, and marketing tools abound on the internet and within certain groups on campus; if an eligible voter chooses not to vote, it is because they have no interest in the process, not because they “don’t have the time”.

The Student’s Union must engage the electorate. It cannot claim to represent the undergraduate student body of the university if voter turnout is so drastically low and there is no real competition amongst candidates.

Why are students not interested in Union matters? They should be. The union controls about ten million in revenue, taking somewhere in the neighbourhood of two hundred dollars in uncontestable fees from students as part of their tuition statement. Students are members of the union and directly contribute to it. The Union provides some useful services, but faces  a troubling lack of accountability in general. The Union is relatively transparent, publishing budget and voting statistics online (crucial for this critique). I believe that students are not interested in the Union elections because they feel disengaged. Both the current executive body and the incoming candidates offer little in the way of real change. There is little in the way of real, meaningful criticism in the public forum.

The Union should justify its existence to students. It seems almost self-evident, but frankly the amount of resources and influence commanded by the Union and the power it has over students need explained. All students are involuntarily members, and contribute to its coffers in part through involuntary fees. It has the money to do great things for students, and several of its programs do greatly benefit students; however, insurance schemes, a food bank, and social events alone do not justify a nearly ten million dollar expenditure.

The Union has a high revenue, much of it with little tangible benefit to students. The President and VP’s make $32,000 – $40,000 annually, and with other staff included, the annual salary expenditure is around three million dollars. Subsidies for execs are outdated and unnecessary – especially a $600+ cell phone subsidy and a nearly four thousand dollar annual travel cost to fund trips between Waterloo and Brantford. Somehow, nearly $18,000 are spent on elections, and $32,000 and $158,000 respectively are spent on the fairly vague categories of “Volunteer appreciation” and “miscellaneous”.

There are probably perfectly good reasons for the way the union spends it cash and time, but the fact is that there is too little oversight on their spending. The Emergency Response Team and food-bank programs annually receive less than an exec’s annual salary. The Union leadership must justify this spending, as well as its income. It must prove that it is necessary for students.

The simplest solution to the major problems addressed – namely member disengagement, a lack of representation, and little oversight or accountability to the membership – is real introduction of responsible government. The Union must provide this to students. The Board of Directors is the body that is supposed to do this, theoretically, but there are two major flaws with this system: 1) the elections to choose the board members are deeply flawed, and thus members do not adequately represent the students; 2) the board members do not regularly and publicly raise criticism of the executive; and 3) board members are generally heavily involved with aspects of Union life (for instance, going on to serve in executive functions) and thus real criticism is not in their interest; and 4) to the best of my knowledge, the board has no real “teeth”. Either the board must address its shortcomings, or another body (such as an independent observer similar to the auditor general) must be raised to criticize the executive and hold them to accountability.

Students must be informed of what their union is doing. They must hold the union to accountability. They must be engaged. Students must have a clear and transparent understanding of the Union, and the Union must continually justify its actions and its finances to its members. If students were aware not only of the actual functions of the Union but were critical of these functions, electoral engagement would increase, and the Union may begin to truly represent its members.

(P.S. This was written before the results of the 2015 election came in. The voter turnout in that election was down to 25%)

Here are the major sources I’ve used, if you’d like to check for yourself:

Major sources:

http://www.wlusu.com/board-resources/

http://www.wlusu.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/28/files/2013/02/2013-AGM-Results.pdf

EDIT: Corrected some of the candidate #’s from past elections – appreciate the reader help! Any more mistakes are entirely my fault and certainly possible! This post is intended to start a conversation; I hope that more students will do their own research and analysis, and affect real change.

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About ryanmikeorr

I write at https://doonpress.wordpress.com/
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