Students shouldn’t manage student finances

In Sunday’s Gazette, universities columnist Peggy Curran has a piece on the current silliness at Concordia University in which hundreds of thousands of dollars are unaccounted for (so much so even the auditors can’t figure it out), a huge blackmail plot is alleged and everyone is suing everyone else.

In it, Curran points the finger at student apathy, saying people who go to university just don’t care enough about what goes on in their student government:

The truth is, your average student is usually too busy with classes, work, movies, gym and love life to pay attention to student government. So the decision-making and, more importantly, that ginormous bankroll, falls to that small clique of keeners for whom politics is passion and bedside reading is Robert’s Rules of Order.

This argument sounded familiar to me, so I went looking in the archives. Allison Lampert said the same thing eight years ago, when students started to turn on their radical left-wing student government:

It’s a university with a history of political activism, and a group of older, working-class students who feel their social causes are as important as what they learn in the classroom.

It’s also a university that attracts mature working students, who prioritize their jobs and part-time classes over voting for student council.

“The same things that make a small number of students really active also make a large number of students less involved,” observed Concordia University student Zev Tiefenbach, 23.

Some observers argue the CSU executive was elected because of voter apathy at Concordia – about 7 per cent of students cast ballots in the last election, compared with 20 per cent at McGill University.

Their explanation: Concordia has a larger number of part-time students – 45 per cent of the student population – who are often less inclined to get involved in school politics.

Apathy is certainly a problem, no matter what the political leanings of the student government. And apathy breeds corruption. But the CSU actually gets a lot of students involved. Its elections have gotten as much as 10% turnout, which is very high for student elections in large universities. The fact that these scandals are being uncovered should be considered a good sign in that regard. I’m sure there are plenty of questionable expenses from smaller student groups, like clubs and faculty-specific student associations. But few people care about those.

It’s not just Concordia, either. Dawson’s student union learned a hard lesson last fall when an executive went crazy with a union-financed credit card.

Should the university step in, and take the financial reins? Even if they wanted to they couldn’t. The CSU is an accredited student union that’s separate from the university, and Concordia can no more step in and take control than an employer can take control of a workers’ union.

The decision must be the CSU’s to make, and while they’ve already promised even tighter financial controls, that’s not the answer. After all, financial controls are what got them into this mess in the first place, after almost $200,000 went missing from its coffers in 1999 and 2000.

And it’s been shown time and time again that turnover every four or five years causes an inescapable loss of institutional memory, and the slow deterioration of any good intentions that may have been placed there by predecessors. Outside staff hired to make up for that loss (like the bookkeeper accused of mismanaging those hundreds of thousands at the CSU) end up gaining more and more power through their growing knowledge, and learn how to manipulate things behind the scenes.

Instead, the CSU and other student associations charged with managing any money simply shouldn’t be doing so. They should setup an independent organization to handle their finances, sign their cheques and do financial reports (with another accounting firm doing the auditing, of course). Political decisions would rest with the elected student government, but balancing the chequebook would be left to professionals instead of 20-year-old students with no experience handling a million-dollar-plus budget.

My worry isn’t so much about the CSU, which has a few eyes on it at all times, but more about the smaller organizations getting student money that aren’t the subject of constant attempts at coups d’état. Their financial mismanagement – or just imprudent choices of where to spend money – might go on for years before anyone notices them.

If student government want to be truly proactive about solving this problem, they first have to admit they have a problem, and that they need help to solve it.

UPDATE: A McGill student association executive resigned over personal use of a $2,000 hotel gift certificate that was deemed inappropriate.

5 thoughts on “Students shouldn’t manage student finances

  1. Alex Thorne

    What else is new! There as to be a an old write-up somewhere recounting similard dark episodes of the Seventies, like the dismantling of the amateur radio station at McGill and the subsequent sell-off of its expensive communication gear for a song, to “friends” of the leftist student body of the period. The political ground? Ham radio was a petit bourgeois sin, a king’s hobby for rich kids…

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  2. Z.

    Listen, if hundreds of thousands of dollars can go missing, that means that the absence of those dollars in ‘legitimate’ student inititiatives was never felt.

    When I was a Concordia student, I couldn’t understand why I was forced to pay significant fees to an organization from which I saw few beneficial results. The answer is to cut their budget radically and let the students keep their money.

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