Tag Archives: CSU

So bad, it makes the CSU look good

The annual Concordia Student Union elections used to be a lot more interesting, with articles in real newspapers and everything.

But this week, even though the drama on campus seemed to be just as big as every year (The Link this week was filled with election stories – PDF), nobody really cared off-campus.

Part of it is that the left-right divide that polarized student politics 5-10 years ago doesn’t exist anymore. Looking at the two parties that ran this year, I couldn’t figure out which party was on which side.

In the end, the party that was expected to win did so handily, with 73% of the student vote, 26 of 29 seats on the Council of Representatives, all four elected seats on the university’s senate and both elected seats on the Board of Governors.

But that wasn’t the big story of this election.

Instead, the big issue was on the referendum ballot, and questions about fees.

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A tale of two documentaries

It was seven years ago this month – Sept. 9, 2002 – that a controversial speech planned by a student group at Concordia University turned into an out-of-control riot that became a major turning point in student politics.

For all the media attention it received, the Netanyahu riot didn’t cause much lasting physical damage. There were no serious injuries, and the 2008 Habs riot caused much more in the way of property damage than the two windows and emptied fire extinguisher cost Concordia. But the political and media fallout was enormous. The riot led to an unprecedented ban on all organized events related to Middle East issues on campus. After that ban was lifted a few weeks later, the Concordia Student Union pounced on a controversial flyer and some amateur legal analysis to hastily suspend the Jewish student group Hillel. The next spring, students voted en masse to expel the left-wing radicals in charge of student politics. For the next half-decade, students continually decided that a corrupt moderate student government was still better than bringing the leftists back.

Two documentaries were produced about the Netanyahu riot and the political conflict around it.

One was called “Confrontation at Concordia”, by Martin Himel, which aired on Global TV. There’s no official version online, but it was uploaded to Google Video in its entirety (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) by a white supremacist group (it’s unclear whether they take the side of the Jews or Palestinians in this debate – one would assume they despise both). Himel’s documentary makes Michael Moore look reasoned and unbiased. He clearly takes the side of Hillel, even comparing actions of Palestinian supporters on campus to actions in 1930s Germany that preceded the Holocaust, asking rhetorically how far Concordia’s tensions could escalate in comparison. The film invites experts from only one side of the debate, and includes a lot of voiceovers in which Himel makes bold statements based solely on his own opinion. Himel even appears multiple times to talk into the camera.

The documentary caused outrage among Concordia’s left, and even moderates (such as myself) decried it as biased. It was the subject of complaints to both the Quebec Press Council and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Both dismissed the majority of the complaints, finding only that Himel and Global should have made it clear to viewers that this was a point-of-view opinion documentary and not a news piece.

The other documentary, called Discordia, was a production of the National Film Board and the CBC. Directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal took a radically different approach to their film, focusing it more on three figures involved and the personal, emotional rollercoaster they went through in those months. Addelman and Mallal do not appear in their own film, and there are no voiceovers. Only a few subtitles give dry, matter-of-fact statements. All the opinion is given by the three stars: Noah Sarna of Hillel, Samer Elatrash of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and Aaron Maté of the Concordia Student Union. Though it is slightly biased to the pro-Palestinian side because two of those three are on one side of the debate, the film makes no grand hyperbolic statements and gives no clue to its directors’ political views.

Neither documentary, of course, tells the whole story. Such a thing would be impossible in an hour-long film. But the latter, at least, gives a slice of the nuances of the debate, while the former shows the real (if outrageously exaggerated) fears that Israel’s supporters had about what was going on at the activist university.

Concordia has calmed down considerably in those seven years, so the closest the younger generation will get to the “viper’s nest” is through such historical documents.

Concordia’s dollars and sense

Concordia University and the Concordia Student Union have signed an agreement which will see the eventual construction of a new $70-million building for student activities funded largely by the students themselves through mandatory per-credit fees.

Meanwhile, the CSU says it spent $200,000 on legal fees alone in the past year.

Good thing I’m not a student there anymore. I can laugh about their misfortune instead of crying at the massive waste of money.

The end of a Concordia dynasty

From my archives in 2004: On the right, the thrill of victory; on the left, the agony of defeat

From my archives in 2004: On the right, the thrill of victory; on the left, the agony of defeat

In 2003, a slate of moderate (what their opponents would label as right-wing) student politicians called “Evolution, Not Revolution” achieved what had seemed impossible: winning Concordia University’s biggest student vote of the year and taking control of the Concordia Student Union executive against an established radical left-wing that had controlled it for years. Even though public opinion was clearly on their side, the mainstream of the student body didn’t vote, because they didn’t care.

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It’s CSU season again

The Concordia campaign season has started again, with slates of candidates for executive office at the Concordia Student Union sounding more like cable TV channels than political parties:

  • Change
  • Fresh
  • Attention
  • Vision
  • New Union

I guess “Freedom” and “Awesome” and “Puppies” dropped out.

In case it’s not clear yet just how small the stakes are, the Concordian has a story about a former CSU executive being caught on camera ripping campaign posters from the walls.

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.

CSU OMG WTF FYI: Week 2

It’s said that student politics are so dirty precisely because the stakes are so small.

At least with the Concordia Student Union, the stakes involve some serious money.

A week after the scandal of the year broke out, the student papers (especially The Concordian) are all over the news, even though there’s nothing actually new happening, mainly because the target of the $25,000 bribe accusation hasn’t spoken publicly about it. It’s even making the McGill papers.

Meanwhile, in other scandals keeping the CSU so busy they can’t deal with regular business:

$25,000 bribe? Gotta be Concordia

The student papers at Concordia are leading with an incredible story based on an affidavit from the head of the Quebec Student Health Alliance (ASEQ) accusing former Concordia Student Union vice-president Steven Rosenshein of asking for a $25,000 bribe (to finance an upcoming student election campaign) for his company to remain the CSU’s health and dental plan insurance broker.

The bribe attempt was allegedly made in May 2008. It is becoming public now only because the CSU has decided to switch insurance brokers, and ASEQ believes it is because they did not allow themselves to be blackmailed.

The CSU health plan is the student association’s largest single expense, and $25,000 represents only a fraction of its yearly budget.

But still, to ask for a direct, illegal campaign contribution and threaten to cut off a multi-million-dollar deal if it’s not received is pretty insane.

To be clear, the Concordia Student Union denies the claim (though Rosenshein hasn’t spoken publicly yet UPDATE (March 3): Rosenshein emerges do deny it as well), and says its decision to switch insurance brokers without even opening it up to bids was unrelated to any alleged bribe.

The letter from ASEQ executive director Lev Bukhman to Concordia University asking it to take charge of the student health plan is here (PDF).

Oh Concordia, how little has changed

The Evil Borg Cube (a.k.a. Hall Building)

The Evil Borg Cube (a.k.a. Hall Building)

I used to look back at my alma mater Concordia University, and ponder how student politics there had changed. In my years (2000-2004), there were scandals, recalls, backroom deals, lawsuits, riots, arrests and just general overall craziness. But since then it had been mostly quiet. A one-party system had been instituted at the Concordia Student Union, finances seemed under control and everyone stayed out of the headlines.

But thankfully, university student politics have a habit of repeating themselves every few years, as high turnover results in institutional Alzheimer’s and the same mistakes get made by a whole new group:

  • Person in charge of finances is left unchecked, money goes missing, and then she does as well? Check.
  • President proclaims innocence? Check.
  • Financial mismanagement so complicated even auditors can’t figure it all out? Check.
  • Recall petition to remove executive? Check.
  • Executive tries to find loophole to subvert democratic will of petition? Check.
  • Club money goes to questionable expenses? Check.
  • Comparisons to corrupt African regimes and measures put in place to make sure this “doesn’t happen again”? Check.
  • Patrice Blais? Check.

Student union money is easily embezzled

The Concordia Student Union has a budget of about a million dollars a year (actually, it’s probably more than that now, but within an order of magnitude). That’s a lot of money, and it’s managed by amateurs who swoop in without any experience. So it’s unsurprising that eight years ago, the union discovered that one of its executives made off with almost $200,000 over a year and a half by writing cheques to herself and hiding the evidence from the bookkeeper.

When the executive discovered what happened (at first they thought it was more like $30,000), it was reported to the council of representatives in a super-secret meeting. The press release came out a week later. It took four years before she was finally convicted, though the union still hasn’t recovered all the money.

This month, history appears to be repeating itself, and the CSU has apparently discovered another “financial irregularity” about “misappropriation of funds” which was presented to a super-secret meeting. No dollar amount is given, but one would assume we’re not talking about a few extra beers in the expense account. No one is named, of course, but it would have to be someone with access to the money, either an executive or an accountant.

For someone to do this at the CSU takes balls (and “creative accounting” skills) the likes of which I have never seen. The union put rigorous financial controls in place after the first fraud, including new financial policies and the hiring of a financial controller. It will be interesting to see how these safeguards were foiled this time.

Meanwhile, a bit further west down de Maisonneuve Blvd., the Dawson Student Union has a financial scandal of its own. It seems one of its executives racked up $29,000 in expenses on her executive credit card (well, I assume it’s a her – if a guy is spending that much on clothes and jewellry, there’s bigger problems afoot).

Whose bright idea was it to give apparently limitless credit cards to 18-year-old CEGEP students? I mean seriously, did nobody consider the rather obvious possibility that this might happen?

What the CSU and DSU have in common, despite the fact that stealing from them is like taking candy from a baby (a baby with a trailer full of candy), is that both were accredited as official representatives of their students, meaning the schools’ administrations have certain legal obligations involving student fees, and can’t interfere in their affairs.

I’m not suggesting differently here, but this is clearly a systemic problem. CEGEP and university students can’t be trusted with huge bank accounts. Rigorous financial controls need to be put in place, and those controls need to be verified on a regular basis by an independent third party.

Perhaps the government should step in here. The same law that says universities must hand over student fees to accredited student unions should also require certain financial control measures be put in place, and there should be regular inspections by the government to ensure that they are respected. Miss your audit by a day and you get a visit from a government agent. Even if you don’t, you still get a visit. Otherwise things like this will just keep happening.

And all of this is completely separate from the misappropriation of funds by student clubs and smaller associations. It was rampant in my time and I doubt it’s gotten much better.

CSU: One party is enough

It’s that time of year again, folks: Concordia student elections!

As the years pass and my connection to my alma mater fades (despite the Alumni Association’s pleas that I donate money and give back), I realize that I don’t know the people studying there anymore. I’m not familiar with the day-to-day issues. And more importantly, I don’t care.

But it’s fun to watch as this year’s vote becomes more of a farce than ever. There’s only one set of candidates running for the executive this year, the Left having been so demoralized by seven losses in a row that they’ve retreated to a legislative-only party. Even the apparent joke party was disqualified when it turned out that its members were signed up to run without their permission or even their knowledge.

The last time an election for CSU executive was uncontested was … I don’t know if it’s ever been done.

Despite the protests from the media about a one-party system being de facto undemocratic, the election goes on, with prizes handed out to a few random voters. Even with that, it’s hard to see this election breaking any turnout records.

Oh Concordia…

Those wacky Concordia kids are still at it

“I believe it’s time to set petty politics aside and come together to build a stronger Concordia community.”

— Angelica Novoa, Concordia Student Union president, during the election campaign

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting more news about Concordia student politics (and we all know you have), the student media have returned from the holidays and they give you the latest:

  • An appeal was filed about the blatantly leading referendum questions in last November’s CSU by-election. It was summarily rejected by the brand new judicial board for apparently technical reasons. Now the CSU can get all the money it scammed out of students.
  • Minutes of a suspiciously-called student council meeting last April that suspiciously disappeared without a trace have now mysteriously reappeared. The meeting was nothing important, just the legislative branch of a political organization arbitrarily overruling the judiciary over a common-sense judgment that two politicians were ineligible to run in the category they filed for because they were not part of that category of student. Convinced that everything has been resolved now, the council has voted to restrict itself from ever discussing the issue again.
  • The Concordian features a mid-term report card of the CSU administration, focusing on the things they’ve accomplished.
  • But their assessment of the CSU’s commitment to accountability is scathing at best.
  • A loser in the November by-election (and, for that matter, March’s general election) publishes an open diary in The Link in which I guess she tries to be funny, but comes out sounding like the kind of get-a-life bitterness that has consumed Concordia politics for far too long.
  • The Graduate Student Association had to call in mediators because the executive and council refused to speak to each other. The meeting was held in secret so we don’t know what they said.
  • Concordia’s Board of Governors (that’s the corporate CEO grownups who should know better) apparently found it necessary to rename its “Interim President” position. Well, actually it “abolished” the “Interim President” position and created the position of “President for an Interim Period.” The person filling that position, whatever it’s named (wasn’t it “acting president“?) is Michael Di Grappa.
  • Meanwhile, administrators still refuse to acknowledge the existence of the “risk assessment committee” that was setup after the Netanyahu protest in 2002. The Acting Interim President for an Interim Period has refused to testify at an access-to-information hearing about it.
  • The search for a new provost and VP academic (the No. 2 administrative position at Concordia which is also being held on an interim basis) has drummed up a whopping two candidates: Katherine Bergman, who has been dean of science at the University of Regina since 2001; and David Graham, who was appointed dean of arts and science at Concordia in 2005.

Concordia Student Union needs a clarity act

The Concordia Student Union is in the midst of their by-elections this week. The small sibling to its March general election, this poll fills council seats left vacant, and asks referendum questions that people couldn’t get their act together in time to get on the March ballot.

The CSU is still trying to figure out if two of its current councillors were properly elected in March. The council nullified a decision of its own judicial branch under suspicious circumstances and has now used stalling techniques to avoid the issue of whether two independent students (those that don’t belong to one of the school’s four faculties) were in fact independent at the time of their election.

Nevertheless, it’s trying to conduct a clean election.

I can’t speak for the candidates (six candidates for three seats, with clear party affiliations), but the referendum questions leave much to be desired.

Three of the four involve fee increases (student-imposed student fees have skyrocketed this decade), and they’re all written by the people who want the fees approved instead of an impartial third party. As such, they include irrelevant statements about what the fees will pay for.

The Concordian student newspaper, which is desperately trying to increase its fee to bring it on par with its competitor The Link (some background on their bickering here), has this question on the ballot:

Do you agree to raise the fee level of The Concordian, a free weekly, independent newspaper covering news, sports, arts, music, features and opinions for Concordia by $0.09 per credit, from $0.10 to $0.19 per credit, to cover the rising costs of printing the newspaper, repairing old and failing equipment and increasing the creative quality and scope of the paper? This fee will be charged to all Undergraduate students beginning with the 2008 Winter term (2008/4 courses) and will be subject to the university’s tuition and refund policy.

The problem is that the question implies that the fee increase will only cover rising costs of printing and equipment replacement. Though that’s part of it, the editors are also interested in offering contributors a small honorarium and saving some money for a rainy day.

If a competent election officer was running the show, the question would look like this:

Do you agree to raise the fee level of The Concordian by $0.09 per credit, from $0.10 to $0.19 per credit? This fee will be charged to all Undergraduate students beginning with the 2008 Winter term (2008/4 courses) and will be subject to the university’s tuition and refund policy.

The other two fee questions have the same problem. Unnecessary campaigning is emphasized below:

Do you agree to raise the Concordia Student Union Fee Levy by $0.25 per credit, from $1.50 to $1.75 per credit in order to fund important services and initiatives such as the creation of an emergency food bank for students in need, a free daily lunch offered to Loyola students and Concordia Student Union 101’s. This fee will be charged to all Undergraduate students beginning with the 2008 Winter term (2008/4 courses) and will be subject to the university’s tuition and refund policy.

Do you agree to adjust the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) membership fee levy (which includes the membership fees of the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Federation of Students- Services and the Canadian Federation of Students-Québec) to $0.41 per credit per student, thereby continuing to support the increased demand for campaigns and services of CFS, some of which include lobbying for student debt reduction, better student financial aid, more funding for post-secondary education, cell phone discounts through StudentPhones, student discounts at hundreds of retailers in and around Montreal and free ISIC cards? The fee adjustment would represent a $0.01 decrease for Arts & Science, Fine Arts, and Independent students, and a $0.41 increase for Engineering and Computer Science and John Molson School of Business students, thereby equalizing the fee levy paid by ALL undergraduate students. The fee adjustment would be implemented in the Winter (2008/4) term and collected in accordance with the University’s tuition billing and refund policy.

The last question is even worse. In order to correct a decades-old discrepancy between fees paid by various faculties, it proposes to “equalize” the fees by slightly decreasing the fee for the largest group (Arts and Science, Fine Arts and independent students represent more than 65% of the population) and creating the fee out of nothing for the rest. The large group will vote to decrease their fees, and even if engineering and commerce students vote against their huge fee increase en masse, it won’t matter because other students make that decision for them.

It’s a horribly unfair system.

So why are these dirty referendum tricks tolerated? Because they have been used for years.

Just about every fee-related referendum question for the past five years has included unnecessary and leading information. The Art Matters festival, People’s Potato free lunch service, CJLO Radio, Frigo Vert, Sustainable Concordia and the Concordia chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group have all used this technique to get fee questions passed.

The divide-and-conquer equalization technique, meanwhile, was first used by the Concordia Student Union itself back in 2001, and has been adapted for use at The Link (full disclosure: while I was an editor there, though I still feel bad about it). Other groups like QPIRG have used a similar technique but with a slight increase instead of a decrease for the majority.

I suppose I could just let it go and dismiss it as the work of uneducated students, but some of these people are going to be involved in real politics someday (Mario Dumont was a Concordia graduate). They’re going to have to learn at some point that this kind of manipulation of the electoral process isn’t kosher. It might as well be now.

UPDATE (Dec. 1): This post is referenced in Macleans.ca’s Nov. 30 daily campus update. Though it’s “Concordia Student Union”, not “Concordia Student’s Union”.

Also The Concordian’s Tobi Elliott informs me that The Concordian’s referendum question passed. So did all the other ones. What a surprise.

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I will not use the force

Oh petty Concordia Student Union political grandstanding, how I miss thee. (UPDATE: Now there’s video: Part One, Part Two)

Not that the grownups at Loyola and Sir George aren’t doing petty political grandstanding of their own, of course.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to hide my degree more than a protest or the prospect of some dirty hippies running the joint.

Even student politics should be open

A mini storm is brewing at Concordia University over a subject so stupid I can’t believe there are actually two sides to it: student union councillors don’t want their public meetings videotaped for public broadcast, despite mandating it at the previous meeting.

A little history here. Many moons ago, Concordia University Television was founded as Canada’s first university-based television station. It doesn’t have a television broadcasting license, nor is it on cable anywhere. Instead, it has monitors on a closed-circuit system throughout the university, mainly in the downtown Hall Building.

Somewhere in the 1990s, the Concordia Student Union (which was still concerned with that “democracy” thing and hadn’t yet been taken over by the moderate/radical or Israeli/Palestinian political divides, each bent on using political corruption to eliminate the other and stay in power at any cost) had the bright idea that, because nobody cared about what they did, they should get the word out more. So they mandated (read: required) CUTV to film their meetings and “broadcast” them to students. But because of technical limitations at CUTV, this never happened. And with the inevitable turnover on both sides, this rule was eventually forgotten.

Fast-forward to this spring. CUTV station manager Jason Gondziola wins a seat on the CSU Council of Representatives, somehow believing that being a student politician and running a student media outlet does not present an inherent conflict of interest. He immediately starts lobbying for permission for CUTV to start filming meetings. Over the past few years, the station has been using student money to buy lots of new equipment and is distributing some videos via its website.

But CSU councillors, specifically John Molson School of Business councillor Catherine Côté, who apparently have no idea what politics mean, are concerned about their privacy. In some cases in the past, it’s been Muslim women on Council who didn’t want their faces exposed. Ditto some paranoid anarchists. I’m not sure who it is now, but I’m certain it’s either an idiot or someone who is trying to hide from constituents.

Student politicians are almost by definition stupid. It’s not their fault. They’re learning how to become real politicians. This means that, for example, their political dirty tricks are a lot more transparent (illegally paying campaign workers, bribing, appointing partisan hacks to electoral and judicial positions, etc.).

But it boggles the mind that a student politician, who has run in an election and appeared on hundreds of posters and thousands of ballots, would cite privacy concerns as a reason to prevent journalists from recording the public proceedings of the most important student-run body at Concordia, responsible for a budget of over a million dollars. The fact that Councillor Côté did so after the fact, using the excuse that the issue should be revisited because she couldn’t be bothered to show up to the previous meeting and should be given a chance to express her views, is the height of arrogance.

The Link agrees, calling her an “enemy of transparency”.

She, and the entire CSU Council, should be ashamed.