Tag Archives: McGill-University

#6party is over, but the hypocrisy continues at McGill

Showing what I consider to be a rather stunning level of restraint, McGill University allowed a group of students to occupy its administration building for days before finally calling in the police to have them “evicted”.

The occupation has naturally divided the McGill and general population. Some see it as a heroic at of defiance against an evil regime that seeks to undermine student groups that are trying to make societal change that goes against their right-win world view. Opponents see it as a bunch of whiny privileged white kids who are trying to act out their Che Guevara/Berkeley fantasies by pretending to be hippies and engaging in an annoying disruption that will in the end accomplish nothing.

Then again, it looks like some stuff has been accomplished by all this resistance.

But what about the issue that led to the occupation in the first place?

This whole issue came about because of a recent student referendum vote on the renewal of student fees for CKUT radio and the McGill chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group. Unlike other groups receiving student fees directly through tuition payments to the university (including all those at Concordia who do so), these groups are required to renew their fees every few years. The alternative would be either having a process of revoking student fees from organizations (one student unions and the student groups getting the funding would be very hesitant to participate in), or acknowledging that once a group gets approval from students for a fee, that fee remains in perpetuity. Neither alternative is particularly desirable.

But rather than a simple question asking if students wished to continue paying their fees, both questions included a second part about the opt-out system.

Opting in to opting out

Recognizing that some students need every dollar they can get, and it’s incredibly hypocritical to demand a free education on one hand and hold out the other demanding a mandatory fee from every student, many groups have agreed to allow students to opt out and get a refund of their fee directly from the organization.

I’ve always been suspicious of this (some groups at Concordia do the same thing), because the process seems to involve actually going to their offices and demanding money back, which can be pretty intimidating. Does the process require signing paperwork? Do you have to justify your reason to opt out? Will you get a lecture about how much the organization needs your money to survive, or about how you’ll be denied services if you say no? I never went through the process, so I don’t know. Most other students didn’t either, because they didn’t know about it or because they couldn’t be bothered.

Perhaps recognizing this, McGill changed the way it works in 2007 and allowed students to opt out of their fees to these organizations electronically, anonymously, without having to set foot in the offices of the groups concerned.

The result, these groups say, is a significant drop in their revenue from student fees. They point out organized campaigns to get more students to opt out that are hurting their bottom line.

Begging the questions

So the referendum question asking students about maintaining the fee also added in a bit about no longer using this opt-out system.

The questions as they appeared on the ballot, according to the SSMU (PDF) are as follows:

Do you support CKUT continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $4.00 per semester for fulltime undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is fully refundable directly through CKUT, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to CKUT?

Do you support QPIRG continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $3.75 per semester for fulltime undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is fully refundable directly through QPIRG, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to QPIRG?

Both questions passed with clear majorities. But the university decided against recognizing the results, arguing that the questions were unclear. Students naturally protested this and hence we have the occupation that’s been getting all the news coverage.

I can see the university’s point here. The part about opting out seems like more of a statement than a question. But loaded questions like this are fairly common in such student referendum questions (most are heavily biased in favour of approving new or higher fees for student organizations), and I’m not sure why McGill has chosen here to start a fight.

The motive

The big question here is: Why don’t these organizations want to make it easier for students to opt out? It’s a question that I’ve yet to see a convincing answer to.

CKUT summarizes its opposition to the system, using arguments echoed by QPIRG McGill. I further summarize them as such:

  1. Having the university administer the opt-out system is an unacceptable encroachment on the finances of those organizations receiving fees.
  2. Students never approved such an opt-out system in a referendum, nor was it negotiated with the groups or with the SSMU.
  3. The university doesn’t allow students to opt out of its own fees with this system.
  4. Because opting out is so much easier, more students will do it and the groups will get less money.

Let’s be honest here: The last argument is the only one that really matters. And it makes it clear that these groups have no intention of making it easy for students who don’t want to fund them to get their money back.

The first argument about jurisdiction makes sense only if you ignore the fact that the university collects student fees in the first place, tacking them on to tuition bills. Why would a deduction at source be unacceptable?

The second argument, about student not approving such a system, could easily be tested by having a referendum question about it. But I’m pretty sure the groups know they would lose that battle if the question was posed fairly.

The third argument is a red herring, and has nothing to do with the debate at hand. Student groups allowing students to opt out of fees shouldn’t mean the university has to do the same.

The arguments about university control are, frankly, minor. This is about money, and how offering an opt-out system has always been more about image than practicality. These groups are interested in making it as hard as possible for students to get their money back.

The hypocrisy

Back when I was at Concordia, the university came to a compromise with the student union, which was upset about an ill-defined “administration fee” that was costing students a lot of money every semester and looked an awful lot like a back-door tuition increase.

The university decided to allow some students to opt out of that fee. To be more accurate, it offered a bursary to students with financial need equivalent to the cost of that fee.

The Concordia Student Union went on a campaign, passing around the form to apply for this bursary to as many students as they possibly could. They wouldn’t be satisfied until every student opted out of this fee. Many did, but again many just didn’t bother.

Now, you could argue that this isn’t incredibly hypocritical because students never approved the administration fee but they did approve the CKUT and QPIRG fees. But somehow that argument feels a bit hollow to me.

The power of apathy is strong, and McGill’s student groups had been exploiting that to keep the money of students that don’t support their activities. Now that McGill has streamlined the process of not paying, and these groups get a clearer idea of how many students don’t think their services are worth the money, they’re up in arms that their existence is threatened.

It sucks, I know. But that’s democracy.

UPDATE (Feb. 13): CKUT writes to the McGill Daily about this issue, and says it lost $27,000 to student fee opt-outs last year, which is very significant. (The part about it being the most listened-to station isn’t right. It’s supposed to say that CKUT is ranked first or second in the annual Mirror readers’ poll.)

The transit nerd express

It’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who are more nerdy about public transit than I am.

Take the folks at Transportation Research at McGill (TRAM). They don’t just do this as a hobby, chasing after buses with their cameras. They actually study public transit, and their work has results.

When the STM decided it would make a lot of sense to setup a limited-stop express line on St. Michel Blvd., it partnered with TRAM to perform some serious analysis of the plan.

TRAM first used data about existing passengers on the 67 line to estimate time savings in this rather academic-looking document (PDF), even providing different scenarios of where the 467 should stop for maximum efficiency.

After the 467 was put into service, they went back and looked at the average run times for both the 67 and 467 after implementation, and asked passengers to fill out a survey (PDF).

In October, Masters student Julien Surprenant-Legault produced this report (PDF) on the before-and-after numbers.

He explains:

I became involved after the 467 service’s implementation on March 30, 2009. [Professor] Ahmed El-Geneidy and I evaluated the accuracy of the previous estimatess, quantified times savings, and assessed customers’ satisfaction. We finished the study at the end of July 2009. The study that we have done is unique and is opening a new field of research; therefore, no comparable study presently exists.

As for the results, the estimates were 11% to 19% savings for run time on route 467, and the actual ones are 13%, which is in the expected range. Savings could have been higher without the introduction of the OPUS card, an electronic payment system that slightly slowed boardings. Still, the STM made some improvements to the payment boxes in order to speed up boardings; also, people now have had some time to adapt themselves to the new system. The trip on route 67 originally took 35 minutes, which decreased to 34 minutes after the implementation of route 467. Route 467 run time is 31 minutes (savings of 4 minutes 20 seconds).

A slide from Julien Surprenant-Legault's presentation about the effects of the 467 express route

Surprenant-Legault theorizes (correctly, I believe) that the major reason the improvements weren’t as high as predicted was because of the introduction of the Opus smart card between the before measurements and the after measurements. As I’ve written about before, the Opus card and magnetic-stripe card require additional seconds for each passenger, either to hold the Opus against the reader or insert the card into the slot, wait for it to read, print out a validation and then spit it back out. Instead of passengers boarding two seconds apart, they now board five or six, making the whole trip slower.

One interesting finding in the study is about passengers’ perception of time savings:

For route 467 riders, a statistically significant difference exists between their estimates and the actual savings. Real travel time savings were on average 1.5 minutes per trip, while users estimated them within a range of 6.9 to 11.9 minutes. For route 467 riders, a statistically significant difference exists between their estimates and the actual savings. Real travel time savings were on average 1.5 minutes per trip, while users estimated them within a range of 6.9 to 11.9 minutes.

If we assume this same phenomenon could be replicated on other lines, it means making a lot of passengers happy with not much investment.

You can get more about this study from this presentation (PDF) given by Surprenant-Legault.

Transportation Research at McGill hosts weekly seminars about transportation issues. Surprenant-Legault kicked off the winter 2010 session with the presentation mentioned above. The last one of the season is Thursday at noon, featuring Sébastien Gagné, Kevin Beauséjour and Jocelyn Grondines of the STM’s planning department. The presentation is in Room 420 of the Macdonald-Harrington Building on McGill’s main campus, and is free and open to the public.

What’s in a university’s name?

McGill has a bug up its butt.

The university, whose name has apparently been left unprotected for almost 200 years, has begun clamping down on the use of the name “McGill” by organizations on campus. It started with CKUT, which was blackmailed into dropping “McGill” from its name last month. Now they’re reviewing all student-run groups, forcing them into mounds of paperwork to justify using the McGill name in theirs.

Concordia University has had a similar policy (PDF) since 2001, with one significant difference: Concordia’s policy grandfathered existing student groups, and as far as I can tell they don’t sweat the small stuff: Only for-profit enterprises and large groups bother with approval.

McGill’s move is just silly. Well-intentioned, but silly. A student club devoted to stamp-collecting at McGill is obviously going to call itself the McGill Stamp-Collecting Club or something similar, just for clarity’s sake. The name implies only that it is at McGill, not that it is run by McGill’s administration. Requiring such a complicated process as board approval will only create unnecessary work for volunteers and discourage students from creating social clubs on campus.

McGill says they’re “reviewing” the policy. Let’s hope they come up with some sane guidelines that have more to do with encouraging a vibrant and active student populace than it does with over-regulation and paperwork.

Uprising 2?

The folks at the McGill chapter Quebec Public Interest Research Group (read: hippie anarchists) have produced an “alternative” student agenda with activist propaganda.

Called “School Schmool” (education is a tool of the proletariat!), it commemorates the invention of the pipe bomb and encourages vandalism of advertisements.

Those of us with long memories might remember “Uprising“, the 2001 Concordia student agenda, which had a similar ultra-activist slant, titles in Broken Typewriter font for that extra edge, the same “alternative” calendar anniversary notes, and encouraged people to vandalize advertisements, dismantle the capitalist system by firing their “bo$$e$” (l33t!), squat in abandoned buildings, steal expensive cars to take for joy rides and then crash into other expensive cars and setup pirate radio stations.

It also, of course, demonized Israel, the U.S., the media, the university, police, heterosexuals, capitalism and just about any large company.

Unfortunately for Concordia’s student handbook, it was released in September 2001, which was pretty horrible timing. It eventually helped lead to an unprecedented student revolt that took the student union’s executive out of office. (This one probably won’t generate a reaction on the same level, if only because it wasn’t the official student union agenda.)

Like all stupid student ideas, after five years when everyone’s graduated, they start repeating themselves. Embezzlement of student funds, patronage appointments, election fraud, all tend to come and go on a five-year cycle. As do all the election promises that later turn out to be too complicated to accomplish or too impractical to be worth the time.

Journal still trying to manufacture scandal

As Kate so succinctly points out, the Journal de Montréal is taking yesterday’s OMG-McGill-is-giving-out-free-cocaine!!!111oneone story and republishing it with little new information to try and get people to agree with them that it’s a scandal. So far other media are talking about the story, but with the seriousness it deserves. They’re studying a drug, and unfortunately that means people have to take it under controlled conditions.

CKUT license renewed until 2014

The folks at CKUT Radio-McGill can rest easy. The CRTC today renewed their license for seven years until 2014, with only a minor change to its Canadian content rules. The decision also includes “suggestions” (to have board positions be longer than a year) and “reminders” (that board positions must be mostly university community members and at least 80% Canadian citizens).

Oh yeah, and make sure not to be discriminatory and stuff, even though you weren’t actually discriminatory before.

Can you get aroused with probes on your penis?

All sorts of medical studies ask strange things of their guinea pigs. Taking new pills, sleeping, not sleeping, changing their eating habits.

But I hope the compensatory indemnity was high for the group who volunteered to have their sexual arousal monitored by taking readings of their penises, in a study to show whether circumsized men are less sensitive. The conclusion: they’re not.