By Michael McDonell
As students, we need to be aware of what public education means and the role of student organizations within our educational experience and development. We need to carefully define what not-for-profit means. The membership fees we pay to the SFSS keep increasing (along with our tuition rates) every year, with full-time students soon paying even more each semester to fund a student union building & football stadium package that was barely passed through a referendum vote. The SFSS hires students as employees to run many of the services it offers, and different ethics should apply for running ‘enterprises’ in the not-for-profit sector compared to for-profit businesses.
A not-for-profit is a private association run on the basis of member fees, and not subject to the same constitutional and policy requirements as governmental organizations. As an organization, it can have different objectives and practices, shaped more by particular constituencies. It can and should be about fostering community, whereas government associations are primarily about maintaining stability and administrative regularity.
Our Student Society, the SFSS, is a private organization. In section 2.c) of the SFSS Constitution, there is a mandate to provide “public, universally accessible, high quality post-secondary education” to students. This does not mean that the SFSS can fulfill the same functions as a public, taxpayer funded organization. For example, while it can promote SFU athletics by sending its External Relations Officer to speak diplomatically with other universities, it cannot do things like, say, funding football stadiums. That is a university responsibility, requiring provincial allocation of revenue, and should not be decided by the 1,193 students who happened to vote for the flawed Build SFU referendum question. While “private sector” is a wider term than is commonly spoken, the interference in providing public education, which the current proposal encourages, will open the door for other for-profit private organizations to do the same. And the worst part is that even if we wanted to question the SFSS Board on this, and to find out what they mean by “rigorous consultation,” the Build SFU Think Tank was closed down immediately after the narrow vote passed in favour of the referendum question. Yes, the SFSS is a private organization, but it is still supposed to be run democratically.
The SFSS does run a number of ‘enterprises’ on campus, but is obligated to apply very different principles than for-profit businesses. For example, the Highland Pub is a service to students, one which can be a foundation of community life and friendships on campus. It has run an increasing deficit over the last 5 years, which has led some Board members to be sceptical about revitalizing it. Yet, because it is not a business aiming to generate a surplus, it only needs to reduce its deficit to a manageable level and reverse the trend. The lower, renovated section of the Pub could be opened more frequently and other steps relating to menus and marketing could be taken, rather than blaming workers. All of them are students who, as part of Food and Beverage Services, will be negotiating with the SFSS when the current contract expires at the end of the year. Instead of allowing workers to be attacked again like they were during the Summer-Fall 2011 lockout of SFSS staff, I suggest that the three returning SFSS Board members, those newly elected representatives sitting on Forum, and students in general, should hold the society accountable to its not-for-profit mandate.
Applying for-profit methods to a not-for-profit organization does not actually improve things. It undermines the creation of community by treating people and the public as capital. It thus prevents SFU from moving beyond commuter campus status. Other organizations on campus, particularly those in the Rotunda, actively involve students. Yet, the SFSS has been silent about renewing SFPIRG’s lease agreement, and the recent Men’s Centre proposal initially threatened to take half of either the Women’s Centre’s or SFPIRG’s space away. All this while the Forum has been reduced to an advisory body to the board. Are we really creating community?