We need to preserve the Rotunda community when building the SUB

By Michael McDonnell

On paper, the transportation centre at SFU Burnaby would be a good location for the Student Union Building. Located directly by the bus loop, it would be a regular stop on the way to class, and would put the SFSS at the centre of student engagement. However, unlike the other two locations, it could also potentially disrupt an already existing campus community, making it more difficult for the Rotunda groups to provide much needed services and safe spaces.

The Rotunda, just above the transportation centre, is SFU’s social justice hub — currently the home of the Women’s Centre, Out on Campus, the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), the First Nations Student Association (FNSA), and the African and Caribbean Heritage Students Association (ACHSA). Both the Women’s Centre and SFPIRG have occupied the Rotunda for more than three decades, providing a level of public engagement that balances SFU’s status as a commuter campus.

For example, in 2011-12, SFPIRG held events and workshops which were attended by 600 students, approving 14 grant proposals for social and environmental justice initiatives, eight Action Research projects for community organizations, 173 prison responses toward Letters from the Inside, and arranged 65 lounge and meeting room bookings for students, among other accomplishments.

Both groups are funded directly by students, who also serve as volunteer directors, an experience I have personally benefitted from at SFPIRG last year. As a thriving community, the Rotunda groups have become an institution at SFU, and several are now recognized as Constituency Groups in the SFSS.

While students generally consent to the very minimal fees collected by the Rotunda groups, they have been silently stymied by administrative pressures. From 2010-12, the SFSS Board of Directors has refused to renew SFPIRG’s lease, despite repeated requests and meetings with staff. Meanwhile, Board members were active in planning the SUB proposal and referendum for Spring 2012.

At SFU, both the university administration and SFSS Board members have at different times considered SFPIRG’s space as prime real estate. The most telling example of this is last year’s “smart template” for a Men’s Centre, which proposed taking half of SFPIRG’s or the Women’s Centre’s space. As publicized before, the Women’s Centre still has a mouldy room, two years after they requested renovations.

The SUB consultation process can only be complete if it is sensitive to this side of the SFU community. From the perspective of the Rotunda groups, who still have not been guaranteed space in the new SUB, the other two locations (between MBC and the AQ, and near Shell House) are much less disruptive than the transportation centre.

While the building committee for the SUB does need to consider the interests of the average student, my guess is that the average student does not know who Marc Fontaine is (the Project General Manager for Build SFU). From 2010-11, Fontaine served as University Relations Officer for the SFSS, chairing the Space Committee that drafted the SUB referendum question. This is an association too close to miss.

For those worried about their graduation prospects, university is not just about credentials or nice views: It is also about networking, personal development, finding community, and pursuing volunteer experiences.

A perspective that is just about optimization will fail to see why these deeply-rooted connections matter to people’s quality of life. It is ultimately the same logic underlying gentrification and condo development in Vancouver, and it is worrisome to see given how much the Rotunda area has meant to me and other students at SFU.

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