SFU student politics has failed us

The SFSS and university need to rethink elections and funding to truly support students

PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Justin Smith, SFU Student

Despite changes the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought to SFU, some things have remained consistent: nonsensical Canvas pages, wallet-crushing tuition, and bullshit student politics. For a university that advertises itself as “one of Canada’s most community-engaged research universities,” this isn’t the best our school can do for us. As a former president of a department student union (DSU) and current disgruntled fifth year student, I have realized that the institutions designed to represent us instead stifle and suppress student involvement.

Even prior to the pandemic, student morale was at a low. The Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) and university repeatedly failed its students by making no moves to raise it. Whether it be through the continuous bungling of the Fall Kickoff concert (a cancellation in 2018 and a massive deficit in 2019), an inability to complete construction of the long overdue Student Union Building, or a complete lack of transparency on tuition increases, both the SFSS and SFU seem content with gaslighting their students. It’s almost like COVID-19 hasn’t just killed in person classes, it’s also delivered a fatal blow to an already weak and disconnected student community.

Consider the last few student elections, both for the SFSS Board and the SFU Senate. Each year, students form de-facto slates (names that groups of candidates run under) that are not officially recognized by these governing bodies. From here, elections devolve into substanceless popularity contests where different parties promise some variation of “Fall reading break” or “better representation” without the foresight to consider how to accomplish these things.

Immediately, this presents issues. The establishment of slates makes it incredibly difficult for independent students to run and win positions. This means that those well connected and visible at SFU have a clear path to power. In addition, representatives regularly double dip, with members of the SFSS Board of Governors also running and winning seats within the SFU Senate. Currently, six of the 13 members on the SFSS Board of Directors also serve on the SFU Senate. How can we get more students involved if the same small group of students runs and wins every year solely due to name recognition?

Our student community deserves governance that can unite and empower us, instead of ignoring or dividing us.

Frankly, we can’t. This mismanagement of student politics spreads far beyond the many issues in the Maggie Benson building (which houses the SFSS) and into every aspect of student engagement. The self-important attitude of a small group of students poisons nearly every aspect of running these groups. 

For example, in my experience as president of the Political Science Student Union, we were able to rebuild the union from a single member, run a successful career night, and participate in valuable department events. Still, we were barely able to access our own money due to bureaucratic nonsense from the SFSS, struggled to connect with students due to a lack of manpower, and completely imploded due to inadequate election infrastructure that was fronted by the SFSS. Seriously, if the political science students can’t figure out how to run a small student government, there’s an issue. 

A particularly atrocious moment was when the SFSS reached out to union presidents asking for input on the student union building; specifically, we were asked to apply for permanent space for our unions within the building. Later, we found out that no DSU would have permanent space, but the SFSS would have an awesome setup. Regardless of building delays, our students were left without a space to consistently reach and communicate with their student unions in the literal student union building.

Considering this, can we blame students for running to half-baked and semi-banned fraternities and sororities for human connection when student-funded clubs and unions can barely throw together a pizza night? This doesn’t even consider the fact that DSUs face systemic issues accessing core funding, stringent restrictions on what funding can be spent on, and a paralyzing lack of support promoting events.

Even without this inside knowledge, students should seriously ask themselves what student government has ever done for them. For the vast majority of students, the answer is likely nothing and I wouldn’t blame them for not knowing who the SFSS’ current president is. SFU used to be a campus with radical activism, with protests that put UBC to shame. Our student community deserves governance that can unite and empower us, instead of ignoring or dividing us.

To overhaul years of inadequate representation, I recommend that we permanently ban the forming of SFSS slates and political parties. If students want to represent us, they should do so based on their ideas, not popularity. The SFSS should also increase funding to and decrease restrictions on DSUs. A student’s departmental student union should have the biggest impact on their university experience and shouldn’t have trouble functioning. SFU should also work to disallow students from double dipping between the SFSS and other on-campus governments. We need to know our representatives are focused on representing students, not preparing for another endless election cycle.

SFSS and SFU, it’s too late for me, but please, clean yourselves up and do better for the students of today and tomorrow.