Next year’s president talks to The Concordian about the CSU’s ambitions
The Concordia Student Union’s (CSU) 2015 General Elections came to an end last week with a unanimous win by the Community Action slate and the passing of all referendum questions save the proposed hikes to the dental plan.
The Concordian sat down with current VP Academic and Advocacy Terry Wilkings, who is set to become the president in June, to talk about the plans his team has for the future of the CSU.
The Concordian: Now that you’ve been elected, what are your main priorities?
Terry Wilkings: Our platform surrounded many of the projects we worked on this year. Our team is very cohesive and we have a common vision. This is a very creative set of individuals who are very eager to begin utilizing the CSU’s resources towards this vision. The VP Sustainability and Loyola are very excited to continue the work that’s been started on the Greenhouse and MP Academic and Advocacy Marion Miller wants to get her hands on the day care project and make sure it’s successful. VP Internal Lori Dimaria communicated from the very beginning that Reggie’s would be hers. I myself want to continue working on the student housing.
C: You also spoke about a debt survey for students. Tell us more about this.
TW: This is a survey to chart the financial anxieties students are facing. I believe the CSU should improve the living conditions of students and a way we can do that is strategically tackling elements of debt. What we’re trying to answer is what the negotiables and non-negotiable forms of student debt are, like tuition. There are others that we have more agency over, like food costs and rent.
C: The idea of food seems to be an important one to your team. Why?
TW: A lot of the campaigns in the last few years have revolved around the idea of food sovereignty and localizing food production, more sustainable both financially and nutritionally. I’m talking about a closed loop system where the food is being produced on campus and distributed on campus to be consumed on campus in a non-profit manner. The greenhouse is an attempt to essentially close that loop.
C: This idea of a closed loop has been dealt a blow with the renewing of the food contracts to essentially the same bidders.
TW: This is the case in the short term sense. It should be important to note the length of the contract has been reduced to only five years whereas before it was 10 years. We would still like the university in the contract to allow a provision to allow students to begin operating at different spots on campus.
C: What other initiatives are you considering to reduce student debt?
TW: Textbooks are a large cost students have to face so is there potential to create a clandestine sharing network for textbooks and perhaps we can do some lobbying within the university to try and recognize this factor of debt. There are many other ways and once we have the quantities and empirical data, we can start authoritatively speaking to these issues with the university.
C: Will there be any sort of working relationship with the independents who lost? They did not win, but it’s assumed they were just as passionate as your team in making the school a better place.
TW: I’ve spoken to some and highly encouraged them to remain involved in student life in whatever capacity they feel they’re capable of. I don’t think the CSU is the only space for involvement in student activity on campus.
C: Speaking of the housing co-op are there any updates since its referendum prioritization by the student body?
TW: Marguerite Mendell, a well renowned academic on the social economy and winner of the Prix du Québec, was approached during the elections campaign and agreed to sit on the board of the Popular University Student Housing (P.U.S.H.) fund as a community member. We will be able to leverage her expertise to ensure the direction taken by this fund is one that’s successful and appropriate given the existing political situation to student housing in Quebec. I’m very excited about this.
C: You’ve got a lot on your plate. How much of your housing initiative is being helped along by the university administration?
TW: I’m not afraid for the students to take full credit for the student housing initiative. There hasn’t been much support from the university for student housing. Obviously they’ve expanded the Grey Nun’s residence, however there are systemic problems with residences where you’re kicked out after the first year regardless of if you want to leave or not; there are meal plans. It’s not within a list of their priorities. In the realm of student housing the university is very inward-looking. Projects like these are attempting to reverse the trends of gentrification. It’s very important to know our initiatives aren’t just putting dollars in the pockets of students. It’s also about reimagining the relationship students have with their living environment. We’re removing the landlord from the equation to give students the ability to realize their own aspirations.
C: Do you think the CSU’s role as student representative sometimes puts you at odds with the administration?
TW: I think it’s important for the students to work with the university when our visions align. I know for example that the university has done a lot for sustainability, but things can always get better. Who’s Concordia ultimately responsible for at the end of the day? Ultimately it’s the society that we’re a part of that’s financing the university. We should be cautious of the potential predation of private and corporate interests in the university.
C: How will your term as president tackle austerity?
TW: Austerity [protests] won’t have died down [by the Fall], but it’s hard to say. April and May will be indicators to how the summer and fall will be for mobilizing for protests and strikes. It’s important to reach out to other labour and community groups if we want to build a broader movement against these cuts. There will be many opportunities to discuss escalation.
C: Another topic high on your list is environmentalism. How does this fit in with your other goals?
TW: If we’re talking about austerity, you cannot go without talking about the environment. The subsidies the provincial and federal governments are extending to companies are being bankrolled through cuts to public services and I find this unacceptable and its egregious its continuing. Intellectually it’s become a consensus that we need to transform our society in a country that’s not dependant on the petrostate and its importance the university became a vector of this change. We need to reevaluate our goals and how we measure success in the economy.
C: What could you see yourself getting behind in terms of escalation?
TW: There’s a social strike taking place beyond students. That’s something I feel is necessary because the Couillard government is in power for the foreseeable future. We need to have a level of mobilization that hasn’t been seen. It needs to be bigger than what happened in 2012. This is the level of mobilization desired by folks who want to see change.
C: How will you approach student media and harness it to help the university?
TW: I think the campus media is already doing a great job, especially with coverage of the strikes. CUTV is out there almost every night. providing raw footage; the Link and The Concordian are continuously providing coverage. Another idea I have is technical briefings where campus media would have the chance to sit with individual executives to discuss issues informally and off-the-record and receive adequate understanding so when discussions are being held on the record it’s one where we’re trying to reduce the asymmetries of information. We’re trying to reduce the immediate anxieties that may arise when you have to watch every word that you’re saying. It allows for more honest and constructive discussion where both parties feel like they’re transmitting pertinent information.
C: The CSU has an unfortunate history of financial mismanagement. How do we go forward with this in making sure it never happens again?
TW: This year the CSU’s financial framework has been in transition. At the end of last year there was an adoption for restricted fund accounting to be used internally, which means budgets are allocated to each budget line at the start of each year and you cannot move finances from one budget to another. It’s almost like having separate streams. The largest cost we have each year is orientation, and this year it cost $150,000 as opposed to two years ago, when it was $225,000. Because we can now tie in our fee levy with inflation it will go a long way to alleviating the financial necessities that come with having the largest overhead costs of any student association on campus. This is going to ensure long-term financial stability and we’ll have a very clear idea of where our money is going to. It makes us less flexible but in a responsible sense.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for flow and length.