It maybe shouldn't come as much of a shocker that the university which exported former prime minister Stephen Harper is run by a pack of maniacal corporate shills who preach the importance of the "student experience" in one breath and proceed to zealously backstab the student body in another.
But, shit, here we are.
The University of Calgary (U of C) is currently being sued by the school's students' union (SU) because the administration wants to literally annex the property and revenues of MacEwan Hall, the massive students' hub that houses—just to name a few entities—a conference centre, two concert venues, a used bookstore, a LGBTQ centre and a food court with three fucking Tim Hortons.
All up, income from Mac Hall accounts for well over 80 percent of the SU's revenue. The mastication of Mac Hall would, in the words of SU president Levi Nilson, "essentially destroy the SU as it is right now." Mental health initiatives, health and dental plans, combatting against tuition hikes: all of those very good things are intimately tied to the power of the students' union and could be ostensibly jeopardized by a profit-oriented hostile takeover.
Ultimately, there appears to be no evidence the university has exclusive control over the building. It was specified in the initial agreement of 1969 that the SU received 55 percent of ownership since it paid for such an amount for the building via student levies and provincial loans (the latter of which was fully paid off in 1999). That was reiterated in three subsequent agreements through the '80s and '90s. Between 2010 and 2014, the SU spent an additional $13 million on Mac Hall, something administration dismissed as "certain monetary contributions" in a flaccid statement of defence. By the SU's calculations, the University of Calgary spent just over one-quarter of that sum within the same window. No matter how it's twisted, it seems indisputable the SU has paid for a great majority of what contributes to the vibrancy of Mac Hall.
A member of the University of Calgary's academic staff who requested anonymity told VICE: "If the university has documents saying they actually own the building and they should control its operation, then they should present that. But then they also have to justify why they've not actually been operating the building and have been abdicating it to another organization on campus for so long. We're not convinced."
Nilson adds: "We have not found any piece of paper, any statement, anything that we ever gave up, gifted or relinquished any type of ownership claim, ever."
The SU's president says the institution's board of governors—chaired by former Enbridge vice-president Bonnie DuPont—has consistently refused to meet with the SU about the issue. Phrases like "non-starter" have been frequently batted about by administration regarding the contention the SU owns over half the building's worth. At a painfully polite "town hall" hosted on Wednesday, university provost Dru Marshall stated: "We would much have preferred to solve things at the table." In contrast, Nilson—who was actually available for an interview, unlike the university's administration—says "they're still not even willing to talk to us about ownership."
On Tuesday, the SU filed an injunction against the University of Calgary to maintain the status-quo in regards to Mac Hall—that is, with the SU remaining as landlord—until the court case has been concluded. The most recent agreement, signed in 1999, expires on Dec. 9. If the injunction hadn't been filed, the university would have presumably attempted to claim full ownership of the building on that date.
The whole clusterfuck's compounded by the fact the university's administration is embroiled in allegations of corruption due to a corporate sponsorship deal with—surprise—Enbridge. CBC Calgary's Kyle Bakx recently uncovered details about a deal between the massive pipeline company and the post-secondary institution. In short, Enbridge pledged more than $2 million stretched over a decade to found the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability, which included paying the salary of a faculty member and a handful of scholarships. As it turns out, the energy giant wanted much more from the deal, including "customized opportunities" between execs and researchers and for the university to collab with another institution in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where an Enbridge pipeline blew in 2010.
Shit got even more complicated when it was realized that Cannon, the president of the whole goddamn university, had been sitting on the board of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings since 2004. She made $130,500 per year in the role. She also sent an email in 2012 to the dean of the Haskayne School of Business—the department in which the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability was housed—seemingly complaining on behalf of the company that was paying her the monetary equivalent of an Audi R8 per year that Enbridge was "not seeing your leadership on this file."
Cannon, who since stepped down from that board, has assured there was no conflict of interest. The university is now the subject of an independent review. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is also beginning an investigation. A student at the town hall requested Cannon resign as president due to the scandal, to which she replied "No" and "[I'm] not sure what you expected me to say."
The two deeply perplexing situations—the Mac Hall debacle and Enbridge scandal—only serve as the latest iterations of a long list of serious fuck ups by the university. In late 2013, both Cannon and Marshall were highlighted for their $400,000-plus base salaries, each constituting far more than what equivalents were getting paid at other schools such as the University of Toronto and McGill University (for comparison, US President Barack Obama AKA the Leader of the Free World earns a base pay of $400,000). Shortly after, there was the "stairway" snafu, in which over $8 million was poured into the administration's fancy-ass building during a province-wide budget shortfall. That was all capped off by the university's refusal to deal with student overcrowding and demand to divest from fossil fuel investments.
Nilson, who's been talking with former SU presidents going back to the '70s, concludes about the role of the SU on campus: "In less explicit words that I think they've been expressing to me, it's more of the same. [Administration has been] belittling and demeaning the value of the SU and the value of the investments that students themselves have been making. It's not surprising but eternally disappointing."
For the most part, responses from students and faculty have been very positive. Even Barry Cooper—a key member of the arch-conservative "Calgary School" and climate change-denying group Friends of Science—penned a scathing column in the Calgary Herald concluding: "It is self-evident to everyone but [administration]—from the faculty, to the students' union, to the rest of the province—that their management culture is deeply flawed." Shots fired.
But to Douglas Nesbitt, co-founder of labour news website RankAndFile.ca and Queen's University PhD candidate specializing in Canadian social movement history, this situation is nothing new. The last students' strike in English Canada that actually worked was in 1995, he says, when the Canadian Federation of Students organized tens of thousands of people to protest the hellishly controversial federal income contingent loan repayment scheme.
Real estate like Mac Hall gives the students' union uniquely significant leverage, Nesbitt says. But even though the board of governors is clearly "just fucking full of rubber-stamped corporate shitbags" and should serve as an easy target, Nesbitt notes it can prove difficult to coalesce students with busy schedules around an esoteric ownership dispute.
"If the students' unions have been resting on their laurels of pulling in all this money and they don't have a substantial enough base of students who give a shit, they're going to be steamrolled," he warns, noting it requires concerted advocacy campaigns to convince people to occupy offices or bring out thousands of students to a rally. "There might be activism. Something could go on at the U of C and I hope it does. But you're already behind the 8-ball in terms of reacting to the situation and now you're expected to try to build some sort of student campaign out of it that's going to succeed."
The Wildrose Party—Alberta's far-right Official Opposition which is very likely conning all of us—recently approved a policy idea that would make students' union membership optional. Keean Bexte, the Wildrose member and Ezra Levant protege who proposed the policy, recently lost a bid to become the SU's vice-president of operations and finance.
Bexte explicitly framed the policy proposal as a "human rights" issue. In an interview with CBC News, he suggested students have to "pay thousands of dollars throughout their degree" to the SU even though total membership only costs $55.50 per term, or $444 over the course of a degree, and would thus require over 16 years of post-secondary education to reach that lofty number. Fees for SU fees haven't been raised for 19 years, Nilson says, who also notes the university's SU would be in a uniquely strong position even if Bexte's proposal was implemented as law.
But that's assuming Mac Hall isn't annexed by administration.
The future's very uncertain on that front. Administration personnel at the town hall refused to delve into specifics due to the lawsuit. Marshall, the provost, said: "The plan is not to evict students from the building, as has been reported, but rather to follow the rules of the operating agreement." However, administration failed to address its recent contention the SU doesn't own Mac Hall because the U of C owns the land, something the aforementioned academic staff member calls a ridiculous argument: "Sorry, but anybody who knows anything about—I don't know—a national park or surface rights versus mineral rights would know that owning the building doesn't mean that you own the land."
And it's not as if the Mac Hall tug-of-war and Enbridge kerfuffle are the only things on the SU's plate: earlier this month, a hike in fees for students staying in residence—between 0.25 and 5.75 per cent depending on building—was proposed. The idea has yet to pass the board of governors. But Nilson says the SU still hasn't got a single answer has to why the rate would exceed inflation every year. Apparently, such radio silence has become quite the trend in administration-SU relations, whether it's regarding Mac Hall, or Enbridge, or fee hikes.
"It's one thing after another with the current administration," Nilson says. "It's getting a little much."
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