Posted in Features

The student politics-industrial complex

By J.j. Mccullough


To understand just how much student politics has changed at SFU over the course of the last decade, consider the career of Robert Trost. A right-of-centre critic of the student society in the late 1990s, Trost was the sort of guy who made SFSS insiders reach for their smelling salts with his frequent claims that the SFSS was bloated, overpriced, and useless to the vast majority of students.

In 2000, on a platform promising a smaller, cheaper, less ideological student society, Trost was elected SFSS president, an event that prompted his fellow student politicians to spring to action with all the vigor of antibodies fighting a mop-topped tumor. Trost traveled to Europe shortly after his inauguration, and though all of his coworkers knew where he was and why, the SFSS forum nevertheless promptly declared the president to have “abandoned office” and installed a new one in his place.

Trost was a high-profile victim of what may be called the ‘SFSS establishment’, a tight and intimate group of professional student politicians, unionized bureaucrats, and campus activists who have dominated SFU’s student politics for most of its history and worked tirelessly to ensure very little about the SFSS is seriously questioned, altered, or reformed, in order to protect the interests of those who run it.

It’s the close-minded groupthink of this establishment that is in turn directly responsible for so much of the madness SFU students have come to associate with their student society in the year 2011: lavishly overpaid staff, insufficient funding for clubs and departmental student unions, pathetic go-nowhere ‘advocacy’ campaigns, and a perennially money-losing pub described by one former treasurer as simply “a ginormous financial hell”. Thankfully, it’s all beginning to break down.

In the last decade or so, the SFSS has undergone dramatic internal changes, both in terms of culture and members, that have helped push us to the recent breaking point, where the SFSS board of directors could not only vote unanimously to lock out their unionized employees and evict the social justice group SFPIRG from their property, but do so amid wide acclaim and encouragement from retired SFSS politicians, departmental student unions, student journalists, and all other manner of interested observers. The establishment that pushed Rob Trost out for his thought crimes is long gone. To a considerable extent, everyone’s a Rob Trost now. But how did it happen?

The establishment

For decades, the Simon Fraser Student Society enjoyed long-term internal stability due to a sort of ‘iron triangle’ arrangement between a perennial stable of liberal politicians who were both actively recruited and trained by the Canadian Federation of Students — a sort of finishing school for student politicians — and the equally strong paternal hand of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The CFS-backed politicians would always dominate the SFSS board, and help protect CUPE’s lucrative position as the union for all SFSS “staff” — the preferred term to describe the dozen or so non-student adults who manage the society’s needlessly large bureaucracy. In return for such loyalty, upon completion of their terms, SFSS politicians would often go on to enjoy jobs in CUPE, the CFS, or other labour-left interest groups.

The years between 2001 and 2006 can be viewed as the glory days of this arrangement. A succession of radical boards entertained themselves passing endless resolutions of exceedingly limited interest to anyone but their own narrow subculture (including a particularly controversial 2003 denunciation of “Israeli Apartheid”), and elections had all the ideological diversity of an NDP primary as candidates debated who hated Gordon Campbell more. As good friends of the working man, no one in those days of the SFSS seriously questioned the ample paychecks and benefits of its CUPE employees. CUPE, after all, was an ally. They attended all the same antiwar protests!

Things break down

No single event in the first decade of the 21st century more dramatically demonstrated the strength of SFSS iron triangle than the 2006 impeachment of President Shaun Hunsdale along with most of his board.

A debonair bohemian who had once run for Parliament for the Green Party, Hunsdale’s progressive credentials could not easily be contested, yet he was nevertheless distrusted by many of his peers as something of a loose cannon. In August of 2006 Hunsdale’s board made the decision to fire longtime SFSS employee Hattie Aitkin, a staffer with the typically obtuse title of “graduate issues and university relations coordinator”, who had been working at the student society for longer than most of the board had been alive. Officially, Aitken was accused of insubordination and breaching confidentiality, but little beyond that was ever publicly stated — let alone proven — allowing wild conspiracy theories to flesh out the ambiguity.

Politically active graduate students, using fairly specious reasoning, became convinced that Aitken’s firing represented a threat to the future of their SFSS-managed health plan, while CUPE opposed the firing simply because that’s what CUPE does. A backlog of student politicians elsewhere on campus concluded that Hunsdale’s erratic nature and supposed “hidden agendas” represented a profound threat to the entire SFSS order, while a scandal-hungry Peak helped to popularize this interpretation.

To make a long and excessively convoluted story short, Hunsdale and most of his board were successfully impeached three months later in a very well-organized petition-and-recall campaign that saw a diverse array of CUPE-friendly groups on campus make common cause of a common enemy.

An emergency election held shortly afterwards installed a new board headed by Derrick Harder, a longtime SFSS student politician who spoke endlessly about “cleaning up the mess” — that is, restoring the pre-2006 status quo — in the wake of the Hunsdale regime. He was assisted in his efforts by other returning members of old, pre-Hunsdale boards, who proceeded to spend much of their term kissing the ring of CUPE; rehiring Aitken and negotiating the extremely favourable terms of the staff’s now-expiring collective agreement.

The end of an era

Harder was succeeded as president in 2008 by his lieutenant Joe Paling, a hard-drinking, crass libertarian with an unapologetic panache for womanizing, obscenities, and all things politically incorrect. His ascent, and weary endorsement from key SFSS establishment figures — both of which would have been unimaginable a generation ago — occurred, in large part, simply due to a lack of alternatives. The “vanguard of the status quo” as some in Harder’s group described themselves, had no second act.

By this time, most of the reliably leftist ‘old guard’ who traditionally dominated SFU student politics had either graduated or moved on, and, for the first time, no new group of students seemed eager to replace them. Instead, SFSS boards began to be steadily dominated by a new class of student politicians who were more professional, pragmatic, and fiscally conservative, and less interested in ideology and activism.

The outcome was in a large part a reflection of changing demographics at SFU itself. In the last decade, SFU had become decidedly less dominated by its large arts faculty — the traditional hothouse of would-be campus radicals — as new, apolitical departments like computer science, engineering, and graphic design grew in size and influence. To this new more success and career-focused generation of students, the “radical campus” chic of SFU’s past held little appeal. Hippies and protestors seemed anachronistic and unreasonable. Unions came off as spoiled and arrogant in a tough recession economy where students’ own post-graduation career prospects appeared more uncertain than ever.

The traditional establishment was further weakened by a successful 2008 student referendum to abandon the Canadian Federation of Students, and all the meddlesome influencing that went along with it, and an equally successful succession movement that saw SFU grads leave the SFSS altogether — a harsh blow considering the aged community had often served as a sort of student politics star chamber.

From Paling on, SFSS boards have been largely concerned not with protests or resolutions, but with simply getting the society’s books into something resembling fiscal order. Years of overpromising and a what-the-union-wants-the-union-gets mindset have resulted in a perennially debt-ridden SFSS budget, an astonishing 80 per cent of which is devoted simply to contractual obligations, around half of which comprise the wages and benefits for unionized staff. Virtually every other service the SFSS provides — and keep in mind providing services is supposedly the raison d’être of this organization — have been slashed just to keep up.

One could say it’s been an era of great disillusion with the very idea of a student society, but idealism has been in rather short supply for quite a while now. SFU students seem to increasingly regard the SFSS as a racket until proven otherwise — and that includes the ones who now run it.

What next?

In the aftermath of the current lockout, CUPE is no doubt hoping for a repeat of the 2006 impeachment, where an entire establishment could be rallied to their defense and forcibly reimpose business as usual. But that establishment is no more. Aside from some heavily politicized fringe outfits like SFPIRG, or grad-dominated interest groups like the Teaching Support Staff Union, it’s hard to imagine from what corner of campus a groundswell of support for overpaid student society bureaucrats is likely to spring.

Online and in private conversations, all manner of past and present SFSS insiders speak openly about how overdue and unavoidable the present labour impasse is, and how little sympathy they have for a coddled staff who are finally reaping the consequences of years of uncritical management.

It is, of course, entirely possible that this board will eventually back down, and that resolving the SFSS’s intense existential dilemmas will prove a task too intimidating for even an executive as resolute as this one. But in another important sense, there is simply no going back. Too much dirty laundry has been exposed for anyone to forget the smell.

J.J. McCullough served as head of the SFSS Independent Electoral Commission from 2007 to 2008 and was opinions editor of The Peak from 2008 to 2009. A vocal critic of the student society, he has authored several articles and reports questioning the state of SFU’s student government.