January 6, 2007

My Silhouette Column for Jan 5th 2007

I do not know how I feel about this one right now.  I think it is meaningful but I also feel that it is not concise.  Anyway, here it is:

It is often said that knowledge is power or something to that effect. It is said that in order to gain knowledge, one must be provided with vast amounts of information to digest. Without information there can be no knowledge. Universities are supposed to be sanctuaries where knowledge is freely available. In spite of this ideal, information about the universities themselves tends to be hidden as much as possible. University administrations prefer to live in a culture of secrecy and McMaster University is no exception. McMaster is not close to the worse, but they are a shining example of transparency either.

McMaster University, like many other universities in Ontario, fought against the Government of Ontario extending Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to include the M.U.S.H. (Municipalities, Universities, Schools, Hospitals) sector; which is where the majority of taxpayers’ money is spent. Right now, McMaster along with most of the M.U.S.H. is currently fighting to prevent the extension of the watchdog powers of the Ontario Ombudsman to include them. I cannot blame them, if the students can take their cases to the Ombudsman if the University is acting unjustly or abusing its power, this would require many changes to University policy. It would almost guarantee that the Student Code of Conduct would have to change to have a presumption of innocence and a fairer burden of proof. It would definitely result in more transparency, and ultimately more accountability.

Currently, the University is in the middle of a budget crisis and they are warning of cuts. These cuts are more likely to be more directed towards students than the Administration. In the mid-90s, again much to the opposition and anger of the M.U.S.H. sector, the Ontario Government passed the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act more commonly known as the “Sunshine Law.” It requires the disclosure of the pay of public sector employees who are paid a salary of $100,000 or more. Under this law, we know the salary of one of the highest paid University Presidents in Canada; Peter George of McMaster University. The fact that we are able to get these figures is something that McMaster and many other universities are unhappy about. They argue that we, the citizens, are unable to understand the reasons for high salaries of university administrators and that releasing this information does more harm than good.

This brings me to my main point for this week’s article.

For many years, the Inter-Residence Council (IRC) budget sub-committee, a body of over 25 resident students, has been allowed to review financial information from the Housing and Conference Services budget. This access has existed under a long standing consultation framework and the arrangement has been working for many years.

Some people might argue students are not informed enough to be able to truly understand the balance sheets of most any department at McMaster. This does not mean that we should not be allowed to try. The University should be providing the background information and support to student leaders to better understand the financial decisions being made in departments across the University. If this is not done, the administration would, in effect, be hiding the finances from the very people who have the greatest right to know how money is being spent; the people footing a large portion of the bill.

If the University is not transparent, people will assume the worse about where money is going and how it is being spent. Right now, some students question whether either Housing or Parking are revenue neutral. There is a belief, rightly or wrongly, that these departments are generating “profits” which are being directed into other areas of the University. The only way to truly know the truth is for sunshine to be shown onto the books of these and other departments.

McMaster is not alone is the wish for secrecy, many other universities act the same way. In my first year of university, I attended another school. I arrived there two days after a new students’ union leadership had begun their term. The previous student union leadership was a clique which was very friendly toward the University administration. The University administration took the position that they would merely wait out a year and ignore the new student leadership with the hope of a return to the previous student leadership. The University refused to cooperate with the students’ union on many issues and refused to provide much of any information about University finances. The students’ union decided to file dozens of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. The students’ union received most of the information they requested using FOI and was able to use this to lobbying for improvements for students. Not only did the students’ union itself file FOI requests, the students’ union helped to fund requests by various faculty councils and residence governments. After a few months of this, the University decided that it was going to have to provide the information anyway and that the students’ union had undergone a permanent change. With the Students’ Union no longer in their back pocket and unable to keep them from getting information, the University began to negotiate with the Students’ Union. They even formed committees with true student input into many major decisions. The use of FOI by the Students’ Union there resulted in improvements for students.

McMaster University is now covered by Freedom of Information legislation. Student leaders can request full disclosure of the finances for key departments and the University should release it. As is the case with any large budget, there will be areas that people will questions and expenses that people will disagree with the need for. If the University believes that by cutting off the flow of information to students they are doing themselves a favour, they are wrong.

It is worth noting how this relates to the current budget crisis the University is facing. It is the belief of some that the true reason the University is reluctant to disclose information about budgeting is that they are planning to increase fees to make a profit to put into other areas of the University.

The University has stated that it will seek increases to ancillary fees. If such fees are blocked by students – as is possible under current government regulation requiring student consent to increases in non-tuition fees – cuts will be the likely result in programs and student services. Student governments that are actually concerned about this should be acting now to prepare to offer their own suggestions on where to find the money to erase the deficit. Student societies in each faculty should be filing requests for communications by their Deans about budget cutbacks. They should be working to find out what programs are on the chopping block and helping students in those programs to prevent the loss of classes. FOI has tilted the scale in our favour as students, we should be using it.

Isn’t there anyone else that is interested in knowing exactly (in detail) where our money is going?