A progress report for the 2019 UVSS Board of Directors

Features Investigations Uncategorized

We’ve spoke with Lead Directors, surveyed students, and run the numbers — here are the results

We’re nearly halfway through the school year — nights are growing darker, reading break is a distant memory, and finals are too close for comfort. This, of course, means only one thing: the UVSS Board of Directors’ term is halfway through, and it’s time to look back on the progress they’ve made on the over-two-dozen promises they made in last spring’s election.

In compiling this progress report, we knew we couldn’t include everything — in the pursuit of digestibility, we figured going blow-by-blow through each of the promises made by the Board on their website and from individual directors would be far from ideal. So instead, here’s our highlight reel — complete with feedback from students and some graphs for when your brain starts to hurt from the mind-numbing bureaucracy of UVSS student politics.

During the spring election, each candidate provided a list of their priorities and promises for an insert that was printed in the Martlet. Nine months later, the Martlet has checked in to see what progress each of the elected UVSS Lead Directors have made on these promises.

Out of the 29 campaign promises made by the current Board on their website, the Martlet estimates that seven of these promises have been successfully completed by the UVSS Board. These include establishing a mug bank, re-evaluating UVSS Directors’ perks, advocating for the creation of open-source textbooks, advocating for consent training to be integrated into residence orientation, expanding the scope of Sexualized Violence Awareness Week, streaming UVSS Board meetings on Facebook, and posting minutes from Board meetings online within one week of the meeting.

Two additional promises, examining bringing back pub crawls for clubs and course unions and extending the opt-out deadline for the Health and Dental Plan, were assessed but not pursued due to logistical complications.

One of the promises — working to implement a summer U-Pass for all UVic students — was accomplished by the previous UVSS Board in the time between the spring elections and the current Board taking office. The UVSS Board also promised to create a template club constitution, which in fact already existed (although Victoria Eaton, Director of Student Affairs, is now looking into removing the need for club constitutions altogether).

However, many of these promises have seen some degree of action, if not success, since May. The most notable of these is the work done by the Board — and particularly Juliet Watts, Director of Campaigns and Community Relations — on lobbying for UVic’s divestment from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and refinement companies through the Divest UVic campaign.

Since taking office, Watts has maintained a presence of protesters at all but one Board of Governors meeting and organized Divestfest Week of Action. She and other members of the Board have also been engaged in formal advocacy with the university on this front, and have met regularly with Andrew Coward, UVic’s Treasurer, to discuss steps the university could take to move away from their $39.72 million in fossil fuel investments.

Due to continued efforts by the UVSS Board, the UVic Board of Governors is set to vote on a potential divestment plan for UVic’s bonds and short-term investments in January. Long-term investments are managed by the UVic Foundation, and are not currently up for review.

While nothing is certain at this time, there is now a potential that UVic may vote to partially divest from fossil fuels in the near future — which, given the university’s refusal to budge on this issue for about six years, is no small feat.

At least 18 of the Board’s main promises from their website, along with several of the promises made by individual Lead Directors, remain unsuccessful or incomplete. 

The UVSS is currently conducting a similar review of their campaign promises, which is anticipated to be released in an infographic on Dec. 1. According to UVSS Director of Outreach and University Relations Jonathan Granirer, the number of campaign promises the UVSS believes they have accomplished so far looks different than the Martlet’s reported figures on their success.

“Every day, I look at our platform on our wall, and so far, we made 29 total promises and I’ve determined that we’ve completed 14 and we have 12 ongoing — however some that are completed are also ongoing,” Granirer said. “We have seven upcoming initiatives, and one incomplete — so we’re on track to complete 28 out of 29.”

The one promise Granirer does not expect to complete by the end of his term was to more effectively promote the opt-out deadline for the UVSS Health and Dental plan. The reason for this, he said, is because the September opt-out deadline fell during the busiest time of the year for the UVSS.

“Essentially, it got lost between all of the other initiatives that are going on in September,” said Granirer. “Unfortunately, I think that one fell between the cracks.”

Although work has been done on some of the incomplete promises by members of the Board, there is still much to be done before they can be counted as a success. Some promises — such as promoting mental health services and awareness and holding clubs and course union info sessions — are expected to start next semester.

Through lobby days at the B.C. Legislature, bi-weekly meetings with the university, and the EcoFoot working group, progress has been made towards several promises still in progress. Among these promises include advocating for increased availability of on-campus counselling services, lobbying the university to make courses more accessible, and lobbying for needs-based grants.

To help meet the promise of showcasing more student art in the SUB, a mural has been approved to be created on the north wall of Zap Copy and Shay Lynn Sampson, UVSS Director of Events, hopes to run art nights next semester.

For Eaton, launching online room booking for clubs and course unions has proven harder than she initially thought. She aims to have a detailed plan by February, but is making sure to document her progress in the event she has to pass the project on to a successor.

“I don’t know if the website will be actually up and running by the time I leave this office, just cause it [takes] a lot of other people to do the work,” said Eaton. 

Despite progress on certain incomplete promises, some of the items promised either on the Board’s campaign website or by individual directors in their platforms contained in the Martlet elections insert last spring have not had even partial progress completed.

“I gave a talk to the Board a while back and well over half of the DaLs were looking at their phones or laptop the whole time,” said another student. “They didn’t seem invested in the work and my presentation felt a bit tokenistic.”

While the Board promised to bring more local bands to perform in the SUB, Sampson says that there have been no concerts with local bands at the SUB aside from Bands on the Roof, which is an event that annually features many local bands during Campus Kick Off. 

Another promise made by Sampson, bringing more food trucks to UVic, is not likely to be completed.

“That was kind of a little bit out of my hands,” Sampson said. She does not plan to pursue this further, as both UVic and the UVSS would not allow food trucks with competing products on campus.

In his platform, UVSS Director of Finance and Operations Dakota McGovern said he would hold monthly presentations to showcase local job opportunities for students. So far, not one of these presentations have been held.

“Unfortunately, that is something I have not done, and that is a regret of mine,” he said, although McGovern expects to begin running these events in January.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock faced by a director stands in the way of Efe Türker, Director of International Student Relations, in his pursuit of lobbying the university to put a cap on annual international student tuition raises (since 2018, UVic has raised international student tuition 35 per cent). As his position is not defined as a Lead Director or Director-at-Large, he was not invited to the bi-weekly meetings with UVic executives that Lead Directors attend to directly lobby the university.

“I have never been invited, and I have never been allowed to join,” said Türker, who wasn’t informed by the UVSS or UVic that these meetings were taking place until he specifically asked. “I’ve asked if I could join, but they said it was just a [Lead Director] thing.”

Türker said that he has not been able to secure a meeting with the university to discuss international student tuition, and was unable to attend provincial lobby days. An international student tuition raise of “slightly less than four per cent” will be voted on in March, according to the UVic Board of Governors.

“The university is, I feel like, trying to exclude me as much as they can,” Türker said. “I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, I would hope they know of my existence and my role.”

To get a picture of how students felt about their UVSS Board’s performance during the first half of the Board’s term, the Martlet conducted an online survey of 40 members of the UVic community. 

Of the anonymous respondents (with some individuals occupying more than one role, and all self-identifying), 37 were students, three were SUB employees, 13 were members of a club or course union, eight were members of an advocacy group or the Native Students Union (NSU), one was an advocacy group representative on the Board, two were current Lead Directors or Directors-at-Large, four were UVic staff, and one was a former Lead Director.

Community members were asked to give a letter grade (A+ to F) to the performance of each Lead Director and the Director of International Student Relations. While Watts received the highest number of A+ votes (27.5 per cent), more than half of the votes for her and McGovern are between A+ and A-/B+.

For every director except Watts and McGovern, more respondents selected “I am not familiar with this person or their relevance to my time at UVic” than any grade on the scale. Out of all the directors, Director of International Student Relations Efe Türker received the highest amount of votes in this category, at 40 per cent.

At several points throughout the survey, community members were encouraged to give their feedback about the Board or specific directors.

“In my opinion, Director Watts’ involvement with Divest UVic has been a key element of this Board’s success,” said a student. “More emphasis on divestment as well as putting similar effort toward other promised campaigns will do this board well as they close out their term.”

Several students commended McGovern for his financial presentation at the UVSS Annual General Meeting in October, and two people specifically recognized Caleb Burd, Director-at-Large, who helped execute the creation of the new SUB mug bank. 

“Shay lynn Sampson has done a great job. From representing Divest, to showing up at multiple protests concerning the environment and transportation, I appreciate Shay for all of her hard work,” a student said.

Other comments brought to light concerns some students have about the work done by the UVSS Board so far.

“I feel like most of the Board’s efforts have been more performative than [substantive] in terms of making financial and other operating information available and accessible to students — as an example, they did a great presentation on finances for the AGM, but the actual financial statements remain prohibitively difficult to make sense of,” said a student who is a member of an advocacy group or the NSU and a constituency organization.

In response to questions about decolonization and affordable housing, several respondents noted that they would like to see more noticeable, impactful work done by members of the Board on these fronts.

“I gave a talk to the Board a while back and well over half of the DaLs were looking at their phones or laptop the whole time,” said another student. “They didn’t seem invested in the work and my presentation felt a bit tokenistic.”

“Shay lynn Sampson has done a great job. From representing Divest, to showing up at multiple protests concerning the environment and transportation, I appreciate Shay for all of her hard work,” a student said.

Several students specifically said that they found Granirer difficult to get in contact with, and wanted to see him with a clipboard consulting students around the university as he specifically promised during the campaign. When asked if they had witnessed Granirer walking around campus with his clipboard, 57.1 per cent of respondents said no, 25.7 per cent said yes, and 17.1 per cent did not know who Granirer is. 

Other specific criticisms of Lead Directors requested improved communication from Eaton, particularly in regards to advocacy groups and the NSU, improved clarity regarding Sampson’s role on the Board, more discussion with SUB staff impacted by proposed changes from McGovern, and increased outreach from Türker.

As for Watts, many students requested an increased focus on campaigns aside from Divest.

“I feel like she’s paid little attention to campaigns aside from Divest,” said one student in a club or course union.

“Juliet works harder than all the other directors,” said another student. “She’s devoted to her portfolio of Divestment, however, she could allocate her resources better to suit all of her campaigns — not just the ones she loves.”

In talking with members of the UVSS Board, many brought up unexpected challenges that they’d encountered since stepping into their positions in May.

“I think really learning this role was difficult for me,” said Sampson. “I’ve never been in a role with as much responsibility before, so that was a big step and I think it could have been more graceful.”

One of her biggest challenges has been learning to ask for help when she needs it and not comparing herself to the work done by people previously in her position. To keep herself focused on her goals, she wrote her main priorities — diversity, accessibility, and advocacy — on a post-it stuck to her computer.

Türker also expressed difficulty in adjusting to his role — not just because the position of Director of International Student Relations is so new that it is not defined as clearly as the other roles, but also in terms of his mental health and the racism he experiences as an international student and member of a visible minority.

“It’s just hard being a leader on campus if you’re a person of colour,” Türker said. “There’s a lot of hate … The amount of racist crap we see on a daily basis online, in person, on campus, off campus — it’s stupid, it’s very, very bad. I don’t know if people realize how bad it is.”

After getting elected, Türker recalls that the racism he experienced at UVic became more and more prominent. He says he hasn’t discussed this experience much with other members of the Board. For this reason, he feels that efforts to combat racism on campus have not been successful.

“On an institutional level, that’s not working,” Türker said. “Racism has only increased since I started on the Board, at least racism that I witnessed.”

Eaton spoke to her own experience trying to enact policies that are as decolonial as possible within institutions like UVic and the UVSS that were founded in colonial contexts.

“It’s just hard being a leader on campus if you’re a person of colour.”

EfE Türker, UVSS Director of International Student Relations

“I think it’s something we need to work on as a board more,” she said. “I hope that we once our Board term is done can look back and say ‘These are the concrete steps we took.’ But right now, for me, it’s an everyday, ongoing process.”

For a board that ran on many big promises — from lobbying to eliminate taxes on textbooks, to bringing back (UVSS approved) clubs and course union pub crawls, to walking around campus every week with a clipboard  — many Lead Directors described a similar experience of figuring out ways to approach governance with more small-scale but impactful efforts.

“We constantly hear ‘Why doesn’t the UVSS focus on initiatives that are reasonable and within [their] scale?’” said Granirer. “I’ve really been trying to take that criticism or recommendations to heart and focusing on things that we can actually do to save students money like [open educational resources].”

Türker discussed the difficulty and disappointment that can come with student representatives trying to punch above their weight by several levels of government. Even with the best intentions, it’s difficult to make headway on tangible solutions for affordable housing, increased counselling services, and the removal of federal taxes on textbooks all within a one year term, while also remaining a student and maintaining academic performance. 

“To anyone who wants to be on the Board, stay away from big promises,” Türker said. “I had been warned by the previous Board saying, ‘Hey, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you get there.’ They were encouraging, but they warned me of it. It’s very challenging — I would encourage anyone who would fulfil my role or any role in the UVSS to get ready and plan ahead.”

Maybe campaign promises made by UVSS Boards are inherently a bit ambitious — after all, who could forget the year they promised to build a petting zoo? But these promises are the framework for what drives our student representatives, and the people they represent, to hold each other accountable and keep pushing for a better university environment. 

Transparent governance isn’t about marketing — it’s about being open, honest, and accessible. While this UVSS Board still has a ways to go in that regard, they’ve got plenty of time left to keep working on it.