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Future of the Sustainability Projects Fund in jeopardy

University budget cuts could affect the fund

As McGill struggles with provincial budget cuts by the Parti Québécois (PQ) government, the future of several programs and departments remains uncertain. Complications in funding are affecting the continuation of programs such as the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF).

The SPF was created in 2009 as a three-year pilot project with the vision of fostering a culture of sustainability at McGill. SPF Administrator Lilith Wyatt told The Daily that the SPF was a unique initiative because of its foundation on collaboration between staff and students.

Half of the SPF’s annual $840,000 budget comes from student member fees of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), and the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS). In the past three years, this money was matched by the administration.

The initial description of the administrative matching was vague, and according to SPF’s website, included: “contributions from internal or external donations; centrally managed capital and operating budgets of the University; and grants from external agencies and non-governmental organizations.”

Wyatt explained that this allows for significant flexibility. In some cases, this administrative matching includes instances where individual departments approach the SPF to help them with funding, developing, and managing specific projects.

“About 16 percent of the administrative matching so far has actually come from departments,” Wyatt said, adding that this by-project basis was part of the original vision of the fund, but was difficult to predict.

Wyatt told The Daily that the SPF has allocated approximately $2.3 million over three years on 94 projects, 90 per cent of which are collaborations between professors and students.

The fund has an impressive track record of success. According to Wyatt, 177 student jobs have been created, three companies have been founded, and around 150 students have been able to get course credits for participating in SPF projects. The most visible projects include McGill Feeding McGill, Campus Crops, Edible Campus, and the Aboriginal Sustainability Project.

Despite this legacy, the cuts the University now faces make it difficult to ascertain how, and if, the SPF will survive when its three years of funding run out in the fall of 2013. Due to the long timeline of many of the projects, there is an almost one-year lag between the allocation of the funds to projects and their use.

The senior administration at McGill and the SPF are in talks to try to find specific alternative solutions to a funding crisis forcing cuts across the board. Wyatt was very positive about the possibility of alternative sources of funding, and clarified that “it’s not as though all of that money needs to be found and put into a pot.”

“It’s just a matter of trying to find, more specifically, where [the money] can come from. The cuts are so profound at this time that every unit is going to feel it, and every priority is going to feel it,” Wyatt said.

SSMU President Josh Redel was also cautiously optimistic about the fund’s renewal. “It looks like we have potential solutions, but it’s just the uncertainty of what next year will look like,” Redel told The Daily.

For reasons of confidentiality, Redel was unable to elaborate on what these potential solutions could be. At present, Redel said, SSMU is working along with the SPF and with McGill’s administration to “[make] sure the fund reflects current financial reality.”

Last week, SSMU’s Legislative Council delayed a motion to approve a question concerning the renewal of the fund’s student support. Redel explained that this delay was due to the wording of the motion, which assumed administrative matching. “The fund wouldn’t be true to its original form if it doesn’t have the match. It’s not that it would disappear, but we might have to look at how it’s composed, who’s able to apply for it, what kind of projects it undertakes, if it isn’t a parity fund.”

Both Wyatt and Redel stated that they would prefer not to proceed with the question until commitment had been secured from the administration.

This kind of financial uncertainty is not unique to the SPF as student groups, programs, and the university administration are scrambling for solutions to cuts Wyatt called “catastrophic.”

“Everything’s kind of just all over the place,” Redel said. “The financial situation is changing day to day, especially over the past two weeks…Everyone is kind of bogged down.”