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Student Services accrues $6 million surplus

Confusion over proper allocation of the money

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After three to four years of a combination of conservative enrolment estimates, unfilled positions and employee turnover, changes in the fiscal year, and the 2011 MUNACA strike, Student Services has accumulated a surplus of almost $6 million.

A document obtained by The Daily that was presented at a Committee on Student Services (CSS) meeting in late November indicates several proposed uses for the money. This includes providing extra security to open up the libraries later during the exam period, increasing the number of mental health advisors, hiring a part-time fundraising employee for the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, maintenance on the Brown building, emergency funds, and enrolment services.

Other proposals included graduate supervision, teaching assistants, and an innovation fund.

The surplus was surrounded by confusion when first presented at the CSS. According to Post-graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Member Services Officer Elizabeth Cawley, the student representatives on the CSS were taken by surprise when they were handed – without the usual prior notice – documents pertaining to the allocation of this money.

To Cawley, even though the students had been given details of the proposals, this was not a transparent move on the University’s behalf. “The fact that this proposal was not circulated to the members beforehand for discussion and we were effectively taken by surprise, in my opinion, is inappropriate. […] I would never be comfortable making a decision about $6 [million] of student money without consulting with PGSS members […] We were expected to make a decision in favour of this on the spot,” Cawley wrote in an email in November.

Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) (DPSLL) Ollivier Dyens told The Daily in an interview that the surprise was a mistake. “My mistake was I should have told CSS […] ‘this is the beginning of a conversation.’ It was never meant to be a top-down process, and that was why I brought it to CSS.”

Student representatives were equally upset with some of the suggestions made for the surplus, many of which – such as hiring TAs or providing extra security for the libraries – are usually paid for from the University’s operating budget.

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Joey Shea told The Daily in November that the shifting of funds could “set a dangerous precedent” for other restricted funds. “[The proposed initiatives are great] but if it’s a Student Services fee, it needs to be kept within Student Services. […] Beyond the legality of it, it is still not very financially transparent.”

Cawley echoed this sentiment, calling it a potentially “serious detriment to the credibility of Student Services.”

“How could they possibly come to the students and ask us for a fee increase during the next referendum period,” she said in November, “if we know that this money can be taken away and used for other projects around the university at will?”

Since December, the administration has been quick to assure students that the money would not be spent outside of the purview of Student Services. “[SSMU President Katie Larson] and I had a meeting with both [Provost Anthony Masi and Dyens] before Christmas. They assured us that the money would be spent inside Student Services and kept in it,” Shea explained to The Daily in a follow-up interview.

At the December meeting of Senate, Shea and PGSS Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney submitted a question on the surplus to Dyens, asking why the money was being considered for purposes of the Student Services portfolio. Dyens responded that the proposal would be open to future consultation.

However, Shea said in a follow-up interview, “It’s good to monitor [the situation] and make sure that it’s kept within Student Services.”

Projects such as deferred maintenance on the Brown building, and discrepancies between salary increases for staff and the budget, are necessary, according to Dyens. Both of these projects are normally funded under the purview of Student Services. However, the CSS will meet again this semester to advise Dyens and Executive Director of Student Services Jana Luker on where the rest of the money should go.

According to both Shea and Crawley, $6 million won’t be enough to make big, permanent changes, such as adding mental health professionals to lighten the load on McGill’s Mental Health Services. “We need to make sure that we have the resources available so that the initiatives we fund are sustainable and will continue to improve the delivery of Student Services beyond one influx of cash,” Cawley wrote to The Daily in November.

Both Cawley and Shea agreed that the “innovation fund,” shelved under “other projects to consider,” is a viable destination for the money. “Every unit within Student Services should be allowed to present a proposal for how they could use this money to improve their service,” Cawley explained in November. “I think the ideas should be innovative, collaborative, and then be voted on by a committee like CSS where student members have parity.”

Shea echoed a similar sentiment in an interview with The Daily in November. “There’s a lot of need for that money within Student Services, it’s just a question of how you allocate it, what that process is like, and ensuring that it’s fair.”