At the end of my university career, I expected to write a lengthy coming-of-age piece on how I’ve grown intellectually, how I’ve evolved emotionally and how I’ve matured as a person throughout my years of higher education. I assumed I would be writing the epilogue to the story of my journey from Dubai to Calgary to Toronto, and how it changed the way I interacted with people, altered my perceptions of the world and completely revamped my notions of love, life and success.
But that sounds like trite trash, so here’s a tirade on my experiences with the Ryerson Students’ Union.
My bad romance with the RSU started in September 2012, when I was working as an online editor at that vile maelstrom of chaotic alcohol-fuelled talent that I will always miss and love, The Eyeopener. Before that, I had never cared for or knew much about the RSU, much like the colossal majority of Ryerson students. But after that fateful September, I became dangerously obsessed with the union’s executives, structure and, most crucially, its locked down finances.
I still don’t understand how, because following a referendum passed in the ’80s, every single Ryerson student blindly hands the RSU an annual allowance and has no choice in the matter whatsoever. I’m baffled at how the RSU does not advertise its board of directors meetings, which are open to students and see many crucial decisions made on the student union’s directions and finances.
I was stunned when I found out the RSU holds only two meetings a year for the general student body. My mind was shattered to bits and Reese’s Pieces when I realized the union makes decisions on behalf of all students at those two damned congregations — as long as 100 people show up to vote and score some free food. Scratch that, the RSU advertises it as “free,” but you paid for it, remember?
I am flabbergasted at the RSU’s foolish and futile attempts to blanket-represent one of the most diverse campuses in Canada with sweeping political, environmental and cultural motions. It is impossible to represent the beliefs of 30,000 students with one stance, unless you’re the RSU.
Through my reporting, I only wanted to show Ryerson students how significant the RSU’s role is on their campus so that they could become more engaged in how the union is run. While I may have started painting that picture, it’s far from complete. Now I’ve run out of courses to take and am forced to graduate, so it’s up to the journalism students reading this — if any — to continue pushing the RSU for ultimate transparency, stronger democracy and infinitely more inclusive decision making.
So, if you want to dive into student union reporting and undertake a miserable yet instrumental beat, here’s what I’ve learned about the RSU:
• The RSU does not share its operating budget. It used to, but later noticed that the student media — in a total dick move — used it to report on their finances. We’re such pricks. You must work tirelessly to make sure every single student, if they choose, can see how his or her money is being spent, whether it’s on printing anti-pipeline pamphlets, the executives’ salaries, a long-gone RSU executive’s legal fees or “telephones.” In last year’s budget, the RSU put aside $20,000 for “telephones.” There’s a story for you.
• In February, come election time, the RSU gets its next crop of executives ready to run. The new batch will run under the Students United slate and will already be very friendly with the current executive. Most of them, if not all, will have come from the RSU’s farm team, the Ryerson Residence Council. They will have scarce opposition, if any. You will most likely cry when you feast your eyes on the abysmal voter turnout rate. I did, and then cried some more when the beer ran out.
When results are announced at the Ram in the Rye, you will not believe how victorious some of the RSU’s candidates will appear despite running unopposed. Nevertheless, you must cover the election with a passion, you sad, yet noble soul.
• Two of the RSU’s full-time employees, hired without any say from students whatsoever, choose a chief returning officer (CRO) and a deputy returning officer (DRO) to oversee the elections, supposedly as independent overlords of democracy. The job posting for the two positions was up online during December 2012, for only six days.
Your job is to find out if and how the CRO and DRO are related to the RSU’s executive or the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
Last year’s CRO, Shelby Kennedy, has a sister, Kaley, who worked for the CFS and was connected to almost all of the RSU’s executives on social media. The former RSU president, Rodney Diverlus, told me he knew “a Kaley Kennedy,” but added that he didn’t know if she has any relationship to the CRO. All you can do, as campus reporters, is put this information out there and let students do what they want with it.
• As a student journalist, your job includes investigating how the RSU, like other pro-CFS unions, carries out the federation’s campaigns without any kind of local feedback. Last weekend, the RSU’s executives went to Ottawa for the CFS national general meeting to vote on and propose motions that had zero Ryerson student input. You must also find out how many lawsuits — yep, paid for with student money — the CFS is involved in with student unions trying to break free from its grasp. You read that right: to leave the CFS, student unions have to lawyer their way out. You must, for the love of our bottled water-free campus, report on that.
• The RSU continuously tightens its communications and control over what the campus media gets to hear.
When Diverlus was the union’s president last year, he talked to us every Monday for an hour or so. His successor, Melissa Palermo, now requests questions sent to her in advance. Palermo generously redirects our questions to other RSU executives if she feels she’s not the best person to answer, which gives her colleagues more time to rehearse their responses. You must break through these bureaucratic walls. It won’t be easy, but I guarantee you it will be fun.
• Speaking of responses, you won’t get much of them quickly. The RSU takes its sweet time to respond to requests, especially from student media.
• The union’s executive director of communications and outreach, Gilary Massa, gets to vet what anyone and everyone at the RSU says to the student media. Massa has been with the RSU for quite some time and attended last weekend’s CFS meeting with the executive. As a student journalist, ask yourself why a non-elected full-time employee goes to lobby for students at a national meeting.
Finally, remember that you are not doing this for grades or for some fancy bylines in a student newspaper.
You are doing this because the RSU, as our student government, must be held accountable, to the students it represents, for every single penny it spends and for every single stance it takes.
You, as a student journalist, must keep the union in check, regardless of whether no one reads your stories, or the status quo remains intact.
Then, when you’re about to graduate and feel too scared to write about anything else, pass the knowledge on to future students.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 27, 2013.