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As the dust settles on the highly tumultuous elections, incoming RSU president Vanessa Henry says her primary task will be to restore trust in the union within the student body.
Henry says that this will mainly come from an increase in financial transparency and making students more aware of the importance of the RSU at the university.
“I feel like our team is in a position where we have to take on a lot going into our role as the next executives of the RSU because there’s the student choice initiative that we have to deal with,” Henry says.
In January, the provincial government announced a plan that may make student fees optional, including those that support students unions.
However, Henry’s concerns don’t end there. Her team is also left bearing the weight the credit card scandal and subsequent financial audit, the results of which will determine the university’s relationship with the RSU in the coming academic year.
Back in February, the RSU impeached their president after allegations surfaced of grand financial mismanagement. Credit cards allegedly issued to Ram Ganesh and another RSU executive showed thousands of dollars being spent on hotels, clubs and alcohol. Whether or not the scandal had impacted voter turnout, this year’s elections saw the lowest number of ballots cast for president since 2014, and a poll conducted by journalism students at Ryerson showed that 15 per cent of students polled said the credit card scandal negatively affected their willingness to vote.
Henry says that her first steps as the leader of the RSU will be to increase financial transparency by posting a twice-a-month budget of revenues and expenditures and making sure members clock in and out.
“Even during the election, a lot of students were like, ‘I’m not voting because I don’t trust you.’ I just wanted to talk to students about where that lack of trust is coming through,” Henry says. “One of the things I want to do is actually rebuild that trust by just speaking with students [and] informing students of what we have.”
She said she hopes to also create a president’s council, partnering with various societies and student groups to get a better sense of how the union can support them, and restore the general manager position at the RSU to ensure proper oversight.
Neil Thomlinson, a politics and public administration professor, says a lack of trust as a result of the scandal further complicates Refresh’s job going into the new year.
“The voter turnout in the RSU elections has been just abysmal for forever,” Thomlinson says. “The problem with the RSU is that most students just don’t give a shit about the RSU, at all, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And I think part of their problem is that most students have no idea what they do.”
In fact, the same School of Journalism poll found that 40 per cent of students did not know what the RSU’s role was on campus, or what it does.
Thomlinson says if there is any hope of the RSU retaining funding through the student choice initiative, the union must convince students of their significance to student life both on and off campus.
“My advice to them is the same advice that I try and give the university administrators at a time of budget cutbacks,” Thomlinson says. “Focus on the core mission — what is it that you do?”
However, Thomlinson is pessimistic about the union’s ability to inform enough people in enough time about the necessary services they provide.
“They need to start right now,” Thomlinson says, “if they are going to really try and convince everybody who is here now to support these things, to say yes to what is about $150 in student levy.”
Others are more optimistic about the RSU’s ability to move forward and shed this negative perception at the very least.
John Burry, a contract lecturer within the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson says via email the credit card scandal will quickly dissolve from public consciousness given the quick turnover of daily news. “I fear it has already largely been eroded from public consciousness. News stories seem to retain ever-diminishing attention spans,” Burry says. “I think we are all drowning in an unprecedented daily deluge of information and diversion and the news media play a role in their desperate effort to retain top-of-mind notice. As a consequence, I think we’re all having trouble parsing the serious issues from the merely diverting ones — and that, in my opinion, is the really serious issue affecting us all — and affecting democracy itself.”