The recent financial investigation conducted on the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) has uncovered fundamental structural issues with the organization. Most importantly, the portion of the report that was made public indicated that SMCSU was plagued by corruption and a “culture of entitlement,” and a broken fiscal accountability system.
The accountability concerns revealed by the report are serious, and demand immediate attention. As a student government, SMCSU is tasked with representing and being responsible for its students, and it has failed to do so on both fronts. However, the council should be held directly accountable to St. Michael’s College students by allowing them to play a direct role in the remediation process, alongside the administration. It is unclear whether or not this is going to be the case.
One concern that the report brings to light is the power dynamics between SMCSU and the student body at large. Being a student representative is as much a privilege as it is an office, and it appears that some members of SMCSU do not respect that.
Speaking to what SMC President David Mulroney labeled as a “culture of entitlement” that appears to be present within SMCSU, the report notes significant expenditures on alcohol, food, and outings. For example, just over $300 was spent on dinner for two individuals. Additionally, a total of $50,677.90 was spent over the span of six years for “professional development,” which included annual retreats to Tyrolean Village Resort in Blue Mountain for council members.
In this context, the report quotes one student who expresses that such behaviour is part of the culture within the council, particularly among executive members. This sense of entitlement has long been propagated by a kind of “passing down the torch” system, where the most important thing was not to break with tradition.
In his statement on the topic, Mulroney said that the SMCSU operated on “three levels.” Although the vast majority of students involved were genuinely committed to student interests, they were kept “at arm’s length from information and decision making.” It was a top tier of students who held “real control of money, information and decision-making.” This group, an “entitled elite,” had “turned their backs on the students and the institution that they should have served, and treated SMCSU as a private Club,” Mulroney wrote.
What this ultimately reveals is distance and isolationism, not only between SMCSU and the body of students it should represent, but within the organization itself — making it difficult to hold those members with the most power accountable.
A second concern is the lack of institutional mechanisms for resolution when such issues arise. As explained by the report, a broken fiscal management and accountability system within SMCSU has allowed entitlement and irresponsibility to persist unhindered. The report noted several cases in which poor cash management led to missing and unaccounted for funds. Worse, there was no proper bookkeeping process, allowing for frequent unidentified deposits and expenditures, as well as the movement of funds without receipts.
Perhaps if institutional mechanisms existed to contain this behaviour, egregious violations of student trust, like third-party kickback payments, would not have taken place. In one particular instance, budgeted figures suggest deliberate fictitious overbilling to accommodate what was illicitly received. In an op-ed for The Varsity, former SMCSU Vice-President Jessica Afonso explicitly admitted to and condemned the prevalence of these practices within the organization.
For students across campus, and particularly St. Michael’s College students, all of this should be viewed with concern. As the primary representative of student interests at the College, it is SMCSU’s role to operate on behalf of these interests in a principled and professional fashion. As the SMCSU Constitution states, the organization “shall effectively represent the interests of its members” and accordingly “initiate measures and support organizations whose objective is to improve the quality of education and student life.” Clearly, the practices that the organization has been involved in over the past few years do not meet this standard.
It is also important to consider how this affects our reputation as students. The organization, as much as it represents our interests, also represents the student body at large. SMCSU representatives are elected through a democratic process, and it is unfortunate that their actions now reflect on their constituents and on the ability of students in general to handle significant responsibilities.
With this in mind, it is important that students have a hand in the reforms that are to take place. Keeping in mind SMCSU’s purpose as a democratic agent on behalf of the students of St. Michael’s College, as well as the clear infringements on students’ interests through their activities in the past, students should be the ones to decide its ultimate direction.
Yet, at this point, the organization’s future remains uncertain. In response to the report and a subsequent Snapchat scandal, the SMCSU resolved to prorogue its activities. In February, St. Michael’s College announced that it had formed a committee to organize new elections. Although reform and restructuring is clearly necessary, the relationship between students and this committee in undertaking this reform is unknown. For instance, although SMC has expressed its support for democratically-elected student government, it will now be keeping a close eye on the organization, having appointed an administrative adviser to oversee SMCSU.
For the sake of efficiency, the committee can certainly oversee the implementation of major reforms. However, the most democratic and transparent option would be to allow students to have a final say on what is implemented via referendum, and specific policies can be proposed and discussed in the upcoming election, whenever it might be. In this way, the changes that are necessary to avoid further corruption can be implemented, and the integrity of the student government can hopefully be salvaged.
Sam Routley is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Philosophy.