In March 2015, the Kinesiology Undergraduate Society held a referendum for a new $250 student fee. This referendum was unusual for a number of reasons. First, the fee would go entirely towards paying for a portion of a new academic building on behalf of the School of Kinesiology. Secondly, it also became known that the KUS had little involvement in the referendum process and it was instead being led by a group called “Make Your Mark” (MYM). Thirdly, the MYM campaign carried the school’s branding and was being headed up by two individuals who were employees of the School of Kinesiology.
Despite these irregularities, the referendum passed. In May 2015, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was filed asking for various records and correspondence about the referendum held by named employees of the School of Kinesiology. The results of that request, containing over 300 pages of records, can be downloaded here.
It’s quite unusual in the first place that a department of the university would be able to produce 300+ pages of documentation on a referendum supposedly run by a student group. This post will highlight information gleaned from the records in the form of a semi-narrative timeline. This one is only for people really interested in the nitty gritty. Come back tomorrow if you just want to read the juicy stuff. Note: Various people involved with the KUS or the School of Kinesiology were contacted prior to writing this piece, with a request for an interview about the referendum. None replied.
In January 2014, Aram Karakas, then-president of the KUS requested a meeting with Bob Sparks, then-Director of the School of Kinesiology. He, Robyn Freiheit, and unnamed others wished to discuss the Community Health Science Centre (CHSC) project with Bob. The discussion at that meeting is unknown, but it must have gone well because a month later it had been arranged that Robyn would be working 5 hours/week “with Bob.” For now, Robyn was told, “don’t worry about the job description.”
In this new role with Bob, Robyn was given the title of Special Projects Coordinator. One of the first things she received was information about how to run a student referendum which had ultimately originated from the UBC VP Students (VPS) office. Conveniently, Bob had already been in contact with the VPS office in 2012, inquiring about how to hold a student referendum. The information is straightforward, and simply refers to relevant sections of AMS Code and Bylaws.
In June, the first meeting of the Make Your Mark (MYM) Action Committee was convened. MYM was the referendum initiative that Robyn was to lead while employed by the school. By then, Robyn’s commitment to the project had been increased from 5 to 25 hours per week. She had also convinced Kinesiology to hire a second staff member, a Visual Coordinator by the name of Rachel. MYM Action Committee meetings continued through the summer. Meetings between Robyn, Rachel, and Bob occurred throughout summer as well.
By August, a person had been identified who could build a voting booth. Costing information on a whole bunch of promo materials – buttons, stickers, t-shirts, banners, posters, etc. – was gathered from a number of suppliers. As the campaign began to take shape, outreach efforts were made to various people in the School of Kinesiology. In one example from August, a student contacted a professor, Tania Lam, about participating in a video for MYM. Tania emailed Bob to ask if this was a school-sanctioned initiative. He answered that it was – “This is part of our campaign for the new building” – and encouraged her to participate.
The school’s backing was also made clear to students. “School giving us their word of priority,” MYM minutes from September say. “Once we pass the referendum, they will call in the troops.” Those minutes also make clear that the KUS does start to have some limited involvement with MYM around this time. Action Committee minutes state that Robyn is working on “Building bridge with KUS for moving forward” and a meeting is arranged so that Bob, Robyn, and KUS executives can discuss the referendum.
Other bridges were being built at this time too. An email from September 16 hints that they had an upcoming a meeting with the Provost. The purpose of that meeting is not stated and whether they actually met with the provost himself is unclear. September 25 MYM minutes reference a meeting with Dave Shorthouse (senior staff in the Provost’s office) and Adriaan de Jager (senior staff in the UBC VP External Relations and Communications office). According to the account in the minutes, “They support our initiative. The more we do, the more they see, the more they believe in this project.”
Make Your Mark
The Make Your Mark campaign officially launched on Imagine Day 2014. By October, Robyn was hard at work on writing both the referendum question and the memorandum of understanding. She met with Bob and Catherine Alkenbrack (who splits time between UBC Infrastructure Development and the Provost’s office). The purpose of the meeting was to work on the MOU by trying to answer the question “What can we promise Kin students?” She met with Tanner Bokor, then-AMS President, to discuss the referendum process. The KUS seemed to be kept in the loop and was invited to MYM meetings. The KUS even had a substantive discussion about the referendum in November.
Things were generally going smoothly, with various parts of the MYM campaign progressing along. Robyn seemed to have no shortage of meetings with Bob and other university officials to attend, or ideas for referendum-related tasks to assign to student volunteers. By January, her position had been upgraded to 35 hours per week and planning this referendum quite literally became her full time job.
By February, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) – ie. “What can we promise Kin students?” – was coming together, with quite a few people on the UBC side looking at it. In the most complete version of the MOU from this time, Catherine Alkenbrack estimated the additional cost due to students’ asks as $1.4M. This bulk of this estimate was due to a desired 250 sq. metre fitness centre, which would cost $1.2M. Provision of lockers would cost another $200,000. Other student “asks” such as 1148 sq. metres of informal learning space, or a food outlet, were not costed because they were already part of the building’s program, referendum or not. There is no evidence in the documents that the KUS, or any students except Robyn, ever had any substantive involvement in those negotiations.
With the big vote planned for mid-March, things started getting more frenzied as time went on. By the time of a February 24 meeting of MYM, things were in full swing. New swag was on its way, the voting booth was ready, new posters were printed and the referendum question was being finalized. Everyone was excited. And then…
It began innocently enough. Robyn sent a copy of the draft referendum question to Sheldon Goldfarb, AMS Archivist. She was looking for technical feedback on the wording of the question. Sheldon was happy to oblige by identifying some parts of the question in which he found the wording unclear. Near the end he added, tangentially, “By the way, any MoU will have to be signed by the AMS.”
This was news to Robyn. She asks why this is the case? Sheldon, also puzzled, in return asked who will sign the MOU if not the AMS? Robyn replied:
Eventually, Robyn sent the email thread with Sheldon to her boss Bob Sparks, saying she still doesn’t quite understand why the AMS must have involvement. Bob then forwarded this to Catherine Alkenbrack and Dave Shorthouse, urgently asking for advice. This is where entire pages start being redacted as Michal Jaworski (UBC Legal Counsel) was looped in on the conversation, as were individuals from the Provost’s office and the VPS office. It’s impossible to know what was said, except that there appears to be a mad scramble going on over the course of a few days with a whole lot of emails flying around marked “URGENT”.
On March 11, Robyn brought the draft MOU to AMS Council for their approval. It was at this meeting that her role as a paid staff member of the School of Kinesiology first became more widely known. AMS Council declined to approve the MOU at this meeting, the document having taken them by surprise.
The next day, media inquiries start. I sent an email to the MYM email address asking what I believed to be a simple query: where can I find more information about the building project such as its scope, size, program, and funding model? It took four days, until the first day of voting on March 16, to finally receive a substantive reply. By then the records show that my question had been the subject of at least 10 follow-up emails involving staff in the School of Kinesiology, the Provost’s office, and the VPS office who all helped shaped the reply I received. Likewise, inquiries from The Ubyssey were forwarded to the School of Kinesiology. This is the case not only of inquiries made of Robyn, but also inquiries made to the KUS.
From March 16-19, the referendum was held and the vote passed. Afterwards, Bob called a meeting with students who are part of the KUS to discuss “next steps”. Referendum documentation such as the KUS’s official notice to the AMS about the referendum and potential replies to media continued to be sent to the Bob and other school employees for review. In April, it was decided that they will take their time with the MOU, let things cool down, and bring it back to AMS Council at a later date. That’s where the time frame for the FOI request ended, and that’s where things went quiet for a few months.
Back to the AMS
After a summer-long delay, the referendum results and the MOU will be back at AMS Council for approval this Wednesday. From the looks of things, almost nothing about the referendum or the MOU has substantially changed. The same student “asks” are present, most of which will be part of the building with or without the referendum. None of the issues with the process of the referendum have ever properly been addressed. Is it the new normal that student fees pay for a building on behalf of the school rather than on behalf of the society? Am I the only one who thinks it’s unacceptable for university departments to hire staff whose explicit goal is to pass a student referendum? When will students realize that when they’re the ones with money in hand to give to the university, they hold most of the leverage, not the other way around?
Check back tomorrow for another post which will outline the most eye-opening details of the records.