School of Kinesiology Outspent Entire KUS Budget on Student Referendum

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. Yesterday’s post contained a semi-narrative timeline of events outlining the School of Kinesiology’s involvement over 16 months. This post will focus on some of the more eye-opening details found in the documents.

The Money

The FOI package contains receipts, as well as correspondence and job descriptions which include details such as hourly wage and hours worked. The following are estimates based on the information in the package:

  • Supplies and Materials: $2,404
  • Special Projects Coordinator remuneration: $26,742
  • Visual Coordinator remuneration: $12,478
  • Total: $41,624

The KUS budget is not public. However, some estimates about their finances are also possible. According to the UBC Vancouver Calendar, the Kinesiology student fee is $30, and in 2014/15 there were 1,156 students enrolled. Annually, this should translate into the KUS collecting approximately $34,680 in fees.

Think about that a little more: on this one referendum, it is reasonable to believe that the school outspent the KUS’s entire annual budget.

The Job Descriptions

In April 2014, a formal job description was written up for a Special Projects Coordinator, the position filled by a woman named Robyn Freiheit. Among other things, it outlined the following duties:

  • The measure of success of this role will be the passing of the Kinesiology specific referendum on Kinesiology student fees in March 2015 that will ensure a portion of funding towards the building along with student support moving forward.
  • This position reports to of [sic] Dr. Robert Sparks, Director of the School of Kinesiology.
  • Participate on across campus committees or meetings relevant to project on behalf of the School.
  • Be the student voice to the building project by communicating students opinions and thoughts to all faculty/staff members and external parties involved for duration of involvement.

The next month, a job description was written up for a Visual Coordinator, the position filled by a student at Emily Carr named Rachel. It outlined the following duties:

  • The Visual Coordinator will be responsible for designing the campaign elements necessary in the successfully [sic] marketing of the CHSC building project.
  • The measure of success of this role will be the passing of the Kinesiology specific referendum on Kinesiology student fees in March 2015 that will ensure a portion of funding towards the building along with student support moving forward.
  • Develop and maintain social media platforms to keep students in the know about the project.
  • Develop and maintain promotional presence within the student body.
  • This position will present and report to Robyn Freiheit, Special Projects Coordinator.
  • Position presents and reports finalized concepts to Dr. Robert Sparks, Director of the School of Kinesiology.

Once more, in case it wasn’t yet clear what the purpose of hiring these employees was: “The measure of success of this role will be the passing of the Kinesiology specific referendum on Kinesiology student fees in March 2015” The school specifically hired staff whose role was to pass a student referendum.

The Question

The MYM Action Committee Meeting minutes from February 24, 2015 ties things together nicely. Firstly, those minutes record Robyn indicating that she will submit the referendum question to the KUS by the end of the week. Additionally, they note that they’ve heard back from the KUS that a “Yes campaign link can be added – and note that no ‘no campaign’ is in place.” Lastly, it includes one more to-do:

This is a pretty tight summary of the situation: MYM, despite being a “yes” campaign, is not only in charge of writing the referendum question, they consider the KUS’s administration of the vote to be a purely hypothetical exercise.

Two days later, Robyn emailed Bob Sparks, then-Director of the School of Kinesiology to say:

Why was the Director of the School of Kinesiology involved in editing a student referendum question before it being sent to anyone else? (Your guess is as good as mine, though my personal theory is that maybe, just maybe this whole referendum was an initiative of the school rather than of the KUS.)

Oh, and the person who ultimately did undertake the hypothetical “administration” of the vote for the KUS? That was Aram Karakas, 2013-2014 KUS President. The records obtained via FOI show that Aram had been in the very first meeting about the referendum with Bob and Robyn, the meeting which seemed to result in Robyn being hired by the school.

So what did we learn?

The School of Kinesiology was involved in the planning and execution of a student referendum for a period of more than a year. It is an idea that had been contemplated by Bob Sparks, the school’s Director, as early as 2012. The School hired two employees who were specifically tasked with passing the referendum, and who reported to Bob. In doing so, the School likely spent more on this one project than the entire annual KUS budget.

Make Your Mark was a “yes” committee, led by employees of the school, that was allowed to write the very referendum question they were campaigning in support of. At various junctures, attempts to muddy the waters were made by trying to claim it was simply an informational campaign.

Bob Sparks and other employees in the School of Kinesiology were definitely kept in the loop of referendum-planning activities: helping to set up meetings, developing budgets, and encouraging faculty and staff to participate in the campaign. The involvement continued throughout, including approval of campaign materials, drafting of the referendum question, and asking UBC legal counsel for advice (presumably) on how to navigate the AMS. Even after questions were publicly raised about the appropriateness of the school’s involvement in the this referendum, nothing seemed to change, with school employees weighing in on media responses, and even editing the notice of referendum results submitted to the AMS.

The KUS, on the other hand, seemed to have little direct involvement in the referendum while it was being planned, a level of engagement which appeared to continue during and after the vote. It would be unfair to say that the KUS was deliberately marginalized from the campaign and referendum, but of everyone involved, the KUS seemed to have the least werewithal to run their own referendum, or even understand the process of doing so. The person eventually recruited to ensure elections rules were followed had been involved in the initial discussions with the school about hiring staff to organize the referendum campaign.

One narrative that has emerged from referendum supporters is that despite any issues surrounding how it was conducted, the results should be ratified because students voted in favour of the proposal. This point of view represents a willful blindness to the elephant in the room; if the student support expressed during this referendum is a genuine reflection of the opinion of the Kinesiology student body, why did the School of Kinesiology feel compelled to mount a $40,000, 16-month campaign? Beyond ignoring significant conflicts of interest and other unethical aspects of the campaign’s structure, this also implicitly posits that Make Your Mark had no effect on the outcome of the vote. On a more basic level, it manages to ignore the underlying fact that in the absence of MYM, there would have been no referendum. This referendum only existed because the School of Kinesiology wanted it to.


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  1. Great journalistic work!!!

    Posted by ALex | October 27, 2015, 6:54 pm
  2. I think your second paragraph in the concluding section is not highlighting a real problem. A legitimate referendum is basically always brought about by a party wishing for a specific outcome. It’s not surprising (or wrong, I think) for the party bringing forth the referendum (i.e. writing the question) to also campaign for a Yes.

    That said, the whole deal with the KUS fee is scandalous. What recourse is there to declare the referendum invalid? Can the AMS do anything? Hold a counter-referendum to remove the fee?

    Posted by Jean-François | October 28, 2015, 11:09 am
  3. As of last night, the motion to approve the fee has been postponed indefinitely by AMS council at the behest of the KUS president.

    props to Neal.

    Posted by Maayan K | October 29, 2015, 3:38 pm
  4. Faculty of Education admin’s consultation report posted at

    Great work UBC Insiders!

    Posted by Stephen Petrina | November 21, 2015, 2:35 pm
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