As students prepare to vote in this week’s University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) general election, they should ask themselves whether the organization has given them much reason to participate.
Over the course of my six years at the U of W, I have watched the UWSA sink into a state of irrelevance as its executives gradually form an island unto themselves, separated more and more from the students they are tasked with representing.
The individuals themselves are not willfully negligent - most UWSA executives are smart and conscientious people who work hard to deliver important services on campus. However, successive representatives have failed to adapt to changing circumstances at the University of Winnipeg.
This fall from grace can be traced in at least two ways.
First, the organization has weakened its bread and butter outreach activities; the once great events organized by the students’ association are consistently poorly attended.
Second, and more importantly, the UWSA has been relegated to the sidelines in debates about the future of post-secondary education in Manitoba.
What went wrong?
When I started at the University of Winnipeg in 2007, the UWSA was a small association representing a meager student population at a downtown liberal arts university.
They organized some raucous events while maintaining a distinct ideological linkage with the national, leftist Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
The CFS connection meant the UWSA organized Day of Action events, annually marching to the legislature to advocate for successive tuition freezes. It also meant the organization pursued left-wing activist causes, from banning bottled water to establishing Soma Cafe as a fair trade alternative to the university’s then-horrible food provider.
Over time, however, these causes became less and less relevant.
The provincial government was forced to lift the tuition freeze as it became a boon on university finances and did not improve access to education.
Additionally, Soma Cafe became a redundant distraction in the face of a growing number of campus food providers - from Diversity to Stella’s - many of which emphasized affordable, fair trade products.
In response to these changes, then-president Jason Syvixay dismissed Day of Action events, broke ties with the CFS and attempted to close Soma Cafe in 2011.
However, Syvixay’s tenure ultimately shrunk the scope of the UWSA. It was unable as an organization to carve out any distinctive policy terrain and, consequently, it more or less dropped out of the political arena.
Since that time, the organization’s focus under president Lauren Bosc has been to hold down the fort during this existential crisis.
The U of W is getting bigger and its demographics have shifted.
The small liberal arts university has turned into a sprawling anchor for downtown investment and the student population is comprised of a multiplicity of international, part-time and mature students. These students are moving into departments, like business administration and the faculty of kinesiology, traditionally out-of-step with the lefty activism of the UWSA.
Meanwhile, the faculty association and U of W administration have been in constant conflict. In 2011, the faculty association nearly went on strike when collective bargaining broke down and tensions heated up further last year over cuts to the university’s arts faculty.
As a result, the UWSA is faced with a unique set of challenges but has been largely missing in action.
Its most recent initiative - an annual university bus pass - has turned into a massive flop for precisely this reason.
The UWSA did not adequately assess the practical costs of a bus pass and instead rushed into a referendum with an arbitrary $200 figure and an opt-out mechanism that was not properly coordinated with the University of Manitoba Students’ Union.
Now these organizations face a $3.5 million shortfall between what the UPass is projected to raise in revenue and the projected implementation costs released by the City of Winnipeg. In many ways, this initiative constituted feel good activism on the fly.
Given the transformative change happening on our campus, it is difficult to know how the UWSA can transcend beyond a self-contained island worried more about controlling its own spending than understanding the issues faced by a shifting student population.
Published in Volume 67, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 14, 2013)