By Sarun Balaranjan, Contributor
Note: Sarun Balaranjan is a member of the Board of Directors for OPIRG.
Before I begin, I must acknowledge my conflict of interest as a member of the Board of Directors for OPIRG. This year has been troubling for OPIRG in many respects. The Student Choice Initiative forced us to terminate all of our staff. The new Board of Directors had almost no prior experience with OPIRG. Oh, and the McMaster Students Union decided to threaten our very existence.
OPIRG McMaster is a unique group on campus in that it is not a service provided by the MSU, but the MSU plays a role in the process of funnelling our annual budget from students. Because we are autonomous from the MSU, we are able to provide a platform for students who want to engage in activism that the MSU may not condone, potentially for bureaucratic reasons. We are currently supporting new groups like Divest McMaster, a student-run initiative aiming to push McMaster administration to sell the investments tied up in the extraction of fossil fuels through McMaster University’s endowment fund. A group like Divest McMaster would likely have no clear place in advocacy through the MSU, since intuitively, the MSU would protect the interests of the university. By putting OPIRG McMaster to referendum and potentially defunding this organization, the MSU is limiting the extent of student activism.
On Nov. 29, 2019, the Student Representative Assembly proposed sending OPIRG to referendum. A major reason was that we were spending too much money on staffing and administration. Granted, this was fair given the preliminary budget received by the finance committee showed that roughly 87 per cent of our funds were allocated towards staffing and administrative costs. However, upon receiving our opt-out rates, we updated our budget to reflect that only a reasonable 30 per cent of our costs would be allocated towards staffing. Despite this change, the MSU continued to cite this 87 per cent figure in proceeding OPIRG referendum documents.
On Feb. 9, The board of directors were brought in a second time to delegate on the topic of being sent to referendum on the grounds of bylaw infractions. By this time, the previously cited staffing cost issues were pushed into the background in favour of bylaw infractions. At this point, it was clear that the MSU had an agenda to push and that moving goalposts was well within their capacity. One of the broken bylaws cited by the MSU was a late budget submission. Yes, we were four days late in submitting our budget, but we had only received the opt-out numbers near the end of September with an Oct. 15 due date. In addition, our treasurer, the primary point of contact with the MSU, had been taken out of commission with serious personal issues and we were still negotiating with our Union regarding budgeting limitations. Some leniency would have been appreciated in receiving our updated budget, but we admit that there were communication issues due to these external circumstances.
In terms of the other infractions, the associate vice-president (Finance) and their committee ruled, without any consultation with the SRA, that we broke Bylaw 5, article 3.1.2 on financial transparency. Some of these bylaws are fairly vague in phrasing and describe only general tenets that must be followed. I would like to remind you that, originally, the vote to send us to referendum passed by only two votes. On Feb. 23, we returned to delegate to the SRA in the hopes of reconsidering the motion to send OPIRG to referendum on Feb. 9. The motion to reconsider the original referendum decision had seven SRA members in favour, nine members opposed, and the final six members abstained. The ambiguity and uncertainty in the room was palpable each time. It seems inherently unjust that this decision on a bylaw violation was determined by a small subset of the elected body that is supposed to prioritize student interests.
Democracy is a process. The continual reforming, reshaping and restructuring of practices are based on a common understanding of what works and what fails society. A major issue ingrained in democracy is that democratic leaders need flashy campaigns for upward mobility. Sure, whoever spearheads this movement gets to say on their resume that they managed to create “tangible corrective action” against a “financially opaque group.” Or, maybe on their next election platform, they get to flex themselves as proponents of financial transparency. Again, maybe the SRA should provide their own input as to what constitutes a bylaw violation, rather than leave it in the hands of a small, potentially biased group to act as arbiters.
We as a board are deeply aware of the importance of student choice. This is why we advertise students’ choices so that students can opt out of our fees should they feel that they want to. A referendum sounds like the MSU is putting power back into the hands of the students, but, in reality, the opportunity is being provided for the majority of McMaster students to take a platform of free speech and social justice away from a marginalized minority. Even if the majority of students do not believe in the value of OPIRG, the organization remains an important outlet of free speech and support for alienated students who want to engage in activism.
The punishment that has been carried out doesn’t quite reflect the crime.