Guest Post: A letter from W.D. (Bill) Smith on MacHall to the University of Calgary Board of Governors

November 25, 2015  |   Found in MyMacHall Dispute // News

The following letter is a guest post from W. D. (Bill) Smith, former general manager of the students’ unions at the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan. Bill offers an interesting and informed perspective on the relationship between students’ unions and their universities. 


November 25, 2015

The Governors of The University of Calgary.

c/o University Secretariat

Room 165 Administration Building

2500 University Drive N.W.

Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4


For the attention of Ms. Bonnie DuPont, M.Ed, ICD.D – Chair, Board of Governors

Dear Ms. Dupont and Members of the Board of Governors,

I write to you regarding the dispute concerning the ownership of MacEwan Hall – an issue that I believe has the capability to inflict significant long-term damage on the best interests of the University of Calgary.

The perspective I offer is that of someone who spent 25 years working with students and senior administrators at the University of Saskatchewan (1983-1991) and the University of Alberta (1991-2008). While my views during my working years were strongly influenced by the fact that, as general manager, I reported directly to the students’ union president, the years since retirement have provided me some perspective that I hope might prove helpful as you seek to bring leadership to the resolution of this issue.

1. I often found it important, in situations such as these, to clarify one of the key words – “union”. Views can be coloured by the misperception that a students’ union is akin to a labour union. In fact, the word “union” in the students’ union context originally referred to the goal of bringing people together (unifying them) regardless of the things that would otherwise divide them – things like religion, country of origin, political disposition, field of study, and campus role (faculty, student, staff or alumni). That goal, dating back to the 1800’s, remains central to this day. The representative role is certainly a key element of the students’ union mandate, but it is by no means the only element.


2. In Canada, the effective, modern students’ union (SU) now operates with four cornerstones – Advocacy, Service, Space and Business. These four cornerstones interact dynamically to create the relevance and effectiveness of the SU as a whole, and they are all dependent on each other.

    • The Advocacy component is (in Alberta) a formal provincial mandate under which the organization is legally required to represent students. It does this both on- and off-campus through dialogue with administration, the various levels of government, and other parties.
    •  The Service component is a reflection of the fact that “students serving students” is a highly desirable scenario in which the SU can provide services that the university does not wish to provide or cannot afford to provide. Further, the concept of “students serving students” creates many opportunities for the promotion of volunteerism – for triggering in students a lifelong commitment to something worthy from which Canada as a whole will benefit.
    •  During my time at the University of Alberta there was a recognition that, for reasons revolving around its cost-effectiveness and tight “finger on the student pulse”, the SU could sometimes be a better provider of these services than the university. That view was held by the Provost of the time, and it acted as the catalyst for many cooperative or student-run endeavour.
    • The Space component is the oldest of the four cornerstones because it reaches back to that original goal of providing a venue in which people could meet, interact and share perspectives regardless of their differences. From very modest beginnings the Space concept has evolved into what we see today – dynamic, high-traffic student centres in which the heart of the university beats strongest. Countless hours of effort and many millions of dollars have been invested in this goal by years of elected, volunteer and everyday students, and this student-centered approach is central to the success. After all, nobody knows better what students need than the students themselves, and nobody is better placed to govern these challenging facilities than the students in whose interests they exist; the participative approach is vastly better than the paternalistic approach. Moreover, the funding for the pursuit of expensive Space goals is something that, given today’s fiscal realities for universities, only students can provide.
    • The Business (revenue-generating) component is an intriguing one that has come to greater prominence over the last 25 years or so. This escalation has been fuelled by three factors – the increasing need for student services (and not just generic “one size fits all” services but also services tailored for important sub-groups of the student body), the diminishing financial ability of the university to provide all those services, and the success SUs have enjoyed in creating venues in which students want to spend their out-of-class time. This third factor, the ability to create spaces that attract incredibly high foot traffic, has become the crucial element in generating the revenues that fund building operations and the other three cornerstones.

The four cornerstones are managed within a system that legally requires students to elect their leadership annually. In my experience, most student leaders – including those at U of C – have taken their roles and responsibilities extremely seriously, and have paid balanced regard to each and all of the four cornerstones, as well as to relationships with key parties on- and off-campus.

3. The quality of the relationship between a university and its SU is not defined by the occasional skirmish. Differences of opinion are going to happen and their arrival is not indicative of a problematic relationship. It’s indicative of the fact that both parties are endeavouring to “do their job”. Those differences are not a matter of personal choice but legal duty. The vast majority of them cannot be ascribed to a personality conflict or a difficult SU executive (or university administration) because to do that would be to disrespect the very system within which we function.

The quality of the relationship between a university and its SU is defined by the ways in which the parties work together to create a better campus and a better university, and to promote an involved, committed, safe and healthy student body. It is eminently possible to do those things across a wide array of fronts despite marked differences of opinion in other areas. Mutual respect is key.

Working together “to promote an involved, committed, safe and healthy student body” covers many of the bases for today’s students, but one added benefit has immense importance for the institution: the university cannot harvest the crop of alumni support if it fails to till the soil of student life.

So, that close cooperation between the university and the SU doesn’t just make today’s students happy. It also provides the alumni association with a flow of graduates with positive thoughts about their time on campus, people more likely to provide subsequent financial and other support to their alma mater. The degree to which alumni relate to their alma mater is one of those key distinguishing features that set some schools apart from their peers, but it’s important to note that the experiences which shape those feelings are more likely to be out-of-classroom experiences such as time spent in the student building, in student governance, in student clubs, or in volunteer activities.

4. Virtually every leading university in the world has long recognized the vital importance of having that “dynamic, high-traffic student centre in which the heart of the university beats strongest”.

The recognition reached a peak during the 1960’s, and many of today’s most notable student centres – not just in Canada but around the world – were initially constructed during that time. Students did what students tend to do – put their heart and soul into the task of bringing dreams to reality. They injected time, effort, ingenuity and money into the task of creating the best student centre they could build. And then, as student needs and tastes changed, as they are wont to do, the students made sure that the facility kept pace, which involved more time, effort, ingenuity and money. These are not the actions of tenants but of fully-invested parties whose contributions are a prerequisite for success.

Throughout this process, leading universities recognized the importance of enabling it to happen in the first place and then doing what was necessary to keep it happening. They supported their students’ aspirations and they also injected important expertise and financial contributions. However they were constructed, all these efforts have enjoyed outstanding success. Student centres are some of the most exciting, heartwarming and effective buildings on campus. They are a testament to what committed students can do when they are given the responsibility and support by their administration. The benefits are wide-ranging and crucial to overall university effectiveness.

5. With hindsight we can perhaps realize that it may have been inevitable that, at some point, the SUs might become so successful in creating comfortable, functional and powerful venues for students that they could eventually become victims of their own success.

During my time in the campus environment I was quite aware that, while the assistance we received from the university was generally excellent, the support for the product of this student ingenuity was not universal. Some key players were rather resentful that the power of such facilities rested in student hands, and that the revenues they generated were exceeding anything they had expected. While it was then only a measure of resentment, there was always the underlying possibility that it could take on a more threatening form – initiatives aimed at diluting a hitherto-successful building governance model or staking claims to some or all of the building revenues. That damaging scenario was most likely to unfold if the university were to encounter fiscal stress.

When I reflect on all those years of working for students, and I often do, one thought always makes me smile. Canada’s really successful SUs – and U of C’s certainly fits into that category – have mastered something unique and special. They have consolidated into one organization all the qualities we want to see in Canadian society, and in doing so they have succeeded where politicians often come up short. Amalgamating Advocacy, Service, Space and Business within one entity requires SUs to draw on the best of each political ideology without being derailed by the dogma that divides parties. Students who experience that energy, whether as a leader or a beneficiary, can be forever changed by it. A successful SU is like a microcosm of so much that we want to see in Canadian society, and enlightened university leaders will do everything in their power to lend support.

Good faith is the rock upon which the relationship between a university and its SU must be founded. If it is present there is no end to the things the parties can do together, and the university can attain heights reached by only the best of the best. Good faith always finds a route to success and solution.

But if the good faith is breached by either party, the reverberations can last for decades – to the detriment of the university as a whole. The joy of energizing and successful cooperation is replaced by mistrust, suspicion and a tendency to seek-out issues rather than solve them.

I wouldn’t poke my head above the parapets of retirement unless I thought the issue was extremely important. This issue is extremely important because so much is at stake. The current impasse has the clear capability of inflicting lasting damage on a relationship that is absolutely vital to the future success of both parties.

Whether we are a university president, students’ union president, board chair or someone filling a support role to any of those positions of leadership, we must always remember that we are “one in a line”. It’s something that the leading student associations emphasize heavily in their annual changeover processes for assimilating a new student leadership group into the organization. The central point is that if we fall short in fulfilling our responsibilities during our term of office, we fail our predecessors and we deepen the challenges for our successors. That is a burden nobody should wish to carry.

The fundamental message I would like to respectfully offer is that this issue needs to be resolved outside the courts, because to pursue a solution within them will cast a very long shadow. I would hope, and certainly expect, that the folks in the SU would be keen to pursue a negotiated resolution. However, having spent well over one-third of my life in that kind of environment, I can fully understand why there is such deep frustration that all the student time, effort, ingenuity and money expended over many years is now being seen as worthy of mere tenant status – despite many historical indications that a more substantive role was always intended. Every single SU executive I served with during my 25 years (and that includes people who are now MPs, MLAs, big-city mayors and top corporate executives) would view such a development as an unwarranted slap in the face for the organization and their predecessors. The sting would last – and so would the consequences.

I wish you well in your efforts to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible.

W.D. (Bill) Smith