Why we served the university with the MacHall Statement of Claim

November 2, 2015  |   Found in MyMacHall Dispute // News

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, I instructed the Students’ Union’s lawyers to serve the University of Calgary and the Board of Governors with our lawsuit related to student ownership of MacHall. I want to go into detail about why, after two and a half years, it has gotten to this point and to explain the SU’s position further.

First a recap: The SU and the university’s administration have been engaged in negotiations of the management of MacHall for more than two years. The SU has managed the majority of the building for more than four decades and the pending expiry of our management agreement prompted these discussions. At the first negotiation meeting in 2013, the university referred to students as a “tenant” in the building. So, through 2013 and 2014, we began digging through old files to gain a better understanding of our role and the total investments students made in the building. We found many documents, including the original building agreement, clearly stating that the Students’ Union paid for and owns 55% of the building. Further, in every subsequent expansion or renovation of MacHall, students paid far more of the costs than the university. This evidence is clear. See our financial summary fact sheet for the full breakdown.

When we brought our evidence of student ownership of MacHall to the university’s administration they responded by saying the topic was a “non-starter” – they wouldn’t even discuss it and reiterated that any future agreements would list the SU as a tenant and the university as the owner. The university’s current administration dismissed our evidence out of hand and would not provide any substantial evidence or reasoning as to why they refused to discuss the building’s ownership. To date, the university has provided us with absolutely nothing to the contrary. This still confuses me and my team. By the university’s own admission, the SU has done a great job managing and operating the building – but for some reason they can’t accept the idea that students are co-owners.

Last September, administration informed the SU that the current management agreement would terminate on Dec. 9, 2015. Since we didn’t know exactly what position the SU would be in if the deadline passed, we continued to meet with the administration to work towards a new agreement. We negotiated in good faith, being upfront and honest with the administration about our actions and our commitment to reaching a deal.

When I started my term as president and became involved in the negotiations, my first request to the university was for this termination to be rescinded. They refused.   I first made the request in June, one month after I started. They did not come to the negotiating table until Sept. 9, four months into my one year term, even though we had offered to get started on this in July. The first thing that the university’s current administration said when we met was that the termination notice was not going to be rescinded because it put pressure on both sides to get a deal done quickly. They were still unwilling to discuss students’ ownership of MacHall.

With the termination date of the current agreement rapidly approaching, the SU realized we face a number of imminent threats. In their recent public statements, the university’s current administration confirmed that when the agreement terminates, they intend to take over revenues from the building and restrict students’ ability to decide how the space or revenues are used. This loss of this revenue and decision-making would cripple most of the student programs and services that students enjoy. The SU would be left making very difficult decisions about which programs, services, initiatives, and advocacy that we can continue to offer to students. Clearly, the university is taking a hostile position towards students.

By having this termination hanging over us, we were basically being forced to negotiate under duress. In order to protect students’ investments in the building, in April the SU filed a Statement of Claim with the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta. The main reason we did this was to act on legal advice to preserve the legal option if talks failed.  I did not want to be forced to sign a bad deal for students just to meet an arbitrary deadline in order to avoid our worst case scenario.

While the university offered to extend the agreement and have it terminate next April – it came with an unreasonable condition: students would be required to drop any potential legal action regarding ownership of MacHall. This was not something I could consider – by withdrawing the Statement of Claim we would effectively give up the ability to pursue our ownership claim without any guarantee that an agreeable deal could be reached. Again, the university has consistently and explicitly ruled out discussing ownership at all, and it has not provided any reasoning for this position, nor offered any conclusive evidence that students ever gave up ownership of MacHall.

While most of the negotiations to this point had taken place behind closed doors – as most negotiations do – we decided to take the matter public in September when it was clear that there were major hurdles to get over with the Dec. 9 deadline fast approaching. The SU believes all students deserve an answer on ownership and should be aware of the issues.

The lead negotiator for the university is Provost Dr. Dru Marshall. Since oversight of her position is provided by President Elizabeth Cannon and the Chair of the Board of Governors, Bonnie DuPont, I decided to appeal to them and ask that they step in and prevent the deteriorating negotiations from heading to court. President Cannon and Ms. DuPont doubled down on the university’s position on Oct. 19 by saying they would not be discussing ownership at all, again without providing any reasoning for this position.

That is why on Oct. 21, 2015, I directed the SU’s lawyers to serve the Statement of Claim to the University of Calgary and the Board of Governors. This gives the defendants until Nov. 12, 2015 to file their Statement of Defense which would begin to reveal the university’s overall position in this matter.

It goes without saying that I wish we would never have gotten to this point. But the SU has an obligation to uphold student interests at this university, including protecting the tens of millions of dollars that students have invested into MacHall. I’m disappointed that the university’s current administration isn’t willing to acknowledge, much less discuss, the SU’s 50 year ownership stake and $19 million investment. Students paid all this money with the caveat that they would be owners and we’re going to continue to take every measure possible to ensure that this promise is upheld.

More information can be found here.

Levi Nilson, SU President.