‘Unique beast’: Is AMS activism dead?

Just because the AMS isn’t shouting and stomping down doors doesn’t mean its work isn’t political anymore.

In 2012, Roger McAfee, former editor-in-chief of The Ubyssey in 1963 and AMS president in 1964, barged into the AMS office demanding a fight.

McAfee was angered that the Alumni Association, formerly independent from UBC, had been incorporated into the university’s jurisdiction. He was met with some confusion.

“Roger McAfee was upset,” recalled Sheldon Goldfarb, AMS archivist, who was there that day. “He said, ‘They’re an ally of the AMS — you can’t let them be absorbed, you should be on the barricades fighting!’”

He demanded to speak with the AMS president at the time, who Goldfarb describes as “a very nice guy ... but mild-mannered.”

“It was like the clash of two different eras,” Goldfarb said. “Like, here’s a ’60s AMS president who wanted [a] fight ... [but] it didn’t matter what the fight was about.

“But he thought the AMS should be on board and not just on board like, ‘Oh, yes, sign a letter or something.’ But that [they] should be fighting with us, [they] should be protesting.

“And I’m thinking, we don’t do that much anymore,” he said.

But just because the AMS isn’t shouting and kicking down doors doesn’t mean its work isn’t political anymore.

In fact, the society’s pivot in the last 30 years is a case study in how activism by student unions is staying alive as financial and political barriers close in.

One for the books

Since its establishment in 1915, the AMS has been through distinct phases of protest, activism and change. Goldfarb, author of The Great Trek: 100 Years of Student Life at UBC, describes the ’60s and ’70s as a time of “advocacy, militancy and protests.” The AMS often led impassioned demonstrations for student representation and rights — and not just at UBC.

In 1956, for instance, the AMS raised money for students of the University of Sopron in Hungary to migrate to UBC amidst Cold War tensions.

In 1969, the AMS funded and supported the Amchitka protest, where thousands of students blocked the border to protest an American nuclear test in Alaska.

Then in 1975, the AMS called for students to go on strike for one day to protest ICBC raising interest rates for young drivers.

Today, things are hardly as explosive as they were back then.

As direct political stances by the AMS have declined, its politics are moving to the individual level of how it can directly support students without claiming to speak for all of them at once.

“In recent years it has been more services, lobbying, quiet negotiation. Back in the ’60s, things were more radical.”

— Sheldon Goldfarb, AMS archivist

Student unions like the AMS are charged with representing a large student population whose only common trait is that they study at the same place. Since the opinions of individual members on political issues tend to be “all over the map,” leadership becomes key to how political or not the union tends to be, according to Dr. Mark Thompson, professor emeritus in the Sauder School of Business where he specializes in labour unions.

A key concern for student unions, according to Thompson, is who’s in government when each executive comes to power and how they can leverage their advocacy in the short year or two of their tenure. Cristina Ilnitchi, who is currently running for re-election as AMS VP External, called being partisan “detrimental” to the interests of students in the 2019 Great Debate.

“You run the risk if you get too much off the deep end on these narrow political issues, the membership reacts,” said Thompson. There is a lot student unions have to ask for from the government and the university, and they’d be hard pressed to do it while on the “enemies list” for a particular government because of a stance they took.

The changes in the AMS’s activism do not necessarily mean that the force of their advocacy efforts is any weaker than it once was, according to AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes. Rather than a more passive form of activism, Holmes believes that AMS advocacy today is better described as being “informed, data-driven and consultative.”

Alex Vanderput

For example, when the AMS recently opposed all proposed tuition fee increases by the university, it was in large part an opposition to the lack of meaningful consultation by the university. The AMS is also mandated to advocate for lower tuition.

Goldfarb, however, believes the fact that the university is obligated to consult with the AMS over issues like tuition increases alone is indicative of its progress over the years.

“In the old days, before the ’60s, the university would increase fees and the students would say, ‘Hey you didn’t tell us’... but there was no expectation that they would,” said Goldfarb.

“As a result of what happened in the ’60s, now the university has policies of its own that says, “We consult the student leadership.” That’s a win, in Goldfarb’s book.

In the Black

If the AMS has changed the way it engages with advocacy, what else has changed?

“There was this sort of debate in the late ’60s,” Goldfarb said. One side, he mentioned, was more concerned with “protesting and changing society.”

The other side, although it acknowledged the value of lobbying, was more keen to invest in supporting the clubs, creating a new Student Life Building and expanding existing AMS services.

“That’s the side that has mostly won out,” Goldfarb said.

Now, the sheer size of the AMS’s student body and bottom line are two core considerations that drive the society’s activism and strategy.

By the end of the 2018/19 fiscal year, the AMS will collect almost $22 million in student fees. About half of that money will go towards the AMS Health & Dental plan, and another $10 million will go directly towards subsidiary organizations like the Student Legal Fund, the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), a bursary fund and more that each spend their money autonomously.

Courtesy AMS

That leaves a little over $2 million called “net discretionary income” — a sliver of remaining money used to cover the

costs of administration and student services that are managed by the team of executives you are electing this week.

But student fees are supplemented by two other sources of income — investment and business operations — that are becoming an increasingly large share of the AMS’s total revenue and the society’s big picture.

The AMS is budgeted to earn $375,000 in revenue this year from investing of its $2,125,000 endowment, and returns have risen steadily since 2014/15 when investments brought in $302,000.

The AMS also accounts for the “amortization of deferred capital contribution,” which refers to assets like the Nest that

appreciate in value over time. This generates an estimated $450,000 in revenue annually.

President Marium Hamid says the AMS’s endowment and capital play an important role in building credibility with financial partners by ensuring the society is economically stable. A recent example is the AMS’s refinancing of its construction loan for the Nest with RBC, which saved tens of millions of dollars.

Recently, the AMS has also been pushing to ensure its investments are ethically operated, making headlines for divesting the endowment from fossil fuels last summer.

And while UBC has mostly rejected calls for it to divest, the AMS’s investment policy can be seen as a form of advocacy, too — one “that seems to be going well so far,” according to AMS VP Finance Kuol Akuechbeny.

Risky business

On the business side, AMS eateries finally appear to be making profits on a consistent basis following several years of losses during the AMS’s transition to the Nest — a trend that could help to society operate even more student services.

After generating a $900,000 surplus over the past fiscal year, Akuechbeny expected revenue to drop in 2019 due an increase in BC’s minimum wage and increased competition with other food outlets in the Life Building and UBC Central.

But returns from the AMS’s third-quarter financial report show that businesses have vastly outperformed expectations by 34 per cent over predicted revenue to date.

That surplus will go towards paying off the AMS’s operational debt, which currently sits at about $1 million. Once that debt is paid off, all surpluses will contribute to student services.

“Our services, if you think of it, are a fairly lean operation in the sense that for less than half a million dollars, we service 56,000 students on this campus as well as any community members who also seek out these services,” said Hamid. “So when revenues from things like Blue Chip are happening, they’re going towards making and reinforcing the services that we have.”

Eventually, Akuechbeny and Hamid expect profits will be so significant that the AMS can reduce its student fees, transitioning towards a self-sustaining model for businesses and pouring more money into services.

“If you look at things like the Gallery at the Pit, they have all come as a result of really strong students voices, whether it was a referendum that made the Gallery in its current form possible, or the Pit fifty years ago with David Suzuki, they happen as a result of a student need.”

— Marium Hamid, AMS president

It remains to be seen whether businesses and invest returns will continue to be lucrative enough to provide the AMS with significant surpluses going forward.

Hamid says a truly self-sustaining funding model with deducted student fees is well down the road — “in no way any sooner than 15 years” — but she is optimistic it will be realized eventually.

“With the attitude that our permanent staff members have — that they’ve prepared every single round of executives with that understanding that this is a reality, and this is something we can truly work on — we do build a culture where that becomes something that we are striving for.”

And underlying the importance of businesses is the idea they’re a form of advocacy, too.

“If you look at things like the Gallery at the Pit, they have all come as a result of really strong students voices, whether it was a referendum that made the Gallery in its current form possible, or the Pit fifty years ago with David Suzuki,” said Hamid, “They happen as a result of a student need.”

No crying in student politics

One might think student unions follow a rather cut-and-dry strategy for success.

But when it comes to navigating this delicate relationship between advocacy and services, investment and savings, the AMS faces challenges and opportunities in a league of its own.

“There are very few comparable student unions to the AMS in Canada, let alone in British Columbia,” said Aran Armutlu, president of the BC Federation of Students. The reasons are countless: the sheer size of its student body, its financial resources, its dedicated space, its connection to the administration, the Nest’s role as a “central hub” on campus — the list goes on.

“It really is a unique beast in that sense.”

The trade-off between advocating for students and providing them services may not be as clear-cut as many believe.

Alex Vanderput

“Services and advocacy can be intertwined, whether it’s having an ombudsperson at the studio and available or pro bono legal aid, or a food bank or a resource for any sort of mental health [issue] or things like that,” said Armutlu. “Those are the services really are tied into advocacy, right? Because we’re saying that these are things that students are struggling with, there are needed resources for right now.”

Holmes agrees that the two are inextricably linked.

“The AMS has grown over the years,” he said. “And in the past, it might have been at a point where advocacy and services were a trade-off. I don’t think that’s where we are now.”

He gave the example of the SASC and its influence on the advocacy done by the AMS on UBC’s sexual misconduct policy.

“Without a service like SASC, we would not be able to have the subject-matter experts, who ... work with survivors to inform [our] survivor-centric advocacy.”

The SASC is also a perfect example of how services themselves are political. It was established in 2003, fourteen years before the university’s first standalone sexual violence prevention and response office was established under Policy 131 in 2017.

When the AMS executive, including Holmes, Hamid and Akeuchbeny, decided to cut support services from the SASC last June, the community was vehemently opposed and the decision was quickly reversed. The executive has since apologized for the decision, and tripling funding for the Centre is up for approval by referendum this year.

“If anything, the services and the advocacy complement each other,” Holmes added. “And we’ve gotten to the point now where the AMS is able to have both, and they flourish with each other.”

Just as students are no longer storming the AMS offices, the AMS isn’t fighting for a seat at the table anymore.

“We no longer demand representation because we’ve got it,” Holmes mentioned. “... The AMS has become more of a player [in recent decades], and perhaps that changes the way things work now.”

“When you’re a player, you don’t stand outside the window and shout and wave your placard. You’re here in the room.”