What does it mean to ‘serve students’? The AMS is much bigger than its student leadership

If you follow an AMS Elections cycle, one thing becomes clear — the AMS is a lot of things. It’s a lobbying organization, a student union, a non-profit and a manager of over 300 clubs. And students always want it to do more.

At a glance, the AMS works a lot like a public body. It represents close to 60,000 members, a bigger population than all but 9 cities in BC. It provides wide-ranging services, including health and dental plans, recreation spaces and a food bank.

But look at the AMS from another angle, and it’s a small business owner trying to turn a profit.

While the AMS has been running a deficit, its student leaders and permanent staff will tell you they are working to find ways to keep it profitable.

So, is the AMS a student government or a student business? The answer, on paper, is neither.

The AMS is primarily governed by the BC Societies Act, which regulates non-profit institutions with benevolent goals. The student society qualifies under the act because it “represents the interests” of a student body.

To a lesser extent, the AMS is governed by the University Act, which formalizes the relationship between the AMS and UBC. Most importantly, UBC collects fees for the AMS — mostly through the non-tuition fees students pay at the beginning of each academic year.

In less legal terms, interim AMS President Ben Du wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey that the “core purpose of the AMS is to serve students.”

But student interests have changed dramatically since the AMS’s inception.

How did we get here?

When the AMS was established in 1915, it was more similar to your high school student council than to the institution that we now know. In UBC’s first academic year, the AMS was entirely run by 10 council members who coordinated everything from event planning to communications.

The organization had no legal structure outside the university. UBC even approved all AMS meeting minutes for the first six years it existed.

Slowly, the AMS began to set out on its own. It became an independent society in 1928 so students could raise money for a new gymnasium.

In the late 1920s, the AMS hired a general manager (now known as the managing director) to keep its growing funds in order — not a student, but a permanent staff member.

This was the start of a gradual process of “professionalization” in the society, according to AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb.

“I think [the] Council did more in those days ... one of the councillors was named the coordinator of events, and they did what our current events department does ... so it was very much less professionalized,” he said.

Today, while elected student leaders plot the strategic direction of the AMS and lead its external advocacy, a growing group of professionals run the day-to-day operations internally, from food services to HR.

Interestingly, Goldfarb wrote a paper on the AMS’s administration during his master’s degree at UBC in 1994. He interviewed then-AMS Archivist Bruce Armstrong, who said the AMS evolved from a “social organization into a commercial one” in the late 1960s.

The opening of a new Student Union Building — now the Life Building — housing restaurants like the Pit Pub and leasing space to the private sector meant businesses took on a more prominent role in funding the rest of the AMS — namely, student services.

Student services initially focused on clubs, but expanded to services we have today, like tutoring, Safewalk and the AMS Food Bank.

Like the business administration, those services eventually gained a full-time staff member to oversee them.

Some of those services have also been taken over by the university — including the gym the AMS initially incorporated to build. CareersOnline and residence dining halls also began as AMS Services, but are now run by UBC.

Fast forward

So where does all this evolution leave the AMS today?

Du wrote that the AMS fulfills its mandate “in the form of elected representatives who hold seats on decision-making bodies like the AMS Council, and the services we provide to students in the form of programming, facilities, and businesses.”

As that description would imply, the AMS’s staff chart is a sprawling tree. Alongside the five full-time elected student leaders and their staff, the managing director directly oversees seven permanent staff members with over ten people working under each of them.

One important professional function the students serve that the permanent staff of the AMS cannot is as student advocates.

Two student executive roles are dedicated to it — the VP academic and university affairs is tasked with persuading UBC to allocate more money to student priorities, while the VP external is a lobbyist for students at all levels of government.

The structure of elected student leaders of the AMS has also changed over the years. The Council has grown and shrunk, going from all operations of the AMS to primarily focusing on oversight.

Only two of the nine AMS Council committees — student life and operations — do the kind of work the original AMS Council would have undertaken.

Goldfarb said the AMS’s hiring in recent years has also been more focused on students than permanent staff.

“In the last 15 years or so the individual executives started hiring staff, student staff ... [in the past] we went to the professionals like me doing all this stuff, and some of it’s now been split off,” he said.

In his statement, Du wrote that “we recognize the importance of the UBC students who make up our membership, without whom we would have no purpose.”

In a way, that answers why the AMS is pulled in so many directions.

When the AMS started, UBC’s student population was barely 350 students. Now at more than 150 times that, the society is responding to a much larger population — and a more diverse one by any metric.