Monday, March 16, 2009

Campus Corner: A momentous day

One of the things we often forget about democracy, especially at the level of student politics, is the impact some decisions can have. That was evident at tonight's AMS Annual General Meeting, where around 800 students packed Ban Righ Cafeteria and almost unanimously approved the athletics department's request for a $120 fee increase [myself, Queen's Journal] over four years. It's easy to see why we often have voter apathy, though; much of the rest of the meeting was consumed with the petty squabbles and meaningless arguments more frequently found in politics, and it's a credit to those who managed to stick it out until the Athletics motion. Still, this one decision was incredibly important and will be remembered as such. Yes, there was a long process of research, polling and discussion leading up to today, but in the end, the future direction of the department all came down to this vote. Without the increase, Queen's sports would have been reduced to a shell of their former selves; with it, the stage is set for a further push towards excellence. That's why March 16, 2009 may be a day long remembered by those who follow Queen's sports.

Tonight's meeting was not an isolated event, though. I spoke with Director of Athletics and Recreation Leslie Dal Cin about the result shortly after the motion, and we talked about how this was part of the logical evolution of the department that started shortly after her appointment [Brennan Leong, Queen's Journal]. In fact, some of the issues even predate her involvement. The introduction of entrance athletic financial awards, for example, has led to massive shakeups [myself, Queen's Journal] in how Ontario universities approach their athletic programs and was one of the key factors in the long-running and long-delayed Athletics Review [myself, Queen's Journal]. One of the key recommendations in that review was raising the student athletics fee to a point where it was one of the top five in Ontario [myself, Queen's Journal].

Actually, this increase is more ambitious than that; with the $120 tacked on to the current fee of $131.75, Queen's becomes the OUA school with the highest athletic fee, narrowly edging out the University of Toronto (according to the comparative information provided by the athletics department). 11 of the 18 OUA schools have said they'll be looking for a fee increase in the next two years, though, so Queen's may not retain that distinction for long.

I was happy to see this fee pass with so much support; I figured it would be a much tougher challenge given students' natural opposition to parting with more money and the magnitude of the increase, plus the widespread apathy towards varsity athletics that seems to exist on campus. It was a tremendously smart decision on the part of Athletics to first find out how many people were generally in favour of a fee increase via referendum (72 per cent) and then use that and the information on the services students value to create a specific number for the increase that could be passed at Assembly and then the AGM. Referendums on campus are characterized by apathy; most people have one or two issues they care about, and fill out the rest of the ballots either at random or without a lot of thought. Some don't care about any issue, but vote to earn their free coffee. A $120 increase is much tougher to pass in that climate, especially as there's no opportunity to explain why it's needed or what it's for.

By contrast, the Annual General Meeting route is still quite democratic. Any student can attend and vote (although not all have the time), but the effort that's required to do so means that the people who turn out are those passionate about the issue (in this case, at least half the crowd appeared to be varsity athletes). There are several legitimate concerns about this increase, and many have been addressed during the various discussions to this point, but the key factor here is that this increase was hardly rammed down students' throats. It's up for debate if as many people would have supported it in a campus-wide referendum; what this did prove is that those who support the increase were much more organized, passionate and effective about it. The opportunity for dissent was there, but it was barely taken; most of the criticisms I've heard on the issue were only raised by one Tyler King on his radio show, and he didn't bother to speak about the motion at any of the meetings along the way. I'm sure there are others who share his concerns, but apart from one economics student who complained about the magnitude of the fee tonight (mostly because he wanted money for his own pet project, a climate-change audit of the university) and the 5-10 people who voted against the increase, there wasn't much dissent voiced. To me, that shows that Queen's students are at least as apathetic about long meetings and votes as they are about going to varsity games.

It's interesting to look back at how Athletics has evolved over my time at Queen's. There have been plenty of changes, some I have heartily supported and some I have disagreed with. The overarching narrative has been one of a department moving towards a professionally-run excellence-driven approach. Sure, there have been missteps along the way, but those happen in every organization. Overall, though, it looks to me like they're heading in the right direction with full-time coaches, athletics scholarships and some great new facilities that should open this fall. This new funding is an important step towards that kind of excellence-driven model. Moreover, undergraduate students have now shown that they're strongly behind athletics, which is something the department can hopefully leverage to get further support from the graduate students, the University and the alumni. This decision isn't the end of the road, as there are still many changes to come and the cuts to athletics from the University mean that the impact of this student support is lessened. However, it is an important milepost along the way.

1 comment:

  1. Big V7:26 AM

    Thanks for the article, I was supposed to go to the AGM, but i was busy with other sporting commitments.

    I remember the AGM for the Queen's centre, there was one person who was adamant that the motion not pass, but clearly everyone else in the building was all for building the queen's centre.