November’s AUSU Council meeting proved that an agenda that appeared straightforward on paper could turn into a meeting with a lot of discussion. A new addition to the proceedings was an acknowledgement of the land, which states that “Athabasca University Students’ Union respectfully acknowledges that we are on and work on the traditional lands of the Indigenous Peoples (Inuit, First Nations, Métis) of Canada. We honour the ancestry, heritage and gifts of the Indigenous Peoples and give thanks to them.” The acknowledgement statement was included after consultation with Athabasca University by AUSU and will be read at all future monthly meetings.
After the adoption of the last month’s meeting minutes and this month’s agenda, Council began to discuss the current action items.
The first item was the cancellation of the current proposal for the AU student bookstore that had been in the works for the past several years. AUSU had been working closely with the staff and administration of AU and was a major contributor to formulating the policy that would give AU students more choice in how they would purchase their course texts and in what format, something that AU students have been anticipating for a long time. AUSU President Brandon Simmons related the news that the original way that AU was looking to create the bookstore was not going to work, according to AU, so the student bookstore plan has been shelved until another viable solution can be reached. President Simmons said that a meeting with AU’s Provost was scheduled for the Friday following the meeting, and both Council and AU’s working group will be continuing to work hard to find a workable plan to implement a student bookstore.
The next items were the second reading of the bylaw revisions as well as the fiscal policy revisions that AUSU has been undertaking during the past several months. Past Council meetings have enabled people to share their views, so no further thoughts or issues with the current state of the bylaw revisions were brought forward at this meeting. Natasha Donahue, the VP of Finance and Administration, gave an overview of the improved financial policy and President Simmons highlighted one particular point of the policy, regarding what restricted funds are and how they are used. He said that reserves are not defined only as investment accounts, but instead refer to any funds not expected to be needed for normal operations over the year.
The bulk of AUSU’s excess funds are in investment accounts but they are also held in restricted funds, and some also function as operating accounts. Reserve funds exist to make sure the funds go to where they are needed, such as to The Voice, but also maximise the use of funds. If loss of revenue or changes from AU should occur, then these funds serve as a cushion. Spreadsheets will keep track of these funds and where they are designated to. It is up to council to keep these spreadsheets up to date. All councillors were in favour of the fiscal policy, and both revisions were adopted with no objections.
The next section of the meeting led to the bulk of the meeting’s discussion time. AUSU council sought to approve the removal of all position policies from the AUSU website and also approves the development of an internal position policies document. VP Donahue provided some background to this action item, noting that Council have been in discussions about this matter since last summer. The alternative to public position policies are press releases, which are used by other schools to, in part, eliminate having to maintain position policies. Position policies would still exist but would be only internal, which would give perspective to council, as well as inform advocacy and hold the research on background information.
AUSU researched other position policies as well as CASA policies. Council’s ultimate goal is to create an actual, formalized policy manual. Voice Editor Karl Low brought up a point at the beginning of the meeting, during the new open question period that Council has added for students and other members who want to bring up their thoughts about items on the agenda before the actual meeting takes place, that public documents can provide bargaining leverage.
Councillor Julian Teterenko noted that he felt the policies should not be removed from website until there is something to replace it, as the initial motion suggested removing it while the new policy manual was developed and agreed that students also need to be able to see the positions of AUSU.
Councillor Alice Namu gave her view that she does not support the move in the interest of transparency and access to information, and pointed out that because of AU’s distance learning format, it has enough barriers already when it comes to the access to information compared to other institutions, especially when thinking of AU’s student demographic. However, Executive Director Jodi Campbell noted that they had heard in their investigations on this issue that position policies can be misinterpreted and can put a student union at risk when it is questioned about what a position really means. Another point he noted is that “Part of the concept of best practice is also mitigating risk. We don’t want to have a differing policy from CASA as it can cause issues too with that conflict.” He went on to say that best practice, and what AUSU strives to do, is also responding to situations in the moment as they arise. He summed up his position by saying, “The decision that AUSU is taking is based on industry best practice and with lots of consultation as to what is happening across industry.”
VP Student and External Affairs Melinda Goertz assured the rest of Council that Governance and Advocacy Coordinator Emmanuel Barker, working with the AUSU Executive, has done due diligence in researching the stance that Council is attempting to take, and reiterated that most student organizations are not publicly posting these documents, which are designed to be internal. The question was again asked whether it’s necessary to open up any council to possible external scrutiny. However, many other Councillors were not satisfied with this approach.
The discussion between Councillors continued for some time and debated the merits of position policies versus any replacements such as press releases or other public disclosures. Some of the points raised were that press releases on their own can lead to confusion, and whether CASA policy itself can be misinterpreted. Another point said that removing the policy from the website could lead to accusations of non-transparency.
Despite the conversation around this issue appearing to not make any headway among Councillors, this was not the case. Executive Director Jodi Campbell said that he was pleased to see so much engagement and discussion, and that this issue reflects the larger one of community engagement and the necessity for any organization to build robust policy. On the whole, Council executive was hopeful that a suitable solution will be found. One solution that was put forward, that seemed to meet the agreement of most Councillors, was to develop the fuller policy manual, with the research and reasoning included as suggested, but to limit what was placed on the website to final action point of the policy, the “Be It Resolved That” section, as this would address the points of mitigation of risk, availability to students, transparency, and others. The current motion, which had to be voted on as it was written on the agenda, was unanimously voted against, and Council agreed to revisit it in future.
November’s executive reports also resulted in discussion and many points raised, in part because the timing of the meeting meant that reports had to be in before the last few days of the month, and a significant amount of work happened in those few days. The President’s report highlighted the Alberta Government’s recent announcement of Bill 19, where President Simmons was able to attend. Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt recently announced that there was going to be another year of academic tuition freeze, where tuition for domestic students cannot be raised higher than the consumer price index (CPI). This will be put into legislation. Another piece in the government’s legislation is that international students will receive the quote for their fees up front. The government has not typically applied the terminology of “domestic students” to mean non-Albertan students. He noted also that what happens to Alberta tuition helps to set the standard for what happens for out of province students in other regions as well, meaning that this legislation was of significant importance.
In addition, President Simmons highlighted the work in getting a replacement for Student Lifeline, especially with Mental Health support. A lot of work was done to try to ensure that AU was ready for the release and was able to get all that in place and do a Facebook live event to go over everything happening with the new program.
Vice President Finance and Student Affairs Melinda Goertz attended the Alberta Student Executive Council (ASEC) conference as a visitor, ASEC is primarily colleges and polytechnic institutes rather than full universities. Two priorities emerged from the conference: an increase of funding for open education resources, and, transparency of government funding and spending. She noted that she had a few concerns with the operational functionality of ASEC, but she needed to gather more information so couldn’t make an official recommendation yet.
VPFA Natasha Donahue highlighted the need for Indigenous student support at AU. She was working with the transition to AU’s mental health program from AUSU’s and provided input to their student guide and marketing materials, and noted that it hasn’t been the smoothest initiative. She also was involved with a project to make a video for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services about dealing with sexual violence. She was able to share thoughts on questions the association was talking about as a representative for AUSU. She was glad that AU got to contribute. The #IBelieveYou campaign is funded by the government of Alberta, and in 2018 AU was the last organization to join in as the others did the year before. She also noted that this was an initiative pushed first by Councillor Lisa Oracheski, and it was great to have been able to carry it to AU so that they can be directly involved in the coming years.
The meeting was then adjourned.
There is currently no scheduled meeting for December, and it is expected there won’t be one unless something urgent arises, so the next meeting is currently scheduled for Thursday, January 10th, 2019, 6:30pm MST. All students are invited and can go to https://www.ausu.org/event/january-2019-council-meeting/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.