Student Union Building referendum: a breakdown
The Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) is holding an online referendum on Dec. 6-7 to determine funding for its Student Union Building (SUB) plans.
The project proposes 80,000 square feet of space be added to the current University Centre to be used for student activities, studying, and relaxing between classes. The expansion would include additional space built outward towards University Drive and upward on top of the third floor.
The plans for the SUB have been in development since February through consultations with school administration over the summer and student groups this term. CUSA is currently in the process of campaigning for the referendum.
Funding for the SUB
CUSA has proposed an $80 annual fee ($40 per semester) to pay off CUSA’s portion of the building’s cost, to be implemented when the building is completed. This is projected to first occur during the 2020-21 school year.
Total costs for the project are estimated to be around $42 million, according to CUSA president Fahd Alhattab, with the full cost to be paid up-front by the university if the referendum passes.
Alhattab said CUSA would pay for $20 million through the proposed fee, and the proposed $40 per semester would be tied to inflation. Current projections estimate the building would be paid off in about 30 years.
About $62 of the annual fee would pay for capital and operating costs, Alhattab added, as well as interest for the building. $18 would finance furnishing, upkeep, and renovations for the building.
A change in CUSA leadership would not affect the use of the fee, according to Alhattab, as there are measures in place to make sure the fee cannot be used for anything else other than what it was installed for.
Alhattab added the fee will be revisited by later executives to explore what costs could be lowered after the costs of the building have been paid off. Alternatively, the fee could go towards an endowment fund for the university, he said.
The referendum’s “Yes” and “No” campaigns each received $800 from the university for campaign materials and promotions. A further $5,000 was given to CUSA for informational materials about the proposed building, according to Alhattab.
According to the campaign’s informational website, the proposed building will add 24/7 lounge areas, study booths with extra outlets, silent study spaces, water refill stations, and a multi-faith centre.
For campus groups, the website states the building additions will give them more tabling space, conference space, meeting rooms, and special event rooms. There is also a proposed dance studio.
The website also states many CUSA service centres would be moved to more accessible, visible spaces.
According to Alhattab, CUSA has also reached a deal with Aramark, the university’s dining services provider. Aramark will be buying square footage in the proposed building in order to increase their dining spaces in the UC.
CUSA would retain control over the student union building’s space, according to Alhattab, and is in talks to bypass Carleton’s exclusivity agreement with Aramark, allowing other foods to be served in the building extension.
A recent point of controversy in the building’s development plans is the lack of involvement of the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) in the process.
According to GSA president Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, the GSA agrees with the principle of a student union building, but the association was not included in the consultations between CUSA and school administration during the summer.
“Right now, because we’ve been left out of the process, we have no information to give [our membership]. The only information we have has been decided by other people and not us and we feel like it’s kind of inappropriate for us to force our membership into something that we haven’t been able to greenlight.”
The GSA will be holding separate consultations and releasing their own survey to graduate students, she said.
“We want to make sure it’s as transparent as possible, that students know step-by-step what this is proposing and what they could potentially be getting themselves into if they decide to pass this referendum,” she added.
The survey sent to students earlier this month was not endorsed by the GSA, according to Owusu-Akyeeah.
“We felt the survey had very leading questions that pushed people to answer a particular way,” she said. “We had to do a lot of damage control in a very limited amount of time.”
Owusu-Akyeeah said she thinks graduate students will be more vocal about the proposed fee.
“This is definitely one where we believe we’re going to have a lot of people talking,” she said.
According to Alhattab, if the GSA fails to pass their own referendum in the spring, the project will go forward nonetheless, but the proposed space will be smaller.
Alhattab said CUSA did not want to hold the referendum in March with the GSA because it would be too soon after the January CUSA elections.
“We know CUSA elections are toxic . . . I don’t want this to be about Fahd’s team or not Fahd’s team . . . it’s not about any of those, it’s about the building; do you or do you not like the building?” he added.
However, even if the GSA’s referendum doesn’t pass, graduate students will still be allowed to use the building.
“A student is a student, we don’t discriminate, we can’t discriminate . . . [but] we would ask the [GSA] to pay a yearly fee to help pay for this building.”
The SUB and Carleton’s administration
Over the summer, CUSA met with Carleton administration to plan and work out the proposal, according to Alhattab.
He said CUSA met the administration without the GSA initially because the GSA’s decision on the SUB would not affect CUSA’s decision in the matter.
He added the GSA alone would not be able to fund the project, but regardless of the GSA’s involvement, CUSA and the university would be able to go forward. After the university and CUSA came to an agreement, the GSA was invited to join as a third party.
Darryl Boyce, Carleton’s assistant vice-president (facilities management and planning), said if the funding comes through, administration will work with CUSA to design and construct the project.
“As we sort of develop this,” Boyce said, “we believe it’s a great co-operative venture between university administration and students to improve space for students.”
If the referendum does not pass, there will be no construction to build the space, according to Boyce.
Boyce said the university’s current master plan for the physical development of the campus already includes an expansion to the University Centre, but with no particular outline of what the expansion will be used for.
The university master plan is meant to be a “development strategy” with guidelines on planning how to create space to address campus needs, Boyce said, but the plan does not have a definitive timeline.
“If the referendum fails, we won’t have enough need to add on to the [University Centre] at this time,” Boyce said. “Therefore, we wouldn’t build it this time without [the referendum’s passing].”
There have been mixed reactions to the proposed SUB since the referendum was announced.
Marissa Matthews, co-president of Vaginas Against Violence, said she is supportive of the referendum and plans to vote yes.
“I think we need a student union building for many reasons. Space is one, and having the right type of spaces for a variety of different activities,” she said.
“Being president of a club—just thinking of what the student union building could do for us now gives me chills. Right now [booking space] is so much trouble . . . sometimes it needs to be booked two months ahead of time in order to get space,” Matthews added.
Ruth Lau-Macdonald, a fourth year sociology student and CUSA Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences councillor, said the referendum is happening too fast and students haven’t been given the chance to get properly informed.
Lau-Macdonald created a petition calling for more transparency and openness for the referendum that currently has more than 60 of the 100 signatures it asks for. She said she wants people to be informed about the realities of the referendum, and not just take things at surface value based on what the “Yes” campaign is saying.
“The fact that they are framing [the information] in a way that I feel doesn’t represent what’s actually going on with the project is a big issue. $20 million is how much it costs with the building, but then when you do the math on the student fee, it’s $70 million dollars over 30 years,” Lau-Macdonald said.
Lau-Macdonald also said many of the “Yes” campaign’s promises can’t be guarenteed by CUSA because the university does not need to abide by their agreements.
She added that she felt CUSA Council was being side-stepped in consultations.
“[Alhattab] has been talking about consultations with members, we haven’t seen any of that at council. He has in no way reported on that, we have not seen those numbers,” Lau-Macdonald said. “This manipulation of a system of representation is unacceptable to me.”