I want my five minutes back.
…Or at least that is what I felt after reading Liam Ledgerwood’s opinion piece, “I want my money back” in last week’s issue of Arthur.
Every year the Trent community delivers a few new faces bemoaning the alleged tyranny of student levy groups. And while the faces may change from year-to-year, the arguments remain largely the same.
Almost always hyperbolic, and sometimes outright deceptive, it is fortunate for the organizations defending their existence from such perspectives that the clichéd and repetitious framing of levy groups as fiscally coercive monsters has been mostly diffused by an equally consistent presentation of the facts.
Identifying the existing governance structures and fiscal accountability measures to which Trent levy groups are already beholden has often provided sufficient balm to calm the inflamed rhetorical postures of this relatively small group of aggrieved individuals.
So, let us briefly take a moment to review some of these provisions, shall we?
1. Each year, all levy groups must produce financial statements in order to receive their levy checks, providing an important check and balance measure over financial operations.
2. Many levy groups at Trent are formerly incorporated entities under the jurisdiction of provincial and federal law, thus creating a legal requirement for accurate financial reporting.
3. Related to the above point, many levy groups contract with independent bookkeepers in order to ensure the accuracy and integrity of their financial activities, thus reducing the possibility of abuse.
4. Most organizations consist of democratically elected, voluntary boards made up of individuals representative of the Trent and/or Peterborough communities. Such members have a fiduciary (read: legal responsibility) to act in a way that prohibits fiscal impropriety.
5. Lastly, given the relationship of levy groups to the larger student community, one that is in general intensely public, there are greater standards for transparency and accountability. Unlike the contractual and legislative arrangements that uphold the financial anonymity of private corporations currently operating on campus — including Aramark (food services) and Follett (the book store) — you’d be hard pressed to find any levy group that maliciously conceals their financial statements from those seeking clarification on how resources were allocated. To avoid practices of proactive disclosure would be akin to accepting the risk of a mostly justified public lashing.
If that weren’t enough to quell this hyperbolic tide, all full-time undergraduate students possess the ability to determine the fate of specific levy groups through their participation in TCSA elections. Both elections and referenda provide the motivation for levy groups to ensure they are communicating with their membership, demonstrating efficacy and providing evidence of accountability to the larger Trent community.
Failure in any of the above domains may well result in the rejection of a particular proposal, an outcome that has occurred at Trent and will doubtlessly occur again. The novelty, however, is that through the experience of such dismissals, many groups have undertaken innovative and self-reflective efforts to revision their operations and services to the benefit of themselves and the larger Trent community.
It is nice that individuals like Mr. Ledgerwood possess the social and economic capital to determine the location of their charitable agency. But the majority of people do not have this privilege, and casting levy groups in the same light as competitive businesses that should sell products and services lest they risk certain death only serves to widen the divide between those that have this access and those who do not.
This argument is also morally and economically disingenuous. For example, we should be inclined to consider how levies support initiatives that would not survive the transition to an exclusively market-based environment. For example, should Peterborough’s Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, a key provider of support services for survivors of sexual violence, and which is partly funded through a student levy, be disbanded due to their failure to sell a necessary number of widgets on the open market? The same can be said of the many student-supported organizations that engage in direct service delivery, provide educational activities, and otherwise make Trent and Peterborough a more livable and engaging environment — all conditions that in other ways assist Trent in establishing competitive advantage vis á vis other post-secondary institutions.
Many conservatives and self-styled libertarians, in their insistence upon a mostly fictitious narrative of market sanctity, might be inclined to answer such questions in the affirmative — accompanied, of course, by the usual allusions to emotionally-vested, yet characteristically hollow, concepts of “freedom” and “liberty”.
But the notion of redistribution, cast so pejoratively in Ledgerwood’s account, at least ensures a level of access that would not otherwise exist if levy groups were forced to expend the majority of their already limited time and capacity in an endless quest for baseline funding.
At the end of the day, we already possess a reasonable conclusion on the matter of student levies: We should be justifiably concerned in cases where abuse of student levies exists. This has happened in the past. But most organizations, if they recover from such issues, have been largely proactive in ensuring that similar circumstances are not repeated. Those that do not, well, we don’t see much of them anymore, do we?
In other words, ensuring the accountability of levy groups does not necessitate a witch-hunt, nor does it require the creation of an imagined crisis of rampant fiscal abuses in order to motivate a case for dramatic reforms.
We should all take this into consideration the next time Trent students are confronted with similarly hyperbolic and distortive overture to the contrary.