In the early hours of Friday morning, SSMU’s Legislative Council voted on two motions with huge implications for the future of the society. In a confidential session, the council voted in favour of signing a new Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the McGill administration, and voted against accepting the administration’s current lease proposal for the Shatner Building.
The MoA, which outlines the legal relationship between SSMU and the university, is up for renewal this year. The document contains a controversial section on the use of the McGill name by student groups. The result of last week’s vote to accept the document will effectively force up to 130 student associations who use ‘McGill’ in their name to rename and re-brand themselves.
McGill has sought to make changes to the names of student groups on campus since the 1990s. Their chief concerns with the explicit use of the McGill name by student groups, such as the McGill First Aid Service, are related to liability and reputation. The administration argues that it is often difficult for outsiders to tell whether a group is run by students or the university’s administration.
Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning, expressed the administration’s viewpoint in an email to the Tribune.
“The administration is … responsible for ensuring that the McGill name continues to enjoy the same prestige that it currently does,” he wrote. “The primary beneficiaries of this are McGill students and alumni, because it is the ‘brand’ of McGill’s credentials, including degrees and transcripts, that we are protecting.”
There was strong student opposition to the MoA vote at council. Groups held signs reading ‘We are all McGill’—a tongue-in-cheek reference to Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s email to faculty and students on Oct. 18. Many attendees voiced their concerns.
“We are McGill’s brand, and they want to try to protect it. This rationale makes sense if we’re in a corporation, but we’re in a university,” Josh Redel, president of the Engineering Undergraduate Society, said. “As soon as we lose this, we lose many of the things we fight for.”
“I feel kind of hoodwinked by my university, trying to take away the name McGill from tons of students who, like me, have done tons of effort to make this campus a better place in the name of McGill,” echoed Allan Cyrill, a former executive of the EUS.
In spite of overwhelming student opposition, councillors knew that the name use agreement they had reached was probably the best that they would be able to negotiate. While this year’s MoA means the loss of the McGill name for many clubs, the current agreement represents an improvement in many ways over both the 2006 MoA and the administration’s initial offers. In the 2006 agreement, new clubs could not use ‘McGill’ in their names at all, and instead had to use ‘SSMU.’ Though many existing groups will have to rename themselves this year, they will have a number of name change options which include using the phrase ‘McGill Students.’ SSMU also fought to have the right to grandfather some names of historical importance and names which clearly imply that a group is student-run, like the McGill Debating Union. The administration will provide $25,000 to help groups with the cost of having to undergo a name change, as some groups may have to change their official gear.
Maggie Knight, President of SSMU, and Emily Yee Clare, VP University Affairs of SSMU discussed the vote with the Tribune. As SSMU’s principal negotiators with the administration since June, they felt they had a personal stake in the motion and abstained from the vote, but discussed the major points the council saw in favour of voting for the MoA.
“It was sad,” Clare said of the atmosphere in the room following the vote, “especially because I think we’re all human. The sad thing is I think we agreed with … everything the gallery members said … but we still had to look at the implications of not signing it and looking at what fundamentally would be in the best interest for students.”
“I think we had to face the fact that it wouldn’t have been possible to renegotiate the MoA, specifically to do with the McGill name, without a substantial change in tactics or ideology on the part of the university,” Knight said. “We spent many long hours in negotiations … expressing to them every argument we’ve heard from our constituents and every argument we could think of trying to communicate just how important many groups feel like their names are.”
Importantly, the administration did not want to renew SSMU’s lease of the Shatner Building or of the SSMU Daycare (which is a separate entity from SSMU) until SSMU signed the MoA. The previous lease expired May 31, 2011, and SSMU is currently operating in Shatner without a legal agreement. The desire to secure a lease for Shatner was an important motivator for councillors to accept the MoA. By law, universities are only required to provide student societies with a room and a phone.
Council voted not to accept the lease as currently proposed. McGill offered to sign a 15-year lease and also wants to implement a new fee structure. Ultimately, the council found that current estimates of the long-term financial consequences would strain the society, according to Knight and Clare. Based on their calculations, signing the lease as it currently stands would have forced SSMU to increase student fees in the long term. SSMU would have been responsible for paying an increasing portion of the building’s utilities each year, which representatives of the society say would be unsustainable.
The administration wanted to sign all three documents, but Knight and Clare hope McGill will renegotiate the terms of the lease now that they have the council’s mandate to sign the MoA.
—Additional reporting by Carolina Millán Ronchetti