SSMU to give opt-outable groups chance to speak out

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The Students’ Society is gearing up to help opt-outable groups and services to protect their revenues. SSMU Vice-President Clubs and Services Anushay Khan announced at SSMU Council this week that roundtable discussions with several such groups—which include several SSMU services, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group, and CKUT Radio—led Khan to offer them a chance to provide more information about themselves to students. The move comes in the wake of last semester’s controversy between Conservative McGill and QPIRG.

While SSMU has always offered postering space in the Shatner Building to these groups, Khan said, this year it intends to expand their ability to reach constituents. This includes more posters in Shatner, electronic signage, and, starting next year, a chance to offer short descriptions of what they do in the first edition of the SSMU listserv.

According to Khan, the issue is  SSMU’s responsibility. Even student groups unaffiliated with SSMU are working to benefit students, she said, and many provide services that SSMU cannot offer directly. Opt-outs therefore, can pose a financial strain for SSMU.

Moreover, Khan cited a motion regarding opt-outs passed at the October 2007 General Assembly. It called for SSMU to “take every reasonable action to reclaim and protect the sovereignty and independence of all campus student groups and activities” and attempt to “put an end to the online opt-out system recently created by the University such that campus groups shall be in charge of their own opt-out process.”

Khan said this may be controversial, but it provides a clear directive for her to act upon.  

“If any other student group came to me with a request, I would have to help them too,” she said, “with SSMU’s mandate and goals in mind and regardless of my personal opinion.”

The resolution opposes online opt-outs only. Khan called the opt-out system a good idea in and of itself. Due to its easy execution, she said, opting out often results from  misinformation.

Khan’s evidence for this is the growth of “shadow opt-outs,” whereby students opt out of all possible services rather than one or two explicitly political causes. These account for the majority of student opt-outs. The solution is to either  change the system, or to create a better forum for providing information—even if only one side of the opt-out debate ends up speaking.

Access to information was the subject of another new initiative announced at council this week: a new SSMU website, with an initial price tag of $31,000. The site has been in the process of a steady overhaul since a 2007-08 redesign that first changed the site from text-based HTML to a more user-friendly and frequently updated page.

Citing concerns that what was intended as a temporary fix is still fairly unusable,  SSMU VP Finance and Operations Nick Drew plans a redesign of the website to make it a one-stop shop that will be easier to navigate.

Drew justifies the website’s cost by pointing to Plank Multimedia, Inc., the company SSMU is hiring to redo the website. The Montreal-based organization has designed websites for clients like Michael Moore, the Bell Centre, and the Canadian Medical Association. Drew explains that companies with less expensive quotes could not do what he wanted—design a high-quality site on an open source platform that would minimize future update costs—and tended to refer him to Plank as a company that could offer the level of expertise necessary.

The website will also spell the end of SSMU’s short-lived Book Bazaar. Drew plans to save money by moving it completely online as of next year as part of a broad online marketplace. While this will overlap with existing services like McGill Classifieds and MUS Classy, Drew posited that this will be more advanced than such rivals and more trustworthy than sites like Craigslist and Kijiji.

“We’re looking to do something more dynamic,” he said, “with pictures and a more appealing look so students know exactly what they’re buying.”  

The site will also feature an “auto-expire” feature that removes items when they are no longer available, and will be limited to student buyers and sellers.