The Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) is currently undertaking a revision of the election process for the Vice-President (VP) Finance position. Given the society’s recent record of high turnover in the position and financial turmoil, the outcome of this revision will be key to defining the sustainability of the VP Finance position—a lesson that may be transferable to other executive positions. The issue of under-qualified executives is not unique to the AUS; all faculty associations must consider adding a screening process to the selection of executives prior to elections.
As student-run associations, improving the sustainability of executive positions is in the interest of all students. In paying fees to faculty associations, students have a financial stake in the success of the various undergraduate societies. In theory, democracy is the best method for representation; however, the past few years of turmoil demonstrate that student executive candidates should be screened for their ability to fulfill the responsibilities of their portfolio before being put on a ballot. A hybrid system, wherein a committee vets candidates to make sure that they have the necessary skills for the position, would fulfill the democratic and practical ideals of all faculty associations. Students will thus have a choice of candidates that are not only willing, but also able to fulfill their duties.
Student leadership positions are tasking and time-consuming. Add these demands on top of the regular full-time student trials and tribulations and the roles seem even more challenging, especially when the burden falls on a student without adequate training or experience. Recent events showed that a combination of these factors can be disastrous—the first round of internal audits had to be redone, costing the AUS $20,000, and revealed significant accounting errors to the tune of a $65,000 AUS deficit. The VP Finance position was left in tatters; no candidate ran for the position, and so the current VP Finance was appointed by the AUS Council. While such an issue is not common to all faculty associations, it proved the risk involved with relying on popularly-elected yet incompetent executives.
Reforming the process of selecting candidates would mitigate the risk of electing an inexperienced VP Finance. Faculty associations such as the AUS and the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) can look to the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS) and the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) as examples of an alternative election process. The president of the MUS is the only executive elected by MUS members—all other positions are appointed by the MUS' Board of Directors—while the EUS VP Finance is appointed by a selection committee, and is supported by a part-time professional accountant. By requiring candidates to first submit an application that is reviewed by a committee of experts—like MUS and EUS—anyone running for a position will fulfill at least the minimum requisites of a portfolio.
AUS has proposed two options for the application process: Either AUS Council will act as the committee that reviews applications, or it will be a committee formed of experts. The latter option will go further to mitigate any implicit biases within the committee by expanding the selection process beyond the AUS Council. It would also represent the diversity of groups that has a stake in the success of a specific executive portfolio. But so far, the proposal is vague. Before the referendum, the AUS must clearly outline the tasks of the committee; in so doing, it must define the requirements for each candidate while making the deliberations as transparent as possible.
Measures to elect a qualified candidate cannot be the only shield against financial trouble. If recent years have seen an increase in the responsibility for taxes and accounting, then AUS should consider more ways to reduce the burden of these duties on the VP Finance. One method would be to look into hiring a part-time professional accountant who could work alongside the VP Finance, similar to the EUS. While this would incur a cost, it would be another safety net; even if a qualified candidate is elected, there must be a sustainable and permanent position that will help mitigate the effect of any unforeseen circumstances, such as resignations, that arise. All options for paying for an additional employee must be considered so that the burden does not necessarily fall on students in the form of a fee levy. As more student faculty associations look to hiring professional staff, their executives should consider collaborating so as to share the services of such an employee as familiarity with McGill and the corporate structure of student societies is a necessary component on the job.
In voting on a referendum question within AUS, Arts students should bear in mind that changing the application process and hiring an accountant are not mutually exclusive; indeed, the two changes would complement one another in protecting the financial viability of the society.
Full disclosure: Zikomo Smith is a sports editor at the Tribune as well as External Affairs Coordinator for the Philosophy Students’ Association and a member of AUS Council. He was not involved in the editorial discussion