Observant students returning to campus this year may have noticed something different about the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Building. In response to continued budgetary constraints, SSMU has—among other initiatives—increased the presence of advertisements. However, the advertisements have been met with backlash from some McGill students, leading some to accuse SSMU of “corporatization.” Much of the criticism was fuelled by an incident at Activities Night, where the presence of a promotional booth from the bank Tangerine upset participants.
SSMU’s turn towards corporate advertising and sponsorship for revenue needs to be considered in a broader context. It is important to remember that the turn to advertisements is the result of continued budgetary problems at SSMU, for which the student body also bears a share of responsibility. The move is not a sign of increased corporatization within SSMU, but rather a reflection of the desperate financial state that has resulted in part from the growing student disengagement and distrust of SSMU.
As a student society, SSMU is responsible for funding many of the valuable campus services students might take for granted. This funding is made possible through a base fee collected from the student body every semester. But, in a Winter 2016 referendum question, students voted against the $5.50 per semester increase to the base fee paid by students; the motion failed by the narrow margin of 0.3 per cent. The failure to pass the base fee increase was undoubtedly the product of the chronic disengagement that has plagued McGill student politics—only 17.5 per cent of eligible students voted in the online referendum in Winter 2016.
SSMU’s 2016-2017 budget implemented severe cuts to cope with the failure of the base fee question: The society is currently not accepting applications for new student clubs, and has scrapped its annual yearbook in an effort to cut $230,000 in spending. In order to avoid further budgetary constraints, the Society has been forced to resort to other revenue streams, resulting in the turn to corporate advertising in the SSMU Building this year. Those who chastise SSMU for turning to sponsorships to pay its bills must remember that student voters, or lack thereof, are responsible for the society’s pursuit of alternative revenue streams.
Furthermore, while the changes at SSMU involve corporate sponsors, such activity does not reflect corporatization. The charge of corporatization implies that SSMU is allowing corporate interests to dictate its decision-making process; however, the simple fact that SSMU now relies on corporate sponsors does not necessarily mean these advertisers wield any influence over SSMU’s policies. It should also be noted that any advertisement displayed in the SSMU Building must be approved by SSMU.
If anything, the agitation over corporate advertising in the SSMU Building should serve as a reminder that SSMU works best when the student body remains positive and engaged. Students are right to speak up if they feel that their student society is erring in the wrong direction, but they must pair their concerns with a willingness to work with SSMU to reach a favourable solution. If the student body is truly concerned about SSMU’s reliance on corporate advertising, then it must find an acceptable way to support their society financially. Likewise, SSMU can help address the issue by making clear that the rise in corporate advertising is directly due to the failure of the base fee increase while urging the student body to reconsider an increase in the future.
An understanding of the nature and causes of SSMU’s current predicament must form an essential part of any discussion of the society’s turn towards corporate sponsors. Both SSMU and the student body have a crucial role in resolving issues surrounding SSMU’s shifting streams of revenue. Ultimately, SSMU provides essential funding and support to both individual students and student-led clubs and services. Given the failed base fee increase, corporate sponsorship is an understandable course of action.