USSU president Scott Hitchings is an old hand at working for the executive; he served as vice-president operations and finance for the two past years before running uncontested for the organization’s highest student position.
When asked why he wanted the position, Hitchings responded that he wants to “be the student voice when it matters.” The provincial election scheduled for Nov. 7, 2011 will give Hitchings a chance to speak for students, and he intends to take it.
“We want to be focusing on student debt,” he said of his plans to lobby politicians during the election. “Most students have debt, and debt is not a good thing. It shouldn’t take $40,000 of debt to get through school.”
Hitchings began his term over the summer by working with the rest of the executive to rewrite the USSU’s bylaws with the help of U of S political science professor Don Story, an expert in non-profit organization governance. This task is mostly complete, though there are a few revisions remaining.
“There are a few changes that we’re taking to the student societies [of each college] to see how they feel about them,” Hitchings said. “We want to take over the [member of student council] election because the position is a USSU position, but the elections have been run by the student societies.”
Each college elects members to sit on University Students’ Council, which meets each week and oversees the actions of the USSU. Hitchings explained that since USC acts as the USSU executive’s board of directors, “it should be us running the elections, not the student societies.”
In an effort to get students more involved in USSU activities, Hitchings plans to hold more events that will pique their interest. He points to the annual “Does God Exist?” debates, which are organized by campus clubs and brought in an audience of several hundred last year.
“We want to be putting on events that are not necessarily religious like that,” he said, “but current events that students care about.”
Two events he cited are the upcoming talk Amira Hass will give and an expanded sustainability awareness week.
Hass is an Israeli journalist who will discuss the state of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and conflict.
Hitchings said the focus on sustainability has not been fleshed out yet, but in light of the fact that the USSU already promotes environmental causes through “Green Yourself Week,” he suggested either a more intense effort there or a possible celebration of World Water Day.
His main goal, though, will be to make the USSU more accessible and interesting to students. Hitchings mentioned more than once his desire to get the USSU out of the habit of “setting up a table in the Arts Tunnel or putting up a poster and hoping people show up.”
VP Operations & Finance
Reid Nystuen is taking over as vice-president of operations and finance, succeeding Scott Hitchings, who oversaw the USSU’s books for two years and is now president.
Nystuen just completed a finance degree from the Edwards School of Business, where he was a student council representative for three years. In the spring he ran his election campaign on a platform of stringent financial restraint.
The operations and finance job includes preparing the annual budget, arranging the audit, dealing with campus clubs and responsibility of all union operations — for example, Louis’ and Place Riel. Additionally, with the elimination of the vice-president external affairs position, transit and transportation issues have been transferred over to the operations and finance portfolio.
Nystuen said he is glad transit and transportation made their way to his desk, and sees room for improvements. Once in office it was one of the first big things he tackled, meeting with Saskatoon Transit managers and city councillors, lobbying against shutting down buses at 10 p.m., a cost-cutting measure the city has pondered as part of a services review currently underway.
He has also informed the city of his own initiatives for transit, with three main ideas being a summer U-PASS system, GPS route tracking on buses similar to Regina’s Transit Live website and renovations to the Place Riel bus mall.
He acknowledges these are long-term goals with significant costs, which realistically will not be completed by the end of the school year, but hopes to build a strong base for future vice-presidents to work from.
Early in the term, Nystuen also revised the online campus club ratification and funding request process.
“I want to improve accountability on clubs for when we give them money. In the past we would just write them a cheque and never see or hear from them again,” said Nystuen.
He said over the summer there was not much interacting with clubs, but as things pick-up in September, groups will be required to provide receipts of purchases and attempt to use USSU services with funding as much as possible.
He explains, “If groups are going to have an event, we would like them to use Louis’ or Browsers, or, if they need posters printed, print them at XL. So we give them money and they take that and spend it back in our organization.”
Nystuen noted that the Place Riel renovation is near completion, and that Treats and Harvey’s have officially opened for business, joining Mac’s, Umi Sushi, Le Crepe Bistro and Extreme Pita in the food court. He believes the success of these new tenants will be a crucial when it comes time to do the budget.
“We’ve been missing those for three years now, and that’s been a major gap [in the budget]. So having them back paying rent, plus we also get a percentage of sales, so the better they do, the better we do — we are really banking on that.”
Finally, Nystuen touched on what appears to be the over-arching theme throughout this year’s executive: student engagement. He said the completion of Place Riel will not only free up money for the USSU, but also free up time, which will allow the executive to reach out and talk to students more frequently.
“We want students to know who we are and what we do. Last spring the voter turnout was eight per cent, so we will start by using that as a benchmark,” said Nystuen. “One of the things students don’t know is that we are not volunteering. This is a job, we get paid and it’s full-time.”
VP Student Affairs
After capturing 41 per cent of the vote in March, Alex Ferwerda took over the reins as USSU vice-president of student affairs picking up where Leon Thompson left off.
Ferwerda has been studying politics and religion as an undergraduate and spent a little time with the Arts and Science Students’ Union, but for the most part, this is his first stint as a representative. He was elected utilizing a campaign equipped with QR codes, YouTube videos and T-shirts.
Ferwerda’s big election promise was centred on creating an easily approachable executive culture, and specifically, he proposed the idea of the “comment couch.” The couch, he said, will move locations around campus every few weeks and serve as an open stage to speak with students about any issues that arise.
Apparently, the entire executive has embraced the idea and we can expect to see all four of them hanging out on the couch starting Sept. 13. The first location is set for the lobby just outside the USSU offices, and will move to the Engineering Building after that.
During the summer, one of Ferwerda’s first initiatives was working with the office of sustainability to promote biking by purchasing a new bicycle repair station.
“We already had the bike tool rental service in place at the PAC, but the biggest hurdle was having to constantly advertise for it,” said Ferwerda. “With this in a high traffic area, it advertises itself.”
The station will consist of a variety of tools, including wrenches and screwdrivers, tethered with woven steel cables to a metal stanchion bolted to a concrete slab. Cyclists can hang their bikes on the stanchion, use the tools to make repairs and fill up their tires with air. The aim is to have it along the path between the Arts and Thorvaldson buildings where there’s heavy bike use.
With social justice a burning issue on campus last year, Ferwerda intends to continue working with the Indigenous Students’ Council on promoting the Take A Stand Against Racism campaign.
Moreover, he plans to collaborate with the Women’s Centre in bringing back the White Ribbon Campaign which was introduced two years ago by former vice-president of student affairs Ben Fawcett. The White Ribbon Campaign is an international movement working to end violence against women.
Above all, though, Ferwerda said he wants to help students by getting the message out about the USSU and the added value it can bring to the university experience.
“As of right now student engagement is our biggest focus,” said Ferwerda. It’s important students know about the union and the services it provides — you know, coffee, beer and help centres.”
Kelsey Topola was the only incumbent on the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union executive to be re-elected in the same position. As such, she was able to jump into working on the several projects she had already undertaken.
This has been helpful for some of the larger goals Topola has set for herself, which include introducing an ombudsperson service for students and something she came up with last year that she has tentatively titled the “professor assessor.”
“It would essentially be ”˜rate my professor’ for the U of S,” she explained. “But there were a lot of things to deal with, a lot of legal issues to go over first. So I’ve kind of been working on that one bit by bit.”
The ombudsperson would be intended to do some of what Topola and her counterpart at the Graduate Students’ Association currently do by dealing with academic grievances. But Topola envisions the new service dealing with larger, less run-of-the-mill issues.
“I’m thinking they would deal with discrimination or harassment, and other things like that,” she said. “And it would help to retain some institutional memory. Right now we have a solid [Confidential Student Support Officer] who will stay for a while, but turnover at the USSU and the GSA is really high.”
Along with the things she has already started looking into, Topola’s goals for the year include a number of big projects, from implementing a co-curricular record for students to expanding the powers of the CSSO. She says now is a good time to do this because the USSU is already re-writing its bylaws and policies, making it easier to change things like a specific person’s role in the organization.
A co-curricular record is something “many universities have already implemented,” Topola said. It is an official record of a student’s extra-curricular activities, from involvement in student politics to on-campus volunteering. It will allow students to show graduate schools and future employers a more comprehensive picture of their interests and abilities.
Topola has also been updating the USSU blog along with the other executives.
“My idealistic, pie-in-the-sky idea is that maybe this will do something to affect student apathy,” Topola said with a wry smile.
It has been a long-running campaign promise for student politicians that they will find a way to make students care about the politics and governance on their campus. But in a school that routinely has voter turnout hovering near 12 per cent for student elections, this seems unlikely.
photos: Raisa Pezderic and Peter Yee/The Sheaf