The Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) recently announced that there will be a referendum on Dec. 6 and 7. All Carleton undergraduate students will have the chance to vote on whether or not they support the construction of a new, 80,000 square foot student union building.

Carleton University’s website claims the building will “act as a central hub for campus life and student services,” and will include “additional tabling space, a 24-hour study space, fifteen meeting rooms, mixed-use lounge area, increased food options, and a large conference hall with a capacity of up to 450 people.”

The referendum question reads (a bit awkwardly) as follows:

“Do you support the building a Student Union Building (SUB) as an extension to the University Centre on campus, at a fee of $40 (attached to CPI) per semester – prorated for part time students – charged only when the building is complete and ready for use?”

In this feature, the Leveller takes a closer look at what this referendum means for students in the short and long terms, and poses some important questions to consider moving forward.

The Levy Question

This is not the first time that students have discussed or had a referendum on building a student union building. Indeed, this conversation goes back many years. However, in 2013, CUSA tabled a referendum question that would have seen a SUB levy implemented immediately.

Students voted to reject the 2013 levy in part because they were unwilling to pay for a building which would not be complete in time for them to use. This helps explain why the current referendum question defers the cost of building the SUB to future students. These future students, however, will not have an opportunity to determine whether or not they want to foot this large bill and potentially indefinite levy.

Before digging deeper into the question of who pays for the SUB, let us first take a step back and look at what they will pay for.

The estimated cost of this building is $42 million. Should the referendum pass, CUSA, and consequently all undergraduate students, will become indebted to Carleton for $22 million.

The financial breakdown was laid out in the minutes of a Nov. 7 CUSA Student Union Building Committee meeting as follows: CUSA is expected to pay half the cost for the new SUB. The Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) is expected to pay $6.3 million (15 per cent). Carleton is expected to pay  $14.7 million (35 per cent).

Students will not have to pay a cent until the building is actually open for use. Best estimates place the building’s opening at four years from now.

However, as CUSA president Fahd Alhattab told the Leveller in an interview, the loan will accrue interest in the interim, as part of their agreement with the university. Alhattab went on to say that interest on the loan would be 4.7 per cent. Thus, students would be paying Carleton’s prime borrowing rate (2.7 per cent) plus an additional borrowing surcharge to the university. In addition, being tied to Canada’s prime business rate, the amount could fluctuate over time.

As it stands, the referendum does not set an official end date on the collection of the levy. However, when the term of the mortgage is up – set for full repayment over the course of 30 years – Alhattab has said the levy – which will initially be dedicated to repaying the university – will be up for review.

“Once the mortgage is paid off, then we will look into revisiting the fee and look at a few options: one, revisiting the fee and having students re-vote on it, or putting it into an endowment fund for renovations of the space,” Alhattab suggested.

When queried further about this endowment fund, he added, “The endowment fund will then be put in the name for CUSA to be used for maintenance, to be used for renovations, but then additionally for CUSA services and student services.”

The fact still remains that the referendum question, at present, does not address the continuation or discontinuation of the levy and no current agreement exists to address it.

Of Contract and Ownership

The absence of a formal agreement has raised the ire of some students but has not phased the CUSA president.

“The university is not interested in getting into the nitty gritty when they’re not even sure the students actually even want [the SUB],” said Alhattab, they are not interested in “negotiating a contract on something that doesn’t actually exist.” He pointed to the agreed upon Functional Program Study as well as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) currently being distributed and debated upon between the two students unions and admin.

While the details of the MOU are unknown to the Leveller at press time,  the absence of a formal agreement is concerning for the GSA.

“There needs to be a clear agreement on how the management of the space would function,” said Taylor Howarth, the GSA’s VP Finance. “Unfortunately, at this point in time, no agreement exists.

“The GSA is concerned that the two student associations will not have much bargaining power if students commit to funding a building without a written framework that details how the building will operate,” Howarth told the Leveller via email.

Although CUSA’s website notes that, “the proposed building would be majority-owned by students,” actual ownership is off the table.

“Ideally any new student space that is paid for by students would be student owned, but the University has indicated it is not an option,” said Howarth. “Students should know that senior administration has no intention of allowing student ownership over any extension of the University Centre.”

“If ownership is unattainable, the GSA would insist upon a long term lease, along with a building management committee that has majority student representation,” she said.

Despite students paying for the majority of this building (along with millions of dollars in interest), Alhattab admitted that student ownership was not possible.

“One of the things about ownership of actual land that is on public property, because universities are public properties, can’t actually happen by private corporations, and all students associations are technically private corporations,” Alhattab explained.

In lieu of ownership, CUSA is looking at securing a 100-year lease which will give CUSA full control over the portions of space it has paid for, according to Alhattab.

Further, the formation of a SUB Management Group — which will include one representative each from CUSA, the GSA, and admin — will have voting power over certain aspects of the building and will be responsible for the SUB space as a whole, according to Alhattab.

However, as there is currently no formal agreement, this Board exists only in theory.

According to Alhattab, “CUSA will have a majority stake, because CUSA owns the largest amount of the building. With the shared space, it’s close to 50 per cent. So CUSA owns the largest amount, and so the idea here is that CUSA will be able to, as long as the GSA agrees with CUSA, move forward on projects or vice versa. One of the parties in the committee always has to agree with CUSA.”

The elephant in the room here is that this can quite easily be flipped against the GSA as well, since this relationship would also work between CUSA and the university, as a majority voting block.

Alhattab also mentioned that there will also be a group overseeing the spaces that are specific to just CUSA, which will be made up of “the different representatives from council as elected and representatives from the general student body, from major clubs and societies and stakeholders. So there will always be management oversight by students.”

Aramark Extends its Reach

Aramark is a large multi-national corporation with annual profits in the billions of dollars. It has had a long and tumultuous history with Carleton students and workers since first signing a contract with the university in 2003.

Aramark classifies itself as a “single-source campus dining service provider,” and as such has fought to maintain a food monopoly on campus to the detriment of student-run businesses and other accessible and affordable options, such as the Garden Spot organized by the Carleton Food Collective.

In 2010 at Carleton, Aramark workers organized a unionization drive and raised concerns of intimidating letters from the employer that suggested workers would be fired for attempting to unionize, as first reported in the Leveller.

Other Canadian campuses have booted Aramark in recent years, including Ryerson University whose students sought “the end of crappy, expensive, low-quality campus food,” according to the Toronto Star.

The Leveller reported in late 2011 that Carleton secretly extended its exclusivity contract with Aramark to 2018. The contract was originally slated to expire in 2013.

The revelation of Aramark hungrily grasping for a piece of the SUB pie will no doubt ensure that the contract is further extended beyond 2018. Although Aramark was not involved in initial discussions and consultations surrounding the development plan for a new student building, the Leveller has learned that the food giant has gobbled up a major stake in the project.

CUSA President Fahd Alhattab told the Leveller that Aramark is fronting $10 million for 10,000 square feet. The calorie-packing conglomerate aims to double its cafeteria size by adding an additional floor above its current space at the front of the Unicentre.

Alhattab did not view this as a problem and even proposed it would benefit students. “We are using Aramark here as a champion for student space and as a champion for more food options and more food services,” he said. “Hopefully, this will allow us to have a better rapport with them when we start asking for more options such as halal options, kosher options and vegan options… If they are in our new student space, then we get to I think have a little more say with them, a little more influence.”

Others, however, view the reliance on corporate food providers as a contradiction between business practices and the ethics of a healthy campus, and would prefer that the process include organizations such as the Carleton Food Collective.

The Collective, according to board member and Carleton PhD student Wesley Petite, insists that important food-related issues, such as “accessible food, sustainable procurement, healthy eating habits, and a sense of involvement and membership in the governance of our campus,” be considered throughout the process.

“The fact that the Carleton Food Collective was not consulted on the possibility of using even a portion of the space to serve our signature healthy, vegan, free, sustainably procured food suggests that either CUSA is not organized enough to fully seize the opportunity a student building presents,” Petite told the Leveller, “or that they are organized and there is a certain cohort within CUSA that chose not to contact us.”

Petite suggests that the Collective’s presence among the established food providers in the new building would allow for important questions to be asked, such as “where does our food come from, how does the food I eat impact my health and how can I determine what food I consume?”

Student-run food providers have had a lot of success when they receive support from the student unions, such as what happened for the Loaded Ladle at Dalhousie University, according to Petite. “They were able to get access to a furnished, high-end kitchen space and a central serving space in the student union building food court.”

Petite also provided further examples including the People’s Potato at Concordia, the Midnight Kitchen at McGill, the Seasoned Spoon at Trent, and the People’s Republic of Delicious at uOttawa, which “all speak to the need to provide food on the basis of student vision and determination.”

A lot of questions remain unanswered. What role will Aramark play in the governing process and final agreement, given its $10 million stake, and what does this mean for the future of Aramark’s contract? It is very likely that a vote in favour of the building will cement an Aramark presence on campus over the long term.

Looking Ahead

With the majority of the space divvied up amongst Aramark, admin and the student unions, other groups on campus such as the multiple levy organizations — including the Carleton Food Collective, OPIRG, the Charlatan and CKCU — are left pondering their future in the process. While initially hopeful that inclusion in the new building would be a possibility, Alhattab confirmed that it is likely that the larger levy groups — who are existing CUSA tenants – will stay in the existing Unicentre.

However, Alhattab indicated that an organization’s space would either undergo renovations or that if existing space was viewed as inadequate, the option would be there to move. CKCU could be eligible for either, while OPIRG, Alhattab mentioned, might find a new home within renovated space amongst the third floor service centres.

Students are voting in a referendum which will institute a large fee amount that will have implications on the Carleton student body for decades. And all of this without a full, formal contract. CUSA is currently negotiating with Carleton with the assumption that the administration will act in good faith, which given the history of struggle between students and the admin over student space, could be problematic.

Despite the absence of a formal contract, Alhattab is optimistic that CUSA can balance out the greed of admin with its youth and passion, while acknowledging their would-be lender’s reputation. “We know how our administration is and they would like to maintain a certain level of influence and a certain level of say and I think there will always be a bit of that, and that’s fair.”

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This article was first published in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 3