The CASA Conundrum

Last night I attended the CASA alumni dinner, a event at every CASA conference that is designed to keep the connections that are developed during our year in the heart of the Suit and Tie Student Movement intact. Regrettably, Blake and Tim were unable to attend, due to rabbits hares, but I like to think that UBC was represented, in spirit, if not officially (I do not speak for the AMS).

CASA is a very well meaning organization, and I have a lot of respect for what they are trying to do. I have, I like to think, been consistent in my criticisms of CASA, in that I have had problems with the methods by which they want to achieve their goals, and the method by which the goals are chosen. I’ve reengaged a little in the CASA debate, especially since my work with CASA ended rather abruptly (an election loss will do that to you).

I was the person who seconded the motion to step down to Associate Member status in CASA. I feel that that was the right decision at the time for the AMS, as I think the AMS needs a serious reevaluation of how it is directing its lobbying resources, and a serious introspective look at how the investment that the AMS makes in CASA is being returned to the students of UBC. The move has been accused of being heavy handed, but I think that hardball politics is not out of line here – we needed to make sure that CASA knew we were serious about our complaints, and I feel that I made the best decision possible in keeping with my duties as a member of the AMS Board.

To be a little more concise, I’ve narrowed the concerns that I have had with CASA down to a select four. I would, as it is bound to come up, like to address the absence of ‘Equity’ from this list. While I think that equity is important, I think that the AMS has approached it in exactly the wrong way. The first time that the issue was brought up was in the context of a climate survey of institutional obstacles to equitable involvement in the AMS, which I thought was important, as there is a fairly important representation issues that the AMS needs to look at. In short, I viewed equity as an issue of positive liberty. Now, instead of doing the climate survey and identifying the problems, the people in charge decided to solve what they perceived to be problems, creating the Equity Officer program, which I do not think does much to address the representation and equality issues that are very real within the AMS structure. Now, I am all for Equity in CASA as well, and making sure that the conferences are a welcoming place, but I feel that this is not as important a grievance in terms of value for money as the four reasons I’ve outlined below.

  1. Policy Direction/Staff – Staff accountability in national student organizations is a problem, as they are not as closely tied to an elected body as are the staff who are hired to work on the campuses. Long term staff members can, in my opinion, cause an organization to stagnate, so ensuring that adequate turnover happens is important. As part of this, I was concerned that long term staff members began to drive the discussion of policy priorities, and had lost sight of the ways by which the member driven nature of their work was to be guided.
  2. The Member Driven Principle – This is something that CASA is always going to struggle with, but is integral to their survival. It is the one thing that drastically differentiates them from other national student organizations, but is a hard thing to achieve. To do this, there has to be a clear definition, or ideal, ow what it means to be member driven, and consistent and regular audits of the actions of the organization to ensure that the member driven principle is being adhered to.
  3. Methods – I’ll give one thing to the CFS – they know how to run a good campaign. The content of their campaigns is somewhat questionable, oftentimes, but they get the message out there like nobody’s business. CASA should be able to utilize it’s membership in the same way that the CFS is able to. Unfortunately, this takes money. I think there i a balance that can be struck. Back at my first CASA AGM, Charlotte Kingston (once of ULSU, now of UCSU) and I were speaking about the role of CASA in creating action potential amongst our students, coming up with this profoundly nerd-tastic statement:
    CASA can be the Na+/K+ pump of the Student Movement.” I still think that national campaigns are possible for CASA, and that flexibility can be built into them enough so that there are ways to tailor the campaign to the individual associations. This is something that CASA needs to build on as a complement, rather than a replacement, of their regular, suit and tie, next step lobbying.
  4. Governance Structure/Accountability – For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back with CASA was the elimination of the Board of Directors, in favour of a General Assembly Structure. I wasn’t a huge fan of the old board structure either, but it was able to guarantee that a group of people were responsible for the actions of the staff, and would ensure accountability. There needs to be a move back to this for CASA, perhaps with some type of acknowledgement of the size of the schools built into the structure, not unlike Qualitative Majority Voting in the EU, or the 7-10-50 Amending formula in the Canadian Constitution. Beyond that, the way that minutes are taken needs to change, as verbatim transcripts are neither easy to read through and glean information from, nor are they easy to produce. The SFSS has the right idea in restricting membership to any external organization that does not promptly release its minutes. These are the paramount accountability mechanism for CASA, and I think it would be wise to release preliminary minutes in advance of ratification at the next meeting, perhaps putting them on-line.

I want to know that there are significant movement or means to movement on these issues prior to a vote rejoin CASA. These are the structures and changes that would guarantee us that we are getting an appropriate return on our investment. Those are my thoughts, and I hope that CASA can achieve them, as there really is no other viable group that would be worthwhile for the AMS to join. The other option, going it alone, is something that has some merit, but again, it comes down to value for students’ money.


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