Every year, the UBCSUO Elections see a number of candidates make several lofty campaign promises in an attempt to secure a position in the Student Union. In this interview series, The Phoenix is catching up with current SUO executives to ask what they’re doing to fulfill those promises.
Romil Jain, Student Union President, is well known for many of his campaign promises, including lowering food prices and creating 24 hour collegia. How do his promises stand up now?
Notably, Jain stressed several times during his campaign that he makes “commitments, not promises.”
“If it was just me, yes I can do everything that I’ve promised,” said Jain, regarding his campaign promises. “When you’re running you have to understand you’re not aware of what’s happening in the Union. You’re just thinking, ‘I want to do this and I’ll do it’, but … maybe the Board of Governors don’t want this, maybe the Senate doesn’t want this, maybe UBC doesn’t want this [so] there’s those gaps in information and knowledge that come across. If I can gather the support of the parties around me, I can do whatever I promised, and that’s a commitment, not a promise.”
The Phoenix went to Jain’s candidate Facebook page to get his campaign commitments and sat down with him to run down the list. Jain’s answers are presented below in the order of his “Campaign Points” from his candidate page.
Campus Wide Plastic Ban
The Phoenix: You promised a campus wide plastic ban. Now, even in that promise, you didn’t say there will absolutely not be any plastic on campus by this [specific] date, … but what work have you done [toward that goal]?
Jain: So, the UBCSUO businesses – and that’s primarily what the target was because that’s what we have direct control over – they don’t sell single use plastic utensils. We also banned things like plastic water bottles … and all of our straws are biodegradable. We’ve been using that for many, many years, but now we’re trying to expand that. … There’s a petition going around … appealing the university to ban single use plastic water bottles. The university [and] BC itself is moving in the direction of banning single use plastics. I think we’ve had over 700 signatures, but that is something our advocacy campaigns team is leading.
Yes, an all plastics ban would be amazing, but do we have the substitutes? … By the next year or [the] next couple of years there will be a filter on every floor in every building. So that’s something that’s up and coming, but they will take a little bit of time and … I understand it’s not going to be done in my term.
The Phoenix: Another very big promise that you made … that would require mostly input from the university… is the overnight collegium. The collegium hours have not changed since March, obviously, so I was wondering, have you started this process? Have you reached out to the university?
Jain: That’s a good question. It’s actually funny because it was only a couple of weeks back that I got to this. I met a student who was left out because … he lives in Vernon, and his class ends at 8:05 – it went a little late because he had a midterm. He missed his last bus, so I was talking to him [and asked] ‘How are you going to get home?’ and he [said] ‘I’m going to have to call my parents’.
What if you did not have parents [nearby] or someone was not willing to take you [home]? Where are you going to stay? So I talked to a VP of students for our campus. They said that [regarding the] overnight collegium, the simple answer is it’s not going to happen. It’s just not feasible. But, we are looking at an alternative. I’ve just had one conversation [with administration, but] maybe once these two new buildings are built, we could look into Nicola as a hostel, [which] could eventually support students who have to stay overnight.
The Phoenix: In March, your campaign page said there were 22 places in Kelowna that [accept] Flex Bucks. I just looked at the list yesterday [November 7] and they list 18. Which of these numbers is correct?
Jain: I think they might not be including things like corner stores. … I meant 22 including [restaurants and] everything else.
The Phoenix: And how do you plan to increase this to 100 by the start of 2020?
Jain: The truthful answer is no, it's not going to be 100. I had significantly underestimated … how much time it requires to do this kind of thing[;] even if I do recommend a restaurant, they still have to go through UBC’s process. It's not something [where I can] just go talk to a restaurant [and they’re] immediately added to it... UBC has to agree to [it], they have to file an email, register [with] UBC, and then [there are] implications for their businesses as well. There [are] costs they have to pay.
I just assumed that they will all agree to it because they're getting market share of 10,000 – the biggest constraint in market share that they can find is students. But [I] also have to be honest… [it has] truly not been my priority for this year. I made those promises but then you have to prioritize, otherwise you won't be able to do anything, so I prioritize my priorities and that's something I'll look into hopefully next year. I don't see any substantial increases over this year.
The Phoenix: But have you reached out to businesses and started trying to increase [the number of locations that accept flex bucks]?
Jain: We have talked to a few businesses. I wouldn’t say 100, but we’ve at least talked to 5 different businesses. … A lot of businesses that you would talk to also sell alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. A lot of these things [are] small key factors that you don't even consider until you actually start doing it. And plus, are they even willing to do these things? … A lot of businesses [say] “No we’re already making enough money.”
Student Entrepreneurs Pathway and All Clubs and Course Union Night
The Phoenix: There [are] two events that you proposed[: the] All Clubs and Course Unions Night (ACC), and the Student Entrepreneurs Pathway. For [ACC,] I wanted to know [how that went]. And for the Student Entrepreneurs Pathway, [I wanted to know if that has] happened, and what is it?
Jain: ACC happened and was taken on by our VP Internal Holly Denby, and she did a great job. She led the entire event. Like I said before, it doesn't matter if I'm doing [it] or someone else [is] … as long as the value is being given to the students. I think it brought great values. It was a packed event – I think we had over 150 attendees, …[and] quite a few businesses. I don’t know if the audience knows the purpose of ACC, do you want me to give [an explanation]?
The Phoenix: Yes, please.
Jain: So the purpose of ACC is of course – [and this was also] one of the priorities and one of the main substantial things why I started it when I was VP Finance – to get club sponsorship. I feel like a lot of times clubs don't get the amount of money that they asked for. [We] have to keep in mind … let’s say we have 170 grand allocated to club funding this year. There [are] 140 clubs – let's say for example – [if a hundred of them are active and] they asked for $3000-$5000, they're not going to get it. Simply, the majority of the clubs won't get what they asked for. So what I was trying to create was another stream of income for them, which comes from sponsorship, which OC makes very good use of but UBC Okanagan has not fairly dipped into that fund.
So that's what it started with, and then … that became a secondary purpose. The primary purpose, the reason that drove ACC was that collaboration between different clubs, because we see a lot of galas from four different clubs. What if these four galas were done by the clubs combined? Then they will have, first of all, more money, second of all, they can ask for more sponsorship because there [are] more attendees. Third thing is that now, all of a sudden, you have different races, diversity, and cultures combining and working together, which is the whole purpose of a club. We’re living in a globalized community, that's what we're here for.
So that was the primary focus of it: promoting inter-club cooperation and giving a chance for club execs and club leaders to meet one another, which they don't get many chances [to do]. The secondary purpose is sponsorship. I can’t give you the names off the top of my head of who was there and how many people were there, but definitely there were people [like] local club owners, [the] airport manager, … there’s plenty of people around. The response was amazing. I think the numbers speak for themselves. … All credit to our VP Internal Holly Denby for doing such a great job.
UBCSUO Food Bank Funding
The Phoenix: I wanted to talk about [UBCSUO] Food Bank Funding. There is now a pantry, or a food bank here, so clearly that has been successful. How did you go about getting that done, and is it what you had envisioned from the start?
Jain: I would be lying if I said I had envisioned it; I was somewhat fortunate, just put it that way. [The] Student Experience office has done a brilliant job of carrying over that service for many, many years and this was the year when we decided we want to take it back. … At the same time, the reason why I say I’m fortunate is because UBC also did a food survey to see how food insecure students on our campus are. Turns out 42.3% – which is a massive number – are food insecure. So [that] led to us thinking that Food Bank is supposed to be something a student union should run – and previously they had. [The Student Experience Office agreed and] were very helpful to us, so we took it over [and] rebranded it, [as well as giving] it a space that's more in the common space. We have more funding as well.
So what I was trying to do was just increase the funding so we give out more food, but what ended up happening [is that] now I'm running Food Bank along with [our bookstore manager] Shawna. So we constantly restock it, it's [in a much more] visible space, [and] there's a lot more funding so there's a lot more food available to students. So I'm happy with it.
The Phoenix: [You mentioned] UBC also did a food survey… and that leads into another one of your campaign promises of decreasing food prices on campus. Again, this came at a really good time because UBC also had that goal this year. Do you believe that [food prices have decreased] to your expectations or hopes?
Jain: I will say no. I still don't believe on our campus it's possible to have a very cheap, affordable meal. … I've had talks with the food manager, … the [executive] chef … So, I've had talks with all the parties that are [directly] responsible [for food on campus], along with some higher administrative positions at UBC. With all the conversations that I've had, we’ve come [to] the consensus that the students do need to have cheaper food options, everyone's on the same plate on that.
So if you notice now, there [are] places where people who don't eat pork can go eat because there's no pork being served. People who are vegan and vegetarian [have options] everywhere, and [it would] be unfair of me to take all that credit: UBC has done a lot more. You talked about the timing, and there's a reason why I made that promise … I had a little bit of prior knowledge… as VP finance.
So understanding that, it is not a business and you will see that the prices will decrease a little bit. [You] will see that it is possible to have cheap meals, but we're still working on something for next year: …I don't know if I can speak about [upcoming programs] right now, but they are coming along where $5 meals would be possible. And even now, if you go to the pasta stand, … if you get, let's say, pasta, and just gravy and sauce they'll be like four bucks. I don't know if that is enough to fill a person but that's better than something (sic).
More space for Clubs, Course Unions, and Resource Centres
The Phoenix: [In] one of your surprise campaign promises, you [mentioned] more space for clubs, course unions, and resource centres, and potentially relocation of resource centres. [Notably,] some resource centres are in really bad spots, such as the Pride Resource Centre and The Phoenix office, [which are] across from the men’s bathroom. So I was wondering where you are with that and if … there is a plan to potentially relocate these resource centres to better spots.
Jain: That's a good question. I'm just gonna look up a stat for you [which] I think will help you understand where I'm coming from. … Vancouver campus is at an 8% [deficit] for the amount that BC University space norms consider a reasonable amount. So negative 8%. Our campus on the other hand is 34.47% in deficit. So almost … four times more lack of space on our campus than in Vancouver, and that's compared to the BC norm of space, [i.e.] how much they figure we should have per student on our space. We're lacking 34.47%.
So … would I love to … give space to clubs in course union? Yes. Would I love to do these space things where I … make the union a little bit bigger? Yes. All these things are … something that I'm very passionate about, but we have to be realistic.
… Me and Nimrah, our VP finance, presented to the Board of Governors for the very first time in UBCSUO’s history. … So [they came] from Vancouver … to [the] Okanagan in September, [and] we made a presentation, and the one thing that we asked for was academic space. If you look around, yes, clubs and course unions are a priority… but we have to understand the reason why we all are students is to educate ourselves in academic space. Over the last five, six years there [has] not been a single major investment by UBC in any academic buildings. Commons was built by student money and donors. UBC did not invest a single penny… Before Commons, is there any other building that has changed during the time you were here, [or] any new building that popped up?
The Phoenix: Certainly no new buildings. I don't think anything's changed meaningfully since I've been here, no.
Jain: Exactly. So that's the point: the university has not been expanding academic buildings, which is necessary because their population has gone from 3000 15 years back to now almost 11,000. But our [number of] buildings seems to remain exactly the same. So that's our priority: we want space and we've … lobbied the Board of Governors, and quite aggressively and passionately we’ve advocated for more academic space. We've advocated to the administration; we've advocated at every measure possible. In every meeting I sit on, every meeting I go to, I’m always constantly like a broken [record] repeating we need more academic space… because people don't have enough.
If you go to Commons right now on a Wednesday afternoon there's not a space to sit for students, right?. That's the problem, if students don't have a place to study, it causes even more problems for people who live off campus. That's the big problem, that's our main first priority: …there is a building we're advocating for, [and] hopefully that building’s presentation passes, and the Board of Governors [will say] yes, and we can have a building, in the next three, four years.
The Phoenix: And that building is academic in nature?
Jain: Yes, that’s what we are asking for. Because that’s the priority and after that, moving forward from there, then maybe you can start looking into [more space for clubs and course unions], because right now when we have a lack of 34.47% of space right, you can speak for yourself what the priority should be. Because we're lacking academic space … and gym [space]! We need a new gym. That gym hasn’t changed since our population was 3000-4000 students. Now the population has more than tripled, and we still have the same size gym. How can you expect people to not be unhappy? So, those are priorities, but it does take time. They will take a little bit of time.
The Phoenix: You did mention [potentially] reallocating some of the space in the SUO. Originally you had mentioned that Green Thread was closing, and that could become space. [Instead,] that became picnic, so there’s not really anything you can put in there. But you also mentioned a storage facility for clubs and course unions. My question is: has the storage facility happened, or is there any thought to reallocating space, or does that even really matter?
Jain: No, I mean I'm sure it really does matter, but I'm gonna have to jump back [to] the point that I made before. It's not a primary priority. It’s a secondary priority that we're looking for. … It's sad that we don't have space, … but we realized that fact and that's why we're fighting for space. … But when we're at 110% capacity, I really can’t relocate anyone.
Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault policies
The Phoenix: You said you would establish a panel of experts to look over the failings of … [Policy] 131 [UBC’s Sexual Misconduct Policy]. … Has that panel of experts been established, and if it has and also if it hasn't, how else have you addressed Policy 131’s failings?
Jain: So, I'm not directly sitting on the committee that does this, but yes, [UBC] Okanagan does have a panel, and we have … members of the Board of Directors from our union that sit on [it]. So that is something that they are very passionately fighting for. And like I said again I had to … realize that I'm sitting on almost four hiring committees, …[and] each committee has about 100-200 hundred pages for every meeting that we have, so it's a big, it's a big commitment. So I had to understand that I don't want to be sitting on something that is so important and not giving it my best, because I will hate half-assing the whole thing. So it's important that we had someone on the committee who was just as passionate, if not even more passionate, but also has the time and the willingness to spend that [on] these committees. So yes, we have a couple of Board of Directors who are sitting on … that committee, [and] they might be … in a position to better answer that question.
UBCSUO Town Hall
The Phoenix: All right. I think that is all the campaign promises I could find.
Jain: You don’t have the Town Hall?
The Phoenix: Was that a campaign promise? [Jain nods] I missed it, but the town hall did come up. Can you talk about the town hall as well?
Jain: Sure, I mean I think that's something that I'm probably the most proud of. I mean, I feel like… having [the] Town Hall in itself really showcases what I said about commitments and not promises because that shows genuinely that we are giving students a chance to question their execs; …a chance to dig deep and understand what the union does. …Oftentimes the problem is not that students don't trust us or not (sic), the problem is that they don't understand what we're doing.
Oftentimes, I'll get a question from students like “what do you even do?” and I'm like, “Where do I start? There’s a lot of things I do.” … In an informal setting I don't have time to explain [to] them what I do. And they don't understand how the structure works, they don't understand how the budget works, they don't get a chance to interact with students and administration, and something we have added – which is something I …don’t think any other year has had … I don't even believe any other university has this collaboration – is that we're working with UBC’s VP, Students, Ainsley Carry. Next meeting we’ll also have our provost and VP Academic Ananya coming up to our town hall and answering questions regarding student life, academics... and then we'll be doing our quarterly budget presentation. I did a quarterly budget presentation at the town hall, which no other VP Finance ever has. That Town Hall gives us the opportunity to present and hold ourselves accountable and transparent. Meanwhile it also gives students the chance to question us and understand what we actually do.
The Phoenix: [Are Town Halls] monthly…bi-monthly or…
Jain: I hope to strive to make it monthly. But this month, keeping in mind that there’s going to be an AGM on the 19th [of November], we’ll have to see how the scheduling works. And also, I try to make sure that people from UBC who have a lot of say in how student life works [can attend] – such as VP Students Ainsley Carrey, [whose] decisions affect students on an everyday basis, and our provost, whose decisions affect students on an everyday basis in their classes… Having those people is a very good asset. Students can ask all kinds of questions, and also we have to understand the administration and people in these high positions don’t have access to that platform. So for them also it’s very nice to have this platform where they can actually communicate with UBC Okanagan students because UBC Vancouver has a lot of places where you can do this, [but] Okanagan doesn't.
So this has come off as a very good opportunity for them and for us it comes off as a win win for all the three parties. I would look forward to doing it monthly, [but it’s] definitely not going to be done in December, because no one's gonna be here. We’ll kick it off again in January (Editor’s Note: the first UBCSUO town hall of 2020 took place on February 12th), and from January February March April we’ll definitely have every month…
The Phoenix: Okay, that’s all my questions. … [To sum up] your campaign promises, I would say they fall into the categories of transparency, entrepreneurship or community, and … advocacy.
Jain: Accountability, I would say Community Relations – I would say that’s a better term for it – and then … Advocacy. And again, … this is not something I’m doing alone. Neither can I do it alone. I need a team, and my team has been very helpful to help me out in whatever way possible. So definitely I would like to thank them, and it’s an amazing team this year, so I can’t complain. I would say I’m very fortunate to be a president this time, where the university is working very closely with us; the board of governors are working with us; and the union’s working with us.
Check out our next installment of the SUO Commitment Series with Holly Denby, coming soon.