Holding their administration to account: Concordia student journalists bent on investigations
When Concordia University’s student newspaper, The Link, makes shocking revelations through investigative work, the impact spreads past campus borders and into the community at large.
“Why the hell didn’t I know about this?”
That's how a Concordia University governor reacted to one of The Link's investigations on an international student exchange program. The surprise doesn't seem to be uncommon. Another scoop derailed the then-governing student unions' plans to purchase a questionable building earmarked as the new student centre. Concordia's independent student newspaper has been “bent” on investigations for the past few years, says former editor-in-chief Laura Beeston, building a reputation to the point where people approach the organization with tips and information on potential stories.
While the student press covers campus life and events, it also has a role as a watchdog over the university and its administration. These public institutions have large, mostly publicly-funded budgets, and must be held accountable in the same light as politicians. And sometimes what is uncovered in that light warrants national attention.
“It's crazy how much you learn — how many skeletons come out of the closet — when you're trying to figure out what's going on at your school,” says Beeston.
The governor's outburst was sparked by The Link’s story that revealed international Chinese students were living in poor conditions at homestays arranged by the university's contractor responsible for recruiting them to Concordia. At one homestay, “breakfast, lunch and dinner were two slices of bread — sometimes with margarine or a hot dog,” the article reads. The students were also charged “exorbitant fees” for rent as well as language classes. Major news outlets including the CBC, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CTV Montreal later picked up the story.
The findings were the result of a month-and-a-half-long investigation, sparked by a tip from someone at the student union housing and job bank, says Riley Sparks, the reporter who broke the story. The student union's legal clinic had done some research on the issue already, and provided some direction for Link's investigation.
In addition to the living conditions at the homestays, the article focuses on the involvement of Peter Low, the director of the Concordia China Student Recruitment Partner Program. “It's a bit of a complicated thing because he's a contractor,” says Sparks. “He's not an employee in the way that the Dean of Students is ... so the information available on him and what he was doing exactly was a little bit harder to get a hold of.” But the investigation found that Low runs the company that arranges the homestays and airport pickup — both tasks are not in the company's contract with the university. At the time of the article's publishing, Low charged students $2,200 for his services.
The Link did “a lot of background research,” to find out who Low was, says Sparks. “We ran a corporate records check in B.C. to verify exactly who it was that was running the company. Checked with all the law societies of all the different provinces as well as the professional body that regulates immigration consultants.”
Low would go to recruitment sessions at different high schools in China, and The Link discovered that he was at an event with one of Concordia's vice presidents. “To what extent was the university aware of what exactly was going on?” asks Sparks. “That was definitely an important aspect of it … nailing down exactly how much they knew about what he was doing and how closely he was working with the university.”
On the recruitment program's website, it states that it “does not require applicants to have an advanced understanding of the English language upon enrolment.” However, some students are required to take English classes held at Concordia's Centre for Continuing Education, which can cost up to $30,000 for the full program, before they can enroll in Concordia University. The student newspaper vetted this and all other financial information in the article by obtaining documents and/or verifying things through “at least two other sources that we trusted,” says Sparks.
“At least certain parts of the university were already aware of the problem before we printed the story, but it was hard to tell how quickly things were moving,” he says. “Once the story came out they moved pretty quickly.” Concordia removed all mention of the homestay program from the university's website, sent out an email to all international students to check up on them, and made plans to talk to those students over the phone in their language of choice — either English, Mandarin, or Cantonese.
“They're making sure that every document related to the Concordia applications process will be available in Chinese,” says Sparks. The university is also strongly recommending that homestay providers give receipts for any financial transactions, and “draw up all documents in Chinese if the student wants.”
Concordia students held protests calling for a review into the recruitment program. The article had called on people to speak out about their experiences with the program, and less than two months later, more people came forward.
While Low declined to comment to The Link for the article — or to the major news outlets that followed up — Sparks says the university was in contact with Low “a lot” after it was published. Since his contract expired around the time of the article, the board of governors undertook a study to determine if they should terminate external recruitment contracts and have everything done through the university.
Student Centre Investigation
Timing the release of sensitive or valuable information for the right moment can significantly change the impact of a story. When The Link published the secret location of a proposed student centre a week before a major referendum on funds for the project, the impact was huge. Justin Giovannetti, the editor-in-chief at the time of the issue's publication, says the Concordia Student Union (CSU) didn't want to tell the students which building was being purchased until after they voted to put forward the money. “That's why we made a big thing about it,” he says. “That's what ticked them off is that they were going to put this question to students and get it approved and then they were going to say that it's a cockroach-infested mall.”
The former CSU president disclosed the information on background to Giovannetti months earlier, and when the time came, The Link's first seven pages — including the cover — were devoted to the topic. The comprehensive coverage touched on the cost, contracts, connections and more associated with the project. “There were connections with the guy who ran the board of governors real estate committee and had spoken to students as a concerned student,” says Giovannetti. “Happened to be one of the richest real estate developers in the country and owned most of the land around the building.” He says that even the city and local councillors were cheerleading the project.
Calls for a new student centre began as early as 2000, but ramped up after consultations produced a project cost of almost $70 million — the biggest capital project in the history of the organization. Giovannetti says the location was a “decrepit mall,” which was a movie theatre in the 80s, but now faced such problems as a cockroach infestation, asbestos, and flooding. “It's sort of one of those sales ghost malls that people cross the street to avoid.”
Students were outraged, and the referendum failed by a landslide. Giovannetti says that Concordia's riled up left-wingers staged protests and organized people against the project. He says those organizers replaced the student union the following year, and were later part of the student movement against tuition hikes in Quebec. “This was one of the catalysts, those moments that just galvanized opposition,” he says. “It was huge. It was one of those great Concordia stories.”
The saga with the building, known as the Faubourg, seems to never end. Even after being rejected by students twice, the university purchased two floors of the building last October. “That's the crazy thing. It's like one of those stories that'll never die.”
Concordia's moved on from the governance crisis that plagued the administration for years says former editor-in-chief Beeston, who is now vice-president of The Link's board of directors. High-priced settlements for departures of university administration was dubbed a “culture of contempt” in an external review called the Shapiro report. It resulted in a $2-million fine to Concordia, as well as an open letter calling for the resignation of the university's chair of the board of governors.
“He really ran that board really hard. We wrote something called 'We're done. We're done. We're done,' where essentially we took the front page and page three and were just like wow, this person, he didn't want to hear it,” says Beeston.
She says that while it was exciting to cover the scandals in a way that made students care about governance, finances, resignations and Concordia's reputation — where it counts are situations such Faubourg and the Chinese homestays. Figuring out how people are connected and how that has an impact on the neighbourhood, who gets to make key decisions and how those decisions are made was definitely part of her journalistic education.
One thing Beeston started was a series called “Talking with Presidents,” where she'd sit down with the president of the student council and the president of the university to talk about everything Concordia. “It was more informative for everybody ... because you got two different presidents talking about the same problem with completely different world views.” Politics extends into getting information from university spokespeople as well.
“We both know each other's prerogative, like I know what their message is going to be,” she says while praising the Concordia communications department for its ability to package messages. “Administrators are politicians of the university. You only get what you ask for.” Beeston stresses that a university is a huge operation, with a lot of people getting paid with a lot of public money to make it work. So the role of the student press as a watchdog of the administration — especially taking into account that the board of governors didn't know about the Chinese homestay program — is absolutely vital, she says.
“I think that the conviction to hold people accountable comes from individual reporters and it builds into the spirit of the newspaper.”