Remember that kid who got caught with their hand in the cookie jar when you were growing up?
The one who decided it would be a good idea to protest their innocence?
The parental figures shook their heads and glared at him sadly. “What were you thinking?” they demand. “What made you such a greedy, gluttonous child? You thought you could have all the cookies for yourself?”
“Oh no!” the child protests, innocently. “It wasn’t for me! I was gonna trade them to Jimmy up the road for smokes! Five cookies for a single, and then Billy’s older brother sells us cans of beer for smokes. Five smokes equals a can of beer. And my buddy Tim just really wanted a couple cans of beer for his tenth birthday party this weekend. I wasn’t being greedy, honest! I would never have done it if the corner store hadn’t stopped selling singles to underaged kids!”
And then the kid can’t quite understand how that doesn’t improve the situation.
Well, this week York University is that child.
Caught with its hand in the cookie jar, it decided the best response would be to ‘clarify’ precisely how stealing from the [public] cookie jar was – in its view – the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of the cookie jar, and that stealing cookies would, in the long run, lead to more cookies than ever for the cookie jar and everybody who uses it.
It’s a logic particularly unique to university public relations departments. There is, in a way, a sort of childish innocence to it, which seems to presume that anything a university does can’t really be bad, and so long as they explain what they’re doing, in fuller detail, that’ll make everything all right. Perhaps it’s because the university administrations that spend so much money on bloated PR departments assume that whenever a scandal erupts, PR departments can magically make them go away. Universities are notoriously incapable of realizing that when a scandal erupts, it’s usually because somebody did something wrong, and that in some cases it makes more sense – and sets a better example – to simply admit your guilt, and apologize, and accept some level of punishment, than to protest your innocence through press releases and Twitter tweets.
When the Ontario NDP released the results this week of a series of Freedom of Information requests they filed around the use of public funds by Ontario universities and colleges to hire high-paid lobbyists to...”lobby”... on their behalf, York discovered that it had stolen more cookies than anybody else: it had spent close to half a million dollars paying off private lobbyists, far and away more than any other post-secondary institution. In fact, if you take what some of the other cookie-stealers – Lakehead University, Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, Mohawk College and the Ontario College of Art and Design - spent TOGETHER, and then DOUBLE it, York still spent more!
Even the Ontario government – for once – joined in on the condemnation of York’s irresponsible spending – the provincial Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Molloy said “They [universities] have no reason to hire lobbyists...members of my ministry speak with these institutions on an ongoing basis, probably on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is, there is no need for a lobbyist to have contact with my ministry or the government...spending public funds on lobbyists is not acceptable.”
York University decided to >issue a press release yesterday, following the cookies-for-smokes logic that explaining precisely, in sordid agonizing detail, how they misused public funds would somehow make it less scandalous that they misused public funds. Indeed, they denounced the government for releasing the information “without context, timeline or accuracy”. Well, ok. If you’re going to be publicly castigated for committing an irresponsible, unethical act, the castigators might as well provide an accurate timeline of how you did it. But the details are interesting. Let’s explore them.
One contract of $31,500 was spent lobbying the Pan Am Games to expand York’s role in the games. The result? York gets to host tennis. O...kay. It’s somewhat unclear how spending $31,500 to get permission to host a tennis game helps the mission of the university, but I guess the alternative was that U of T might get it, so what else could they do?
$217,000+ was spent hiring another firm to see what the community felt about the idea “of establishing a medical school at York at sometime in the future”. Huh? So York has a vague idea that maybe, sometime in the vague future, it might open a med school (even though the government said last year that it was not gonna happen), and so, without any sort of a plan, it dishes out $217,000 to a private firm to see what the community thinks? If this is what it spends on a broad idea to do something “sometime in the future”, I’d hate to see what sort of money it would spend if it actually had a firm proposal and timeline!
And the idea of gathering community input isn’t a bad one at all. Universities do it all the time. Usually by holding public meetings. $100 on Timbits and coffee is a far cry cheaper than $217,000 on a professional lobbyist. Probably a lot more accurate, too. Some of the more tech-savvy universities might even save on Timbits by setting up a webpage for feedback. But why set up a webpage when you could pay lobbyists two hundred grand to do the same thing?
Oh wait, there’s fine print. Aha! After a lengthy paragraph describing its strategic “sometime in the future” plan that it needed to get community reaction on, it adds that the firm “also provided assistance with regard to labour relations during that period”.
Bingo. Right. York’s grad students went on strike during that period. So while York has five full-time labour relations staffpeople, and 29 full-time media relations staffpeople, and a fully staffed legal counsel office, it still needs to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars of students’ money on ADDITIONAL external counsel to ...battle students? If only we’d known that York was afraid that over three dozen of its full-time highly paid professional staff were incapable of taking on an untrained, unpaid group of students. Without two hundred grand worth of additional lobbyists, that is.
In fact, the most perplexing thing about why York spent half a million dollars on lobbyists – most of it to lobby the government – is that York already *has* a full-time government relations lobbyist position on staff! I actually feel pretty bad for her right now. What does it mean when your employer pays somebody else half a million dollars to do the job that they pay you a quarter of that amount to do?
Of course, not all the money went to lobbying government. Some of it went to hiring people to read the CVs of York faculty members, more or less. $189,000 went to a firm assigned to develop a research strategy for climate change. More specifically, it went to “assess the interests and expertise of York faculty in climate change”. Huh? The literally dozens of full-time paid staff in the university’s academic and research departments couldn’t pick up a phone to call the environmental studies department and ask who was interested in researching climate change? Or read their CV’s to see what their expertise was? Or maybe, you know, even have a meeting with them? You know if York held old-fashioned public meetings for these sorts of things, rather than spending half a million dollars on lobbyists, it could probably get a pretty sweet frequent buyer discount on Timbits and coffee. Think outside the box, York. You see half a million dollars of lobbyists; we see three canisters of coffee and a box of Timbits.
Mind you, in a unique crash-and-burn defense York emphasizes: “It is significant to note that there is no specific government lobbying attached to any of the work that this firm has done for York in this regard.”
What’s that supposed to mean? That there wasn’t “specific” lobbying, but there was kinda sorta “vague” lobbying? Or that there was no lobbying at all, and the lobbyists you paid two hundred grand for actually *did* just sit around reading CVs?
No, York, no. If you’re stealing cookies to trade for smokes, the excuse “but we didn’t actually manage to get any smokes” DOESN’T WORK. AT ALL.
Well, at least they hired an adjunct professor from York to do this. Hey wait now. Why did they need to pay a York Environmental Studies prof hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell them what the “interests and expertise” of her fellow Environmental Studies profs were?
Ooh! And she’s on Wikipedia too. Waaaaaaait now...what sort of a prof has a Wikipedia entry? Oh. The sort who was also really a Liberal MP for 11 years. Now I get it.
Before closing in despair, let’s paint things in a little perspective, shall we? York’s lobbying efforts actually cost a quarter of what media giant YAHOO spent on lobbying the entire US government last year. That same amount of money could provide funding for 55 grad students at York. Or pay tuition fees for 267 grad students. Or pay for almost SEVEN BILLION OREO COOKIES.
(yes, I actually did the math on that one)
Of course, in an institution of impunity where York issues press releases to more accurately detail its wrongdoings rather than apologize for its wrongdoings, it’s probably unlikely that anybody in the senior administration will actually learn anything from this. But the next time you run into President Shoukri or Media Relations Director Alex Bilyk in the halls, you might stop them and say “Mahmoud, buddy, the next time you need a smoke...just ASK!”