Presidential Primer, Part One: Ahn Cheol-soo

JUST IN CASE you didn’t know, South Korea has a presidential election coming up December 19. It’s a pretty big deal. The Sixth Republic of South Korea has only had five presidents so far, and the current Blue House resident—Lee Myung-bak—has been around since February 2008, which is a huge chunk of Korea’s 24-year-old democracy.


“As a medical doctor, professor, self-taught computer entrepreneur, and corporate leader—Ahn is representative of everything mainstream Korea dreams of becoming.”

My first of three analyses of this winter’s presidential candidates. Next two will come up the following two Fridays, marking my re-entry into political journalism, after a stint wherein I quit politics after being blacklisted from speaking with anyone involved in Nova Scotia’s conservative scene. (Long story.)


COSTAS HALAVREZOS WAS ASKED to keep his retirement a secret from nearly everyone he knew. So he didn’t tell almost any of his CBC Radio co-workers, some of whom thought he’d never leave. He didn’t tell his band mates, who jammed with him the night before his announcement. And he didn’t tell his 19-year-old daughter, Maria—until he sent her a text. “I’ve decided to retire,” it read. “My last day is September 17.” She was in the middle of class, and her jaw dropped.

“Generally speaking, whatever fucking stupid ideas hatched by the most powerful people in Toronto—and trust me, if you don’t like these two ideas, we can come up with some fuckin’ stupider ideas—that’s the rule.”

This one’s a bit longer. My journalism Honours project. It feels truncated to me even at 2,000 words, but there it is. A cover story for the King’s Journalism Review.


TRANSPARENCY ISSUES AT KING’S COLLEGE didn’t start this summer, when the senior administration and Executive Board of Governors agreed to apply for a $2.1 million loan via email.

Nor did they start when the administration dismissed facilities director Ken Newman in the middle of the summer, after 22 years of service, without informing any members of the college—which is why the junior administration and faculty continued to leave messages on his answering machine, unaware that he had been let go.

They didn’t even start two years ago, when the administration bought the house across the street for around $500,000, launching a King’s-wide critique of their financial priorities that has shadowed their decisions ever since.

Nobody knows when our transparency issues started, but President William Barker insists that it’s not for a lack of trying.

“They’re doing us all a huge disservice with the secrecy with which they operate.”

“Some decisions have to be made off to the side because they can’t be made within the community discussion in the speed that they have to be made,” he said.

“If you over-consult, you’re actually opening up the discussion to too many people who, for one reason or another, actually really shouldn’t be involved in it.”

But several members of the King’s community—including students, faculty and administrators—have problems with the way things are being run, particularly when it comes to money.

“The finances of the university are a mystery to virtually everybody,” said head librarian Drake Peterson, describing the budget process as the president and the bursar going “behind closed doors” to sort out the numbers privately.

“They’re doing us all a huge disservice with the secrecy with which they operate,” echoed former King’s Students’ Union President David Etherington.

In a faculty meeting on March 24, 2009, Foundation Year director Peggy Heller said she found the King’s budget process “mysterious”, and was frustrated at the fact that she received no response to her proposed FYP budget by such a late point in the year.

Even the Executive Board of Governors expressed concerns about their involvement with the budget process. According to the minutes from April 15, 2009, the Chair “reminded members that they are to receive reports, and hoped to create a process which would make the Executive an ‘effective part of the loop’.”

That “loop” seems to consist exclusively of the school’s senior administration—the president, Bursar Gerry Smith and Vice-President Chris Elson, who gives way to Kim Kierans in July.

“It’s hard to get something that people can call transparent if the number you give them one month is different from the number you give them two months later.”

Transparency issues at King’s primarily revolve around the school budget—a simply laid out, three-page document outlining where our $17 million is going.

Barker noted that it’s very hard to make a comprehensive budget earlier in the year, because the school’s revenues change drastically between September and March.

“It’s hard to get something that people can call transparent if the number you give them one month is different from the number you give them two months later,” Barker said.

Students drop out of classes, get their money back or shift around classes all year round, the bursar added. “You’d be amazed how much the numbers drop from February to March.”

The process goes something like this: the president and the bursar compose a draft budget, usually at the end of March, once the numbers are finalized. They approve it with the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) and approach the KSU—this year, however, the KSU had not yet received any numbers, though a town hall meeting with the president was held on April 6. The budget then goes to the Finance Committee at the Board level, then to the executive Board of Governors for a quick approval.

Because all this happens in that small window in March, Barker said, our potential deficits—like last year’s dramatic $1.1 million, or $400,000 Barker mentioned at a faculty meeting earlier this year—are so often exaggerated.

But one of the problems with this timeline, according to Etherington and various faculty members, is that it forces the budget to be approved for the public in the summer, after most students and faculty are gone.

The bursar said that this is not unusual practice, as many schools release their budgets in June. He referenced Dalhousie’s BAC report: “They’re concerning themselves with 2011-2012 and not putting their numbers down for 2010-2011.”

The Dalhousie BAC actually released its preliminary budget to the public on March 22. Smith is right in saying it deals with some prospective 2011-12 numbers, but it also includes a preliminary line-by-line breakdown of all their operating costs and a comprehensive chart of next year’s inevitable tuition increases—which may be anywhere from 0.5 per cent to 24 per cent, depending on upcoming government grants.

“There’s something to be said for huge bureaucratic states—that they actually run efficiently,” said Gordon McOuat, who has sat on King’s Budget Advisory Committee on-and-off for the last three years.

“Smaller institutions have less bureaucracy, but that doesn’t make them any more transparent.”

The BAC is a committee of faculty and administrators that is supposed to survey our school’s finances and make recommendations to the president—who sits on the committee himself.

But McOuat laughed when asked what recommendations they’ve made so far: “This year? Almost none. We haven’t been given a general description of the financial state of the college.”

Barker said that the financial state of the college is impossible to tell earlier on, because the college’s revenues can’t be finalized until late into second semester.

So why does this group—which, as McOuat emphatically noted, meets “every week, for Heaven’s sakes”—even exist?

“I find it actually really, really useful,” Barker said. He explained that the committee helps him better understand the opinions of the college.

The irony is that Barker reformed the BAC in recent years to include more faculty members in the discussion. But that isn’t transparency, according to McOuat and other members on the BAC; the faculty is still just as much in the dark as the students—something Etherington knows about all too well.

Etherington’s biggest problems with the senior administration is that they will often act on their own, and assume that their decisions will be retroactively approved by the rest of the school.

“Smaller institutions have less bureaucracy, but that doesn’t make them any more transparent.”

“The problem is that there’s never really any information given to anyone for us to validate [those actions],” Etherington said. “A lot of the time you see bad decisions made.”

He’s referring to the KSU’s altercations with the bursar earlier this year—arguments over who could move into old dean’s suite (now the Day Bay), or how much of the Wardroom was owned by administration and how much by the students.

In both situations, Etherington witnessed university administrations—the Property Grounds and Safety committee and the Wardroom Board of Management—being “undermined” by senior administration.

“There are so many things that I feel I like we never really get a final apology on when the administration makes a mistake,” he said. “There’s sort of an understanding that we can all agree it won’t happen again and we can just move forward.”

McOuat agrees with this criticism: “The danger that we face is paternalism.”

And the president’s response?

“Everyone really feels they know how it works,” he said. “The administration has actually got multiple masters.” He cited the government and alumni as outside forces that overrule even the senior administration, or the mandatory six-per-cent annual faculty salary increases that comprise most of the school’s budget in the first place.

Between the salaries and the school’s ongoing sewage pipe issues, Barker said that financial cuts to the library or athletics are the only options.

“Those are the only things where you’ve got a choice. The library’s the only place you can go. Unfortunately, it’s the scholarships, it’s the library and athletics,” he said.

“We’re boxed in.”


Originally published in the Watch, King’s College’s monthly magazine, in April 2010.