It’s not often hard to find an empty seat at University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors meetings. Nearly half of the union’s directors have missed at least four of the seven board meetings since the beginning of their term. Directors offered various explanations for their absences, although most did not reply to request for comment.
The Board of Directors consists of 44 college and faculty representatives who are responsible for monitoring union programs and services, evaluating student union performance from an objective perspective, and scrutinizing the executive’s recommendations. Most current directors ran unopposed, as a part of Team Renew — the only slate in the 2013 election, headed by Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU.
According to the UTSU Policy Manual, “Proxies do not count towards a Director’s attendance nor are proxies an alternative to not attending Board of Directors meetings.”
The Varsity contacted individual directors about their absences. UTSU president Munib Sajjad told The Varsity that it is unfair to ask directors about their attendance. He said that some directors expressed concern to him about being asked to explain their absences, and that all questions about directors’ attendance should be forwarded to union executives: “Union executives are capable of handling questions about directors’ attendance, as we are well informed about their individual reasons for not attending meetings,” said Sajjad. When asked about the possibility that some board members may have different views than the executive, Sajjad said: “Some directors may have different things to say than the executive, but those are opinions.”
Cullen Brown, a director for St. Michael’s College, explained that his four absences were a result of family and academic obligations. Brown claimed that the root of the larger absenteeism problem is the way in which some directors arrive at their position. “Most of the directors are there because of friendship with the execs, who in turn pressure them into nominating themselves with an inadequate understanding of what it is to be a director. This is the norm, and therefore blaming the directors themselves does not address the root of the problem,” said Brown, adding: “The root is twofold — the CFS-inspired coercive tactics, and the failure on behalf of the college/faculty societies to nominate people that they feel represent their interests.”
Vere-Marie Khan, another director for St. Michael’s College, agreed that there is a communication problem on the board. Khan echoed Brown’s claim that many people who were asked to run for the board are closely tied to the executive. However, she added that it is unfair to put all the blame on the executive for the problem. “Although you may not be entirely informed of your duties prior to running, it is your own responsibility as a student leader, as well as a functioning adult, to understand that you will be required to sacrifice time and commitment to the job,” said Khan. Khan explained that she has made every effort to stay involved in the board this year, despite missing six of seven meetings so far. She explained that she lives outside Toronto in the summer, and experienced scheduling conflicts during the year. She added that the executive is willing to help those with circumstances that affect their ability to carry out their responsibilities.
Sajjad denied that directors are misled about their duties, adding that all board members are made aware of their responsibilities at the UTSU’s summer retreat. “If someone wants to allege otherwise, I say they should come to speak to me if they have a problem,” he said.
“Board members are student volunteers. Some of them may experience barriers to formal participation throughout the year,” said Sajjad, citing personal, academic, and work-related commitments that can interfere with a director’s attendance. He said that board members who have extenuating circumstances remain active in other ways, such as volunteering for campaigns and holding office hours.
Benjamin Crase, the director for Trinity College, said that his four absences are a result of work and school commitments, as well as a number of concerns he had with Board meetings. He was uncomfortable using student money to go on a retreat for one meeting, and to Wonderland for a social. Sajjad responded that union retreats are common educational and team-building practice, and that the tickets to Wonderland were complementary. “Regardless, I am not comfortable taking free stuff when I feel it should be given to others,” said Crase. Crase also felt that the meeting minutes for a meeting he missed skimmed over a substantive written statement he submitted regarding online voting hours. Sajjad said that Crase’s poor attendance record and lack of involvement in committees makes it is hypocritical for him to make negative comments.
Other directors who responded to requests for comment are Vanessa Bridge, UTSU director for the Faculty of Engineering, and Katrina Lorn, UTSU representative for the Faculty of Architecture. Bridge missed five meetings. She said that she had been out of the country, but had informed meeting organizers in advance. She also cited school commitments. Lorn said that she was always careful to proxy her votes to other directors.
Benjamin Coleman, UTSU director for Arts and Science At-Large, said that attendance is an imperfect measure of a director’s performance, since many are active in other ways, such as volunteering on committees. He added that board attendance is likely a result of many candidates running unopposed: “If you’re a student and you look at the attendance record and feel disappointed, then you should run, or help someone run. Better attendance starts with a board that isn’t mostly acclaimed.”
All voting representatives of the Board of Directors are elected during the general spring election. Any unfilled seats are filled during the fall by election.
— With files from Salvatore Bassilone
Governing Council Attendance
Some current members of the Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision-making body, also have a poor meeting attendance record.
Melinda Rogers and Howard Shearer, government appointees, both missed five of seven meetings in 2012±2013, and two of seven meetings this year. Andrew Girgis, a student governor for full-time undergraduate students, missed three of seven meetings in 2012–2013, and one meeting this year. Girgis, Rogers, and Shearer could not be reached for comment. Rita Tsang, a government appointee, missed three of seven meetings in 2012–2013 and one of seven meetings this year. Tsang explained that unforeseen circumstances resulted in scheduling conflicts, but asserted that she takes her role very seriously. Zabeen Hirji missed three meetings in 2012–2013. Two of Hirji’s absences were due to work commitments, while one was related to a day of religious observance.
Louis Charpentier, secretary of Governing Council, said that all members are volunteers, and that the role of members often extends beyond meeting attendance, including advisory roles divisionally and centrally. Judy Goldring, Chair of Governing Council, said that governors and other volunteers do “wonderful work,” stressing that U of T is fortunate to have many dedicated volunteers.