Breaking bylaws: why it matters

Op-ed: U of T’s students must provide union oversight, or university administration will

It’s that time of year again. Elections have passed and the post-election posturing has already begun. Discussion for the past few weeks has focused on both the proposed board reform package passed by the outgoing board and the Student Societies Summit report, leaving most of the election controversy behind. However, questions remain unanswered: what are the ramifications of this tumultuous election cycle, and why should U of T students take a closer look at what happened?

To put both of these questions in context, let’s discuss the situation at the University of Windsor. This year’s elections at their student union (UWSA) resulted in almost all of the board positions — and all of the executive positions — being left vacant. This, coupled with a controversial referendum that allegedly broke bylaws, resulted in the university withholding fees from the UWSA. The union is now struggling to regroup, and the university is playing a big role in getting the UWSA back up off its feet.

Similarly, U of T administration’s ability to withhold fees from student groups, and thereby influence their autonomy, has recently become a hot topic on our own campus. The campus unions have condemned the Student Societies Summit report, an initiative by university administration outlining many of these steps, while many college groups support large portions of the report. This move is almost without precedent in Ontario — with the exception of U of W stepping in as the UWSA virtually collapsed. The bylaw violations that the UWSA’s leadership made played a significant role in the student body losing confidence in their union, and ultimately resulted in the situation they are in now.

What lesson can U of T take away from this situation? Bylaw infractions should be taken very seriously. Bylaws form the structure within which corporations or unions function. When they are broken, it can lead to disastrous consequences, and broken bylaws imply that the corporation is not serving its membership properly. Munib Sajjad, preceding UTSU president, and Yolen Bollo-Kamara, succeeding president, have both admitted that the bylaws were violated when voting was extended by one day at UTM, though they have cited inclement weather during polling as justification.

Instead of considering the serious ramifications of circumventing the union’s bylaws, the election results were hastily ratified. Why wasn’t there more consultation with legal counsel? The suggestion was brought up in a Board of Directors meeting but swept aside. When questioned about the legality of their controversial referendum, the UWSA also brushed aside criticism and ended up in the very precarious situation they are now in.

We, as students, are not qualified to simply assume whether something is legal or not. It is shameful that such a reasonable request for legal consultation was brushed aside by the board. Had I sat on the board last year, I would have been sure to raise this point. Unfortunately, it is now this year’s board that must bear the responsibility for whatever consequences arise as a result of bylaw violations. Students should be worried about the university seizing on this opportunity, which I would argue they already have. I encourage everyone who is as worried as I am about this issue to talk to your board representative, or the executive team. Circumventing bylaws only strengthens the argument that more oversight is needed for our union, and if students do not provide that oversight, the administration will.

Ryan Gomes is a third-year student at the Faculty of Engineering, as well as a board member on the UTSU Board of Directors and the Vice President of Academic Affairs at the U of T Engineering Society.

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