Attendance at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors has risen this year; however, there is yet to be a meeting with a full house. Last year, The Varsity found that nearly half of the directors missed four of seven meetings.
Of the 39 filled positions, just under a quarter of directors have missed four of seven meetings so far. All directors have been to at least two meetings, but only three directors — April Huang from the Faculty of Nursing, Jenny Lin from Woodsworth, and Ryan Gomes from Engineering — have attended all seven meetings.
The Board of Directors is the UTSU’s highest decision-making body and is responsible for the advocacy and services of the union.
The Varsity reached out to each director for this article. Ten responded, with the the most common responses being academic, extra-curricular, or work-related schedule conflicts. Some directors mentioned location and short notice of meetings as other reasons that prevented them from attending.
Kevin Lunianga, an Arts & Science at large director, admits to missing “a handful of meetings” throughout the year because the meeting times conflict with his classes. Lunianga has a busy schedule; he is enrolled in six classes and works at Robarts Library. Lunianga is one of six directors who has missed five meetings.
“I have missed BoD meetings when there have been scholastic conflicts or other medically related extracurricular events that I have needed to attend,” says Tom Ying, director for the Faculty of Medicine. Ying has missed four of seven meetings.
Naveed Ahmed, a director from UTM, says that, for him, the location of the meetings is one of the greatest barriers to attending the meetings. He has missed three meetings, but has overcome the issue of location by attending via Skype or phone.
Sydney Lang, Woodsworth College director, believes that timing is the main culprit. Lang says that although directors send in their weekly schedule at the beginning of the semester, meetings are not set based on availability for any given month. Lang has missed one meeting.
“We are only usually told about the date two weeks before, so lack of notice might be a cause, although I obviously understand how hard it is to organize a time where all directors are available,” Lang adds.
“I also think that a lack of investment in the Union may be a factor. We had a much greater turnout in the beginning of the year when directors were invested in the motions we were voting on, such as the new board structure,” Lang says. She notes that the board has focused on policy changes and observed a decline in turnout when items such as tuition fees, sexual violence on campus, and equity initiatives have been on the agenda instead.
Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president, says that Board members are informed of their responsibilities when they receive a copy of the UTSU bylaws and policies, and when such policies are reviewed at the board retreat. However, Bollo-Kamara understands that Board of Director positions are voluntary. “We recognize that Board members are student volunteers and this allows for consideration of extenuating circumstances, including extended illness, family commitments and academic schedules,” she says.
“I absolutely believe that absenteeism is an issue facing the UTSU Board, and I’ve raised this concern to the executive before,” says Nick Grant, a director for New College. “Board of Director meetings are highest decision making authority when it comes to UTSU, it is really crucial for all of the constituency to be well represented at these meetings,” says Ahmed. “[With] that being said, I feel absenteeism is an issue at Board of Directors meetings as when certain directors choose not to come, it’s just not them, but their constituency’s voice is left unheard,” Ahmed adds.
Eric Schwenger, one of the directors for University College, echoes Lang’s sentiments. “I think there’s a level of apathy developing amongst the Board,” he shares. “The environment can be very cold and offputting, especially when we’re presented with 100-page long Board packages a few days prior to the meetings to review in addition to our course readings.”
Schwenger considers absenteeism to be a minor problem. “Given the above restraints, I feel the turnout to meetings is actually quite respectable and meaningful discussion does ensue from the representatives present,” he remarks.
Among Schwenger’s suggestions to increase engagement is moving meetings to weekends, similar to the meetings of many college and professional faculty student societies.
Attendance at Commissions
Directors are responsible for joining at least two commissions. Zach Morgenstern, a director for Victoria College, has been to two Community Action meetings and belongs to the Academic and Student Rights Commission.
While he has fulfilled his duty of being on two commissions, Morgenstern says he is more inclined to attend commissions where he feels there is a political discussion to be had and “where [he] can make a real contribution, not just rubber stamp an agenda.”
Morgenstern points out that it is part of a board member’s job to hold office hours. In Morgenstern’s view, this in practice means participate in UTSU campaigns. “I was pretty disappointed that when I attended 2/3 of the UTSU’s activist assembly, no non-executive board members got involved,” Morgenstern says. “[We’re] a union, our activism should be seen as our most important campaigns.”
Under the UTSU’s bylaws, a Division I or Division II director, who represent the colleges and professional faculties, shall be deemed to have delivered their resignation if they meet any one of three criteria: if they fail to attend three consecutive meetings or any four meetings of the Board, including the Annual General Meeting; if they fail to attend three consecutive meetings or any four meetings of a Commission or Committee to which such Directors have been appointed; or if they fail to meet the requirements of the office. The invocation of the bylaw requires a majority vote at a Board meeting.
According to the bylaws, these criteria come into effect starting September 1 each year. Ergo, absences during the first four meetings, which are held over the summer months, cannot be used to claim that a director has delivered their resignation.
“We monitor the attendance of Board members and remind them of this policy throughout the year,” says Bollo-Kamara, adding that, at the January Board meeting, directors were told that a motion to accept the resignation of absentee directors would be forthcoming.
Andi Musa, a Professional Faculty at large director, does not think that there are any members that consistently miss meetings. “The UTSU permits using digital means to attend a meeting, this makes it difficult for any board member to actually miss three meetings in a row, or any four meetings,” Musa says.
“I would say it’s fair,” Lunianga says of the bylaw. “Unfortunately, certain folks on the board are very disengaged which I think stems from their introduction to the board. In my 2 years on the board, I found that individuals who were asked to run by someone else tended to be less engaged and committed than folks who either ran independently or who actively sought to run for the board themselves. There are, nonetheless, exceptions to this rule,” he says.
On the other hand, Ryan Schwenger, director for the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, does not think the rule is fair. “‘Abandonment of Office’” is a horribly pessimistic way of putting it,” he says, referring to the title of the bylaw.
“Often individuals miss meetings because they have other commitments to attend to which are perfectly legitimate and may be of greater importance than a board meeting. As long as there isn’t a trend of missed meetings, an explanation is provided and an attempt is made to Skype in or attend subsequent meetings, I don’t think it should be considered that a director has abandoned their position,” he adds.
Victor Lee, also a Victoria College director, says that the bylaw has its pros and cons. Lee believes that the bylaw is good for accountability. “Four meetings is half of the meetings during the school year and I think it is fair to ask the members to be present at least half of the meetings,” he says.
Lee notes that directors are not required to stay for the entire duration of meetings, which often run over time. “One of our meetings earlier this year went up to around 9 hours and was split into two parts. It would be unfair to penalize someone for being unable to sit through all of that,” Lee states.
“I do think that it’s very good that summer meetings don’t count into the total number of meetings that you’re allowed to miss. Many people are away in the summer and even though they are given the option to Skype in, depending on where they are, a meeting might take place at 3 AM in the morning at their time zone and I think it would also be unfair to penalize them for being unable to attend,” he adds.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained incorrect information about the number of directors who have missed five meetings.