Attendance at meetings of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Board of Directors has risen slightly this year despite a significant increase in the number of board meetings. The number of directors consistently absent at meetings has fallen from previous years.
One fifth of directors have missed at least 60 per cent of meetings; last year one quarter of directors missed that many meetings. The average attendance rate currently sits at 64 per cent.
The Board of Directors is an elected group of individuals that represents college and faculty interests in the UTSU. They are classed into three divisions: Division I is comprised of the colleges in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Transitional Year Programme; Division II includes the Professional Faculties; and Division III is representative of UTM.
According to UTSU’s by-laws, the board must meet at least once a month, with additional emergency meetings to be called when necessary. Thus far, the UTSU has had 15 meetings, five of which have been emergency meetings.
There are 38 active directors; the positions for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and for the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education are currently vacant.
The Varsity contacted all 38 directors for comment on this year’s attendance record, five of whom responded as of press time.
Mathias Memmel, director for the Faculty of Music, cited the length of the meetings as a potential reason for the lack of attendance. “Some meetings last as long as six hours. For some people, this is a turn off,” he said.
John Sundara, director for the Toronto School of Theology, agreed with Memmel and referred to the issue as “general meeting fatigue.”
Jess Afonso, director for St Michael’s College, said that the lengthy, contentious meetings left her feeling insignificant and voiceless, and that she does not attend meetings because she no longer wants to.
Although Afonso feels that the UTSU has had numerous successes this year, such as agreeing to divert 50 per cent of engineering student fees back to the Engineering Society and running a voter engagement campaign during the 2015 Federal Election. She believes it took an unreasonable amount of time to accomplish them.
“The one thing I will never forgive the UTSU for is the amount of time it took to be present at those meetings where these motions were debated and voted on,” Afonso said, adding that she remained mostly silent during the meetings. “The problem with [it] is [that] there are so many other board members who act like me: we feel drowned out by the select few amplified voices and it makes us afraid to speak up.”
Afonso listed the policies and procedures that govern the meetings as a barrier to her participation. UTSU board meetings are run according to Roberts Rules of Order, a set of governance principles designed to facilitate the proceedings in a parliamentary fashion. For Afonso, meetings are flooded with procedural showboating that blocks meaningful discussion and participation.
“Robert’s Rules has been the biggest pain in my ass since annotated bibliographies,” Afonso said. “If I tried to speak up — heaven forbid — I’d end up getting shut down because I was out of turn or out of order.”
Afonso acknowledged the importance of procedural compliance but said that there was a “tipping point” at which she felt “too checked” to speak up. “I was in limbo between thinking these meetings were a complete waste of my time, and that ultimately my vote was crucial to the passage of many important motions,” she said.
The most common reason given for absences was the understanding that the directors are students with responsibilities outside of their positions. “Apart from being on the board of directors, students have part-time jobs, schoolwork and personal matters to attend to,” said Peter Zhang, director for New College.
This academic year has seen an exceptionally high number of board meetings. “We’ve had 15 meetings this year and we aren’t even done yet! For reference, last year there were only 9 meetings,” Memmel stated. He added that meetings can be especially challenging for commuters to attend. The UTSU does not subsidize transportation costs for directors who rely on transit to attend meetings downtown. For meetings at UTM, the UTSU has provided a shuttle to and from the St. George campus.
The UTSU permits directors to attend the meetings remotely, through online fora such as Skype or Google Hangouts.
Zhang said that setting the schedule of meetings far in advance may help boost attendance rates. “I think a good thing for next year would be to spend the first meeting of the school year mapping out the remainder of the meetings.”
Raffi Dergalstanian, a director for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, proposed the possibility of a smaller board and reducing the number of meetings. “If I know that a meeting is happening only once a month, I’ll be more inclined to attend.”
With 38 occupied seats and two vacancies, the board should be 40-strong; however, the changes to the Board of Directors structure saw the addition of 12 new seats. The board that will be elected in this year’s UTSU spring elections will comprise 52 members only if all seats are filled.
Is it a problem?
In interviews, the directors did not agree on whether the attendance rate poses a problem. Memmel said that the attendance rate is “concerning.” For Memmel, a directorial absence may mean the loss of representation for their constituency for that meeting. “Some divisions only have one representative and when their voices are absent, the concerns of entire divisions may be too.”
For his part, Dergalstanian believes that it is “unrealistic to expect all board members to attend every meeting.” Sundara said that he was unsure whether it is a problem or not.
UTSU president Ben Coleman believes that measuring attendance is not an accurate reflection of the success of the board. “I would still say that board meeting attendance is an imperfect measure of performance, since board members have so many other responsibilities as well.”
U of T students were similarly split in their perception of the problem’s scale. Pharmaceutical chemistry student Nareg Kara-Yacoubian, said he could “see why [absences are] happening… especially if the topic or issues of a particular discussion don’t affect their groups interests.”
Political science student Tamsyn Riddle feels that the average attendance of directors is “disconcerting” and feels that the directors “should have to attend at least 75 per cent” of the meetings.
Coleman said that overall he is very proud of the board. “The decisions they’ve had to make this year make previous years look easy by comparison,” he said.
Afonso disagreed. “If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that students like me do not belong on the [UTSU Board of Directors]. I encourage more knowledgeable voices to fill board member positions next year. Otherwise, you will have six-hour meetings, which you do not want to be attending — trust me,” she said.
Disclosure: Tamsyn Riddle is a reporter for The Varsity.
Editor’s Note: The infographic has been updated to include an explanatory note. According to the infographic, Raffi Dergalstanian has missed more than six meetings. However, he was elected to serve as a director in November 2015 and had not had the opportunity to attend any meetings prior to his ratification. There have been fewer than six meetings since his ratification.