The University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) is facing criticism from some students regarding closed-door meetings that were held with St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) council members.
A social media campaign called Our SMC was started by University of Toronto Students’ Union SMC Director Georgina Merhom to bring attention to what she sees as a transparency problem with the administration.
Last week, USMC announced through USMC News that they would be taking steps to form a new students’ union to replace SMCSU, which is the subject of a financial investigation by the university following alleged financial mismanagement.
SMCSU also made headlines after former and then-current council members were involved in a series of leaked Snapchat videos depicting jokes about Islam.
This past September, USMC President David Mulroney announced plans to reform the administration’s relationship with SMCSU and other student groups as a result of a disconnect in values; this has led to increased involvement on the part of the administration in USMC student life.
Since February 7, Our SMC organizers have been posting information about SMCSU’s recent controversies and criticizing the USMC administration’s handling of the situation through Twitter and Facebook. According to the Our SMC page, the campaign “aims to get students engaged in a much needed conversation about what’s been happening on our campus.”
Merhom started it in order to “engage students in an open conversation following USMC’s decision to replace St. Michael’s College Student Union with a new student government.”
Behind closed doors
Merhom told The Varsity that SMCSU had two recent closed-door meetings with USMC administration. The decision to prorogue council in December 2016 was presented in one such closed-door meeting.
According to Merhom, “Council was given two options to vote on: to dissolve SMCSU entirely or to prorogue Council activities for six weeks. There was no third option, and Council chose to do the latter.”
Merhom explained that, at the second meeting after prorogation, Mulroney told members of council, “SMCSU was going to be replaced by a ‘new student government.’” The decision was, “not one that was voted on by elected student representatives,” according to Merhom.
USMC subsequently told The Varsity that a student survey on how the college should proceed with student governance was in the works.
“After informing Council that SMCSU is being replaced by a new student government, USMC President, Mr. David Mulroney, invited all SMCSU Councillors to help create a survey that is intended to engage with as many student voices as possible,” said Merhom.
“I agree that there is no better way to serve our membership than to listen to their voices first, however this cannot be efficient if SMCSU’s membership is uninformed and there is a lack of transparency and accountability,” she went on.
Neither a chair nor a scribe were present at either meeting to mediate or transcribe, Merhom reports.
Merhom says the meetings left her feeling “intimidated, pressured, and voiceless; I felt unable to adequately represent my membership.”
Merhom also believes that holding closed-door meetings may violate SMCSU’s constitution.
“Our constitution is not just a set of ‘practices,’” explained Merhom, “These bylaws exist to ensure that SMCSU is operating in a way that is transparent and accountable to its membership. It gives students rights, such as the ability to attend Council meetings, add motions to the agenda, and be able access a transcribed version of every meeting.”
“Replacing the Council of SMCSU with a new student government is, in my opinion, not the responsible, transparent, or accountable way to proceed. We have a lot of amends to make and a lot of healing to do. SMC students deserve better” she said.
SMCSU Speaker Ben Coleman echoed Merhom’s concerns on how the meetings have been operating. He noted in an email to The Varsity that while he was the speaker, he has not been invited to any committee meetings and previously had chaired only three council meetings.
“I’ve told council that these closed-door meetings run by the SMC administration are unconstitutional. They rob members of their Article II rights to know what SMCSU is doing and how decisions are made. SMC admin have also given themselves unconstitutional signing authority on student’s money and veto power over student events. The council members that have responded to my constitutional concerns do so privately—they’re scared to speak up and feel coerced by the administration,” Coleman told The Varsity.
USMC Director of Communications Stefan Slovak did not specifically answer inquiries on whether the closed-door meetings violate the SMCSU constitution and instead referred The Varsity to the Policy Document for Student Societies at The University of St. Michael’s College and a statement on USMC’s website from January 17.
Who’s got the money?
SMCSU’s signing authority has been passed on to Assistant Dean — Campus Life Oriana Bertucci and Chief Administrative Officer Bursar Effie Slapnicar, according to former SMCSU finance commissioner Vasare Gatelye.
Slovak did not confirm that signing authority had been handed off to members of the USMC administration.
“Already approved activities such as intramural sports and student clubs will continue to receive funding,” Slovak told The Varsity. “As for the remainder of current SMCSU funds, they will remain in their accounts.”
Gatelye also noted that Bertucci and Slapnicar “have the authority to sign cheques within the 2016-2017 Fall/Winter budget.”
Gatelye stated that the “transfer of signing authorities is by no means a result of the audit.”
She also confirmed that unused funds would be made available to the 2017–2018 SMC Council.
The college released a statement through USMC News on Thursday that discussed the restructure of SMCSU.
“The University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) continues to engage students in the renewal of student government. We offer this report to members of the USMC community as a means to better understand the process now underway. We will update it as work continues,” the statement begins.
The administration also noted that a questionnaire will be circulated so that USMC students can add input on the new SMCSU.
“It is hoped that the questionnaire will also serve as a vehicle for encouraging participation in government by students who have to date not felt themselves included or even welcome in the process… In the meantime, we will strike a committee, involving participation by students across the USMC community, to harvest ideas from the questionnaire and to plan for the holding of new elections in March, 2017,” the statement continues.
When The Varsity reached out to confirm the committee’s members and what has been discussed to date, Slovak referred to the statement provided by USMC and offered no additional comment.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the article mistakenly reported that the transfer of the signing authorities was voted on by SMCSU council. In fact, it was the budget that was voted on, not the transfer of signing authorities.