Attendance has long been an issue for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). The Annual General Meetings typically attract only a small fraction of the student body, and a recent analysis in a Varsity news story revealed that this issue is prevalent among Board of Directors members as well. Based on the UTSU Bylaw X.2 on “Abandonment of Office,” 29 per cent of this year’s board can be assumed to have resigned from their positions for excessive absences. This bylaw excludes members of the Executive Committee, General Equity Directors, and University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union directors.
The attendance of directors is crucial to fair representation. While the members of the student body may not have the time or means to attend meetings, the directors who are elected to represent them should be committed to the responsibilities of their roles.
UTSU executives are held accountable by a board of directors whose members are either elected or appointed to their positions. These directors are expected to influence UTSU decision-making according to the varying needs of their constituents. In the case of the seven General Equity Directors, they are specifically responsible for advocating for marginalized groups within the student body.
Consequently, attendance is necessary to ensure that constituents are being fairly represented at these meetings and that they are informed of the board’s decisions. It is important for directors to be present and to make informed decisions with their constituents in mind.
This is not to mention that each director has a perspective and mandate that is unique to their position — meaning that directors are absolutely critical to maintaining checks on the actions of the executive committee. Holding executives accountable is an important aspect of the director role, as they are required to stay mindful of executives’ conduct as well as the content of their decision-making.
In 2015, the UTSU board impeached a director for excessive absences that resulted from a “lack of involvement and representation” on the part of that member of the board. Former UTSU President Ben Coleman justified what had happened by saying, “The UTSU board has often been criticized in the past for not taking absences seriously, and this strikes a different tone where the expectation for representatives are much higher.”
In contrast, on the recent absences, current UTSU President Mathias Memmel said, “The role of the board is to hold the executives accountable, so it would be inappropriate for us to start disciplining directors or trying to remove them from the board.”
Memmel’s approach suggests that the board holds substantial power over the executives. This ignores the representational duties that absentee directors are neglecting, as well as the reciprocal nature of accountability between executives and board members that underlaid Coleman’s previous leadership.
Admittedly, it can be difficult for all members of the board to get highly involved with UTSU affairs. As Vice-President Internal Daman Singh wrote, “There is a small group of very involved directors but a larger group of directors who are less involved… it’s difficult for individual Directors to feel meaningfully engaged in the work of the organization.”
Although the sheer size of meetings can indeed be daunting and might explain why some directors are less present than others, it does not provide an excuse for absence. In choosing to hold office, directors have a responsibility to engage in these meetings for their constituents. This does not require every director to be vocal during debates, but they should at least be physically present and actively listening to the discussions.
The accountability role of directors on the board arguably plays a more important role than ever today, as the UTSU Executive Committee has filled two vacant seats with appointed representatives following multiple resignations. Carina Zhang, one of two elected executives who were not part of the Demand Better slate during the 2017 UTSU elections, resigned in September. She was replaced by Adrian Huntelar, a former General Equity Director. Similarly, former Vice-President Campus Life Stuart Norton, who resigned late last year, was replaced by Ammara Wasim. The UTSU now faces accountability concerns in two respects: poor attendance on the part of elected directors, and two of its current executive members not having been democratically elected at all.
Without a strong board whose members are both engaged in its politics and present for its meetings in the first place, the UTSU may be left vulnerable to issues of accountability and abuses of power. Likewise, directors must be held accountable for their actions by the other members of the board. If the UTSU does not comply with its own policies by removing absentee directors, then it brings the legitimacy of all of its actions into question. Repercussions for absences and tighter regulations on director attendance at meetings will reinforce the UTSU’s commitment to maintaining accountability and equitable decision-making.
Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.