After serving half of his term as vice president, university affairs on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Executive Committee, Pierre Harfouche has resigned from office.
Harfouche broke the news to the UTSU Board of Directors in a resignation letter sent via email on November 26. His letter cited an inability to accomplish his key goals, his deteriorating mental health, and his discomfort with being paid by students who he feels unable to represent.
Harfouche was the sole Team Unite executive elected in March 2014. He was the first executive member who did not run on a slate that included incumbents in eight years.
Previously, Harfouche served as a director on the UTSU board, where he urged the union to recognize the positions of divisions seeking fee diversion.
The UTSU divided
Asha*, a member of the UTSU Board of Directors, notes the rift between what she views as two different sides.
“Throughout the summer and continuing into the school year, you could definitely feel the tension and divide between Pierre and — I won’t say all of the [executives] — but a lot of the [executives]… I really almost felt like I was back in high school and they were two different cliques in the UTSU,” Asha says.
“I just feel like there’s a difference between socially not getting along and then literally kind of stopping him from doing his job,” Asha says, referring to an incident in which she alleges that Harfouche was intentionally not notified of legal counsel’s presence at a Board of Directors meeting during the summer. “If other [executives] are notified that legal counsel is coming, then he has the right to be as well. I felt that they were trying to make him look stupid and unprepared,” she says.
Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president, says that she has always worked to maintain a safe and respectful working environment for all members of the UTSU executive, as well as all other staff, volunteers, and board members.
She adds that she has made a point of addressing any issues brought to her attention with the individuals involved.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Pierre was unable to stay on as an executive, but I support his making a decision that he felt was best, and wish him well,” says Bollo-Kamara, adding, “being an employer and a student representative of a large-scale organization like the UTSU can be a difficult adjustment for first-time executives and it certainly becomes more difficult when there are concerns about your behaviour towards others.”
When Asha brought her concerns to other members of the UTSU executive, she did not feel that they acknowledged how Harfouche was treated. “I felt so strongly about how they were treating him that I even went to some of the [executives] to talk about it. I said, ‘I’ve heard some other execs talking about this, and even about how the board members [sic] talking about this,’ and I was really taken aback and embarrassed, and [Yolen] was like, ‘oh, I didn’t know that was how you took it,’ and kind of got defensive about it,” Asha recalls.
Bollo-Kamara alleges that Harfouche broke the UTSU’s bylaws. “Pierre has been made aware that he has broken the bylaws on numerous occasions, from not working the minimum required hours, to failing to pass a budget for the Academic and Student Rights Commission that he chairs,” she says.
“Certain roles involve more traditional 9-5 work hours while others involve strategic thinking, reflection, and reading, particularly meeting minutes, budgets, and university policy,” Harfouche says. “It’s very easy for anyone to accuse each other of not accomplishing the required number of work hours.”
Harfouche claims that he did pass a budget for the commission and it was approved by the Budget Committee. Harfouche said that it was approved in October, before the approval of the UTSU’s operating budget.
“It was difficult to work when access to information was difficult or worse, information was being withheld from me… information in the UTSU is extremely limited and shared on a need-to-know basis, regardless of whether or not it is illegal to withhold such information,” Harfouche alleges.
“I cannot work in an environment where the executives fundamentally do not want to share information with coworkers or the Board of Directors,” he adds.
Naming the management of the Student Commons project as an example, Harfouche says that, from day one, he was repeatedly told that the Student Commons Operating Agreement was not available for executives to see and that only individuals involved in the negotiations and the president could view the agreement.
“Hours later, I found out that this information was categorically false, as the agreement had already been posted publicly on the governing council website and had been discussed and debated at the University Affairs Board,” Harfouche says.
Harfouche also claims that the UTSU seems to have created a Student Commons Committee but does not know when exactly it was created.
According to Harfouche, the committee is comprised of the vice-president internal, the president, and the vice-president, campus life. Although the committee produced promotional materials to lobby governors for the approval of the Student Commons project, Harfouche claims that there was no selection process for this committee and that it never sought input from the other executives or the Board of Directors.
“As VP [of University Affairs], the bylaws charge me with being the chief [liaison] between the University, student societies, and the UTSU,” Harfouche says. “Through not including me on any [Student Commons] discussions, I was not able to fulfill that portion of my job description.”
Bollo-Kamara says that Harfouche would often complain about not knowing information after missing a training session without letting others know. “We worked to schedule things around his full-time work commitments for much of the summer, but he frequently missed or caused the postponing of important information sessions on staff relations, how the office functioned, the student commons project and more, due to unexpected absences,” Bollo-Kamara says.
Power dynamics and disagreements
In his resignation letter, Harfouche also implored the Board of Directors to consider the power dynamics within the UTSU.
Harfouche claims that he was never able to access UTSU archives without being accompanied by a staff member — an instruction that he says came from the executive director and the vice-president, internal. “I bear no ill-will to the staff in the office, but rather to the policies which the UTSU has adopted which concentrate all office-related decisions into the hands of two or three individuals,” he says.
Harfouche also took issue with the executive compensation system.
Harfouche says he was unwell for two full weeks in November and thus unable to fulfill his duties. “Four days into my illness, I requested that my salary be withheld as I had essentially just taken unpaid time off. My request was ignored — even after following up two days later,” Harfouche says.
Among Harfouche’s concerns is the process used to gather feedback on initiatives. “Simply telling students and student societies to submit alternative board proposals doesn’t move the conversation forward,” Harfouche says.
Harfouche suggests that the UTSU should be making documents to help students create legal, complete, and equitable proposals instead.
“Within the Executive Committee we prioritize working towards consensus on decisions where possible, and at minimum ensuring that all perspectives are heard and given due consideration,” Bollo-Kamara says.
Harfouche also alleges that the minutes of executive and Board of Directors meetings were heavily edited and that entire arguments were misrepresented. “It became extremely hard for me to express myself at executive committee meetings because I had absolutely no way of proofreading the minutes before they were sent to the board for approval,” says Harfouche.
During Harfouche’s last week in office, he alleges that his final executive report was modified to remove a paragraph about the University of Toronto’s mental health report and how board members could send him feedback to forward to the university.
“When the board package was released, there was absolutely no mention about mental health — no other executive had even mentioned it in their own report. I had even sent the executives an email informing them I put this paragraph explicitly in my report and that I invited others to build on it,” Harfouche says.
Since the UTSU’s bylaws prevent any by-election from being held between December 1 and September 10 of any year, the UTSU will take applications for the position of vice president, university affairs. From the applicants, no fewer than two candidates will be chosen to present to the Board of Directors, who will then decide who will replace Harfouche.
The process has raised concerns among some campus leaders. “The fact that the Executive has the power to create a very small short list, and thereby exclude candidates that they may not like but who would do a better job, is especially concerning,” say Tina Saban and Connor Anear, co-heads of Trinity College.
Teresa Nguyen, president of the Engineering Society (EngSoc), also expressed a lack of confidence in the procedure. “EngSoc has already determined that all of [UTSU’s] processes are so broken to the point where they can appoint their own incumbents,” she says.
*Name changed at source’s request for anonymity.