If someone you voted for in the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring election was elected to the board, there’s an 18 per cent chance they have bid their position farewell.
Of the 39 elected members that initially occupied the board following the spring election, a total of seven, for a host of reasons, have now officially resigned from their posts. The union lost two executives and five elected directors: Vice-President University Affairs Carina Zhang, Vice-President Campus Life Stuart Norton, University College Director Aidan Swirsky, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering Directors Danja Papajani and Andrew Sweeny, Victoria College Director Hamboluhle Moyo, and Mathematics and Physical Sciences Director Wilson Wu. Appointed General Equity Directors Ted Williamson and Gaby Garcia-Casanova have also resigned, bringing the number of UTSU resignations to a total of nine thus far in the academic year.
It should be noted that Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA) President Rebekah Tam occupied the Faculty of Music Director position until the FMUA elected its Vice-President External, who, as per the organization’s bylaws, stepped in to fill the role. Tam’s resignation from her temporary post was not included in The Varsity’s calculations above.
The UTSU’s bylaws outline the appropriate procedures for replacing any vacancies on the board. As per By-Law X, s. 5, Division I or II Director vacancies occurring after the nomination period for the fall byelections, which take place at the beginning of October, are to be replaced through an interim election process, in which any candidate belonging to the constituency in question can run, but only board members are able to vote. Executive resignations that occur prior to August 1 must be replaced via byelection, while those occurring August 1 or later are replaced through an internal hiring process wherein at least two candidates must be recommended to the board for a vote.
In summary, if resignations occur after the prescribed deadlines, the members who remain on the board are granted substantial control over whom their new co-workers will be. Four of the representatives outlined above have since been replaced in this manner, and it is unclear as of yet whether the seats formerly belonging to Swirsky, Moyo, or Wu will meet the same fate.
There is also reason to believe the UTSU is anticipating the possibility of future resignations. At the Board of Directors meeting on January 26, the UTSU appointed a Director Shortlisting Committee for the purpose of seeking members in the community who could apply to fill any future vacancies.
Given the UTSU’s mandate to advocate for and provide services to the constituents who put them in power, any substantial turnover in staff warrants further examination, particularly when elected representatives are replaced through internal mechanisms later in the year.
Many people might have reason to be concerned about the democratic legitimacy of the UTSU to begin with. Voter turnout has hovered from 9–13 per cent over the past few years, and as of December 2017, 29 per cent of this year’s board has been absent from enough meetings to technically warrant their removal altogether. Unexpected facelifts to the Board of Directors’ roll call can hardly help matters in this regard.
The impacts of a resignation, in turn, can be significant. Directors and executives are generally elected on the basis of specific platforms and promises, and they work hard to represent their constituents during their time in office. Once those representatives are out of the picture, it is possible their projects may be left behind, the work they pursued through UTSU committees and commissions might be delayed, or the ideas they pitched to students throughout the course of their campaigns may not make it past the cutting room floor. If representatives quit too late in the year, replacing them may not be feasible at all.
Given the problems associated with resignations, it is in students’ best interest to understand why they happen in the first place. Certain cases this year hint at serious concerns about the board’s operations. Sweeny resigned following a majority board vote to approve the Hudson lawsuit settlement, stating that it was “so disappointing” that the UTSU had lost his support. Meanwhile, Swirsky’s resignation letter to the board expressed he had experienced “a number of ongoing personal and professional disagreements with some colleagues” and that divergences in beliefs with the members he had run alongside during the election cycle had taken a substantial emotional toll.
Both these cases suggest that resignation can sometimes result from fundamental problems that representatives experience when trying to work together throughout the year.
Other times, frustratingly, we are given no insight into what happened at all. Little has been said about the departures of multiple representatives this year, including both executives, except that they resigned for “personal reasons.” Though it is not our prerogative to disrespect the privacy of these individuals, it should be acknowledged that little information is ultimately made available to students on reasons why their formerly elected representatives are being replaced.
To its credit, the UTSU has released statements about the two executive resignations that took place this year. However, there is also no formal obligation to publicize such information. As confirmed by UTSU Vice-President External Anne Boucher in conversation with The Varsity, all that is required when a representative resigns is for email notice to be given to the meeting chair, though it should be noted that resignations are formally accepted at Board of Director meetings and therefore eventually appear in agendas and minutes. The present circumstances might therefore amount to difficulties when trying to engage in meaningful conversations about the dynamics that lead to resignation — a situation not conducive to preventing them in the future.
In an email to The Varsity, UTSU President Mathias Memmel wrote, “The UTSU is a demanding organization, and we shouldn’t expect volunteer directors to make it the most important thing in their lives. If a director or even an executive is fundamentally unable to do their job, they shouldn’t be shamed for resigning. No one is served by elected representatives who aren’t in a position to represent anyone.” Though we agree with these sentiments, a student union cannot claim to be fully democratic when it becomes commonplace for their elected members to be replaced by appointed ones. The members who currently sit on the board should see it as their responsibility to fulfil the democratic mandate granted to them by students and to remain on board for as long as possible.
In a similar vein, Boucher told The Varsity that she was disappointed with the number of resignations the board has received so far, and she expressed the need to rethink engagement with the board and the UTSU membership.
Meanwhile, our job as journalists is to make information about the UTSU as accessible as possible to the student body. This means we’ll be striving to better publicize any resignations that may happen the future. The UTSU team’s efforts to work together and our commitment to transparency hopefully mean we can ride out the rest of the year without having to wonder why another seat at the board table is empty.