Evaluating WUSA’s new governance model Past and present student leaders weigh in on transition and structure

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This term has been rocked by public criticism towards WUSA’s new governance system. Among the channels where this discontent has been raised is the Discord server “WUSA Reform,” an informal group created to promote discussion and civil debate. On Oct. 4, several leaders associated with the WUSA Reform server carried out a protest in the Student Life Centre, during which students discussed pressing issues alongside certain members of WUSA’s board of directors.

One grievance with the new governance model is that it has allegedly stripped power away from student leaders, a concern previously voiced by Stephanie Ye-Mowe, former 2022-2023 WUSA president. After her term as President, Ye-Mowe was elected as a member of the 2023-24 board, from which she later resigned. In her letter of resignation in July, they said, “I can no longer in good conscience support the adoption of a governance model that I view as promoting the exclusion of students from student government,” in reference to new by-laws implemented last year.

The Creation of the New Model 

On Sept. 1, 2022, WUSA officially instated a new set of by-laws that replaced its old constitution. This by-law reorganized WUSA’s governance structure, replacing its previous institutions — Student Council and the Board of Directors, and Executive — with a single Board of Directors.

In 2014, WUSA, then known as the Federation of Students (Feds), commissioned a full governance review. In accordance with the 2020-2025 strategic plan, WUSA commissioned a second governance review in 2021, hiring the Halifax-based Risser & Hughes Consulting. The consultants produced a governance review report in 2022, recommending that the association transition to a “Governing Board-Permanent CEO corporate governance model.”

In an email to Imprint, Michael Hughes of Risser & Hughes said that the new by-laws had been drafted by WUSA’s corporate lawyers after the firm offered their input.

Abbie Simpson, chair of the WUSA Board of Directors from 2021 until her resignation in July 2022, told Imprint over email that she originally pushed for a governance review after the alleged poor treatment of her executive team by staff and students. She refused to provide further detail on who was behind this alleged treatment.

“I was concerned about executive well-being in the future, as well as our ability to collaborate with our student volunteers in the Service Centers given their treatment by [the] Students’ Council and students at large,” she said.

The governance review highlighted several challenges present in the previous model, based on focus group and interview responses from 30 current and former staff and student leaders. Respondents generally believed that the model was “excessively robust,” that students were disconnected and not aware of how it functioned, and that governance issues were systemic rather than personal.

Benjamin Easton, 2021-22 WUSA president, told Imprint in a written statement that in the former governance scheme, “at times, the roles could feel like they existed just to justify why things had happened, rather than making change.”

One of the summary findings in the governance review similarly mentioned that interviewees felt that “the majority of the communication is done on a reactionary basis to deal with specific issues that arise.”

Easton added that the complaint of students’ lack of control over the organization is not a new one. Changing the old model was a topic of interest for at least eight years preceding the governance review.

To confirm the transition to the new system, a four-month extension to WUSA’s governance term as well as a reduction to the number of people needed for quorum at general meetings was approved at a Special General Meeting (SGM) in February 2022. A motion in favour of the new governance model was to be raised in March and May 2022, but the matter was not brought to vote.

At a June 2022 SGM, the motion was raised again, and this time, it passed by a vote of 103 to 9. The new by-laws became official on Sept. 1, 2022, the same day the new board took office. On this day, the former executives, Board of Directors and Students’ Council were dissolved, replaced by a Board of Directors made up of 13 members, headed by a president and vice-president.

The New Governance System In Practice

Transitional Issues

Jeff Zhu, currently serving in his second year as member of the Board, said in an email that the immediate transition to the model has been “marked with difficulties.”

“Since fall 2022, WUSA has been continuing to repair gaps left in the wake of the governance restructure,” Zhu said. “This has been frustrating for student leaders who want to get things done because rebuilding processes and systems takes time, but is a consequence of such dramatic change.”

Zhu also stated that student leaders and staff have been working together to “iron out the kinks of the transition.”

Lack of understanding allegedly contributed to the feeling that the Board was unable to perform important leadership tasks. Having undergone a period of rapid transition, certain board members felt powerless in achieving their goals in office.

Rania Datoo, a director on last year’s Board, says that she was not provided proper information on the new model or board in general, adding that how WUSA worked was always “very ambiguous.”

Datoo says that it felt like the Board had not been able to enact “meaningful change” because of how the governance model worked, and because many changes were being made simultaneously during the transitional period.

Naman Sood, another director on last year’s Board, recounts their experience advocating for increased funding for clubs.

“Once we got in, we tried to make that happen, but operationally, things felt like such a mess. It was hard to figure out who to talk to for a proper analysis of where money was going and how it could be spent better. We wanted to get our ideas out there, but we couldn’t figure out how.”

There is no consensus on whether difficulties in carrying out operational tasks that fulfill advocacy goals are due to the newness of the governance structure or the nature of the structure itself.

In a statement issued by then-president Easton on Dec. 10, 2021, he said that the change to the governance model was being undertaken to “help [WUSA] create an accessible, accountable, transparent and democratic governance system.”

Current director Tham Sivakumaran does not believe that these objectives have been met but clarifies that she doesn’t think it’s “necessarily” because of the new structure but rather because of its novelty.

Zhu says that roles and responsibilities for Board members are still being figured out.

“Where previously student executives were responsible for everything in a defined portfolio, leaders are now loosely apportioned to different focuses through committee work and external assignments.”

Zhu continued: “Execution falls under the responsibility of the Executive Director, who assigns work to support staff. This means that even today we’re figuring out how student directors can best succeed in their roles: adapting based off the needs of students and the organization.”

A Necessary Change?

Simpson said that although she did not push for the current structure, she did advocate for the governance review.

“I saw value in trying a new model that better utilized staff and reduced stress on student executives who often were hindered by day-to-day tasks, so they could focus on long-term planning and student advocacy instead.”

WUSA president Rory Norris said that the Students’ Council was struggling leading up to the governance restructuring.

“During the final years of council before the governance change, the total number of people on the council was around 40, which you can imagine created problems when it came to scheduling, problems with quorum, problems with by-elections and students not running for council positions and meeting length.”

Sood commented that part of the reason for transitioning away from the old model was due to “really low” student engagement.

“It still is — but it was really low. And one of the problems that we were running into was that we had a lot of positions for student leaders, and a lot of them would stay empty all the time.”

Focus group respondents thought that low engagement combined with an “excessively robust” set of roles and responsibilities made the old system “feel obsolete.” However, while the new model was meant to increase voter turnout, this year’s WUSA general election records the lowest voter turnout in a general election since at least 2014, at 3.28%.

During his time as president, Easton said that “the new model is conducive to [increasing voter turnout].”

In hindsight, Easton believes that it would be “disingenuous” to say that governance changes alone caused the historically low turnout and further added that “the 3% of students who decided to vote were given a greater variety of candidates than they may have had under the old model.”

Students’ Council

Zhu commented on the governance restructuring and elimination of the Students’ Council.

“On one hand, there are many advantages to this, but in the past, Council fulfilled the role of a forum dedicated to student representation and opinion, making complaints visible. That function hasn’t quite found a home yet in the new model — the Board is jointly responsible for representation and corporate affairs (including legal and fiduciary duties) which sometimes constrains its words and actions.”

For the former Students’ Council, the responsibility of representation and consultation with students was explicit. Article 8.1 of the old by-laws included the mandate that councillors must “actively engage and consult with students regarding the undergraduate student experience.” This mandate is absent from the current by-laws.

WUSA director of communications Melissa Thomas said that in the Board Policy Manual, Article 5.1. states that a Board director’s role is to “continually improve their understanding of the ownership’s collective will.” As part of this collective will, “their role [is] to engage with the membership and know what’s important to students.”

In an Oct. 4 speech at the WUSA Reform protest, speaker Hannah Vines said that the new system is not able to address the current climate. “We need a student union willing and able to listen to our evolving concerns to keep us satisfied and meet the changing needs of the population.”

The consultants recommended that “the new role of the president shall be to be the chief representative and advocate for the student body.” The Board policy manual only explicitly mentions advocacy as a presidential duty in the context of “university governance.” Under the new governance model, the executive director of WUSA is now the CEO of the corporation, whereas this was previously the position of the president.

Board’s Fiduciary Duty

A fiduciary duty is the legal responsibility to act solely in the best interest of another party – and in this case, it has come up repeatedly as a barrier that Board members face when attempting to represent students. Directors Zhu and Alex Chaban told Imprint that they could not make certain statements because of these duties to WUSA.

Chaban said in a written statement via email that “one of the largest difficulties that [he has] faced relating to governance is the balance of being an elected student representative while also maintaining a fiduciary duty to WUSA. This dual role can be a difficult balance to take on, one that may not have been fully recognized during the governance change.”

WUSA Reform leader Akash Narshana and other activists were concerned that this places constraints on Board advocacy.

“The current Board of Directors, including the president or vice-president, are less able to perform meaningful student advocacy as a result of the fiduciary duties that all the directors are bound by,” Narshana says.

Sivakumaran said that although this was still a “work in progress,” the advocacy role that Council previously held is now being channeled into other departments of WUSA.

“There are other places in WUSA where you can bring advocacy positions forward. And in a sense, that’s where council has gone —  it hasn’t disappeared.” She mentioned examples such as an advocacy committee that consists of five directors and three at-large students, as well as the advocacy department that now employs six full-time staff members.

Sivakumaran also says that the current Board is not intended to be a replacement for the council.

“As a board member you have a fiduciary duty to WUSA, and you are required to make these big decisions, but you’re not the do-er,” she says. “If there’s a topic that you’re passionate about like sustainability, or housing, there are other places in WUSA where you can bring those forward.”

Zhu further explained that Officers and the Board are no longer “do-ers”: execution now falls on new student roles embedded into the staff structure like the new Student Advocate Support roles.

Firewall between Operations and Governance

Zhu said the individuals tasked with governing WUSA through voting and high-level directing (the Board) are no longer in charge of making day-to-day operational decisions.

Sood explained the rationale behind this change. “It was a really common belief among the executives of the past that they were not qualified for the responsibility that they had. Like the VP of operations and finance would handle all sorts of financial stuff for us, without really having a background in finance necessarily. The previous executives recognized this problem, and the new model came as a response to that.”

However, under the new model, Board members highlighted ambiguity surrounding the extent to which student leaders can exert power over WUSA’s general operational activities.

Sood said that certain consultants and board members trying to facilitate the transition to the new model told them that their agenda was “too operational,” and to not “worry about that stuff.”

Sivakumaran said that when she was working on a consultation document related to the university’s recent co-op reneging policy changes, there were concerns that she was doing “staff’s work.”

“My concern was that staff didn’t have the capacity to get the document done in time because it was time-sensitive,” she said. “Ultimately, I brought it back to staff for editing. But there was still a question of what is board’s work and what is staff’s work, because staff is there to support board, and board is there to provide the student perspective. So where does that balance lie?”

The minutes (section 8.1) of the May 31, 2023 Board meeting reveal ambiguity surrounding this balance when Ye-Mowe asked why the Advocacy Specialist position did not go to the board for approval as usual. E. Wingate confirmed that the new policy manual does not require that job descriptions receive board approval before posting, and Ye-Move flagged for board’s information that job descriptions typically go to board due to the financial implications attached to bringing on new roles.

Thomas said via email that the financial implications of jobs “have always been and still are approved by the Board,” but that staff creates the new job descriptions under the new model.

Datoo said that last year she felt like every time she tried to push something forward, she was met with perpetual delays.

“The organization kept saying, ‘Oh, this is an administrative issue, and therefore it does not follow the board’s responsibilities.’ So every time we tried to push towards a change, if it was considered an administrative issue, then we would not actually get the resources or the guidance that we needed to enact said policy change or any sort of increased student support.”

Sivakumaran suggested one possible solution to advocacy concerns could be hiring more students as staff.

“You want board to speak for students. But you also want to let staff do their jobs because their jobs help make board’s job easier. If students are part of staff, then you get student voices on each side, and you get those different perspectives you need.”

Zhu felt similarly. “I feel like it’d be a good idea to explore students working for the organization. We have them in part-time roles, yes. But we could potentially enable more student positions, especially on the advocacy fronts.”

The Governance Model Moving Forward

According to Zhu, the Board will be launching town hall-style roundtables to actively engage students in next year’s annual planning process, to ensure that the student body’s voice remains central to shaping WUSA’s priorities.

Norris confirmed this. “Going forward we are looking at ways to continue [WUSA Reform] discussions through things like Town Halls and other events where students can come out, meet with the board members there to represent them.”

“WUSA is by students, for students,” Sivakamaran added. “It’s just not as clear as it used to be, but it’s still there. And that’s kind of the point of the roundtable: to recognize that it’s still there. It just looks different.”

Whether or not looking different, translates to being different, is the source of ongoing debate. This issue could hit the debate stage in February ahead of WUSA’s 2024 elections.

Arya Razmjoo, a second-year student, said that he is planning to run for WUSA president alongside a team of director candidates. When asked if he is running on a WUSA Reform platform, he said “it’s complicated.” Razmjoo stated that if he gets into office he would conduct a full investigation of the institution to identify areas of concern and potential inefficiencies.

“I want to first investigate the institution from the inside to see what is lacking. What are the inefficiencies?” he said. “We will make necessary changes to ensure that the system is actually working and we have the student voice prioritized.” He further stated that one policy focus will be to create an independent HR department, separate from  university administration.

Razmjoo said once in office, he would not completely change the current governance model but rather look into streaming it by making minor changes.

A candidate running on a platform that includes structural change to the governance model has not yet been confirmed, but Vines said, “We are in talks with some people about collaborating on platforms that revolve around WUSA reform.”

The first WUSA roundtable will be on Nov. 14 at 5:00 p.m. in the Black and Gold room.

With files from Abhiraj Lamba and Andres Fuentes.