WUSA proposes changes in governance following review Major changes are expected to happen within WUSA's governing bodies after receiving advice from external consultants

Graphic by Sarah Morassutti

The Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) has published a governance review in which consultants recommended that the Students’ Council and the Board of Directors be merged into a single governing body that would act as both a representative to the student body and as a fiduciary to the nonprofit corporation that is WUSA. These recommendations have been accepted by the board and council, who are now working to outline the process for implementing the changes. 

The new single-governing-body structure would constitute a significant change for WUSA, which currently operates under a bicameral model, where Students’ Council serves as the representation for students and the Board of Directors is responsible for WUSA’s corporate functions, though the two groups collaborate to direct the organization. WUSA’s four executives — the president, vice-president operations and finance, vice-president student life and vice-president education — provide day-to-day leadership to the organization and oversee both its corporate and advocacy initiatives. The three student bodies work alongside a team of administrative staff. 

Under the current structure, WUSA’s membership — undergraduate students at UW — selects the executives and the Students’ Council in a general election in the winter term. The board is elected during the general meeting, an annual meeting open to the undergraduate student body, where students can provide direction and feedback to their representatives. Elected representatives serve from the beginning of the spring term to the end of the next winter term. 

“Primarily, we are an advocacy organization. We exist to represent the interests of [undergraduate] students to decision-makers on campus, being university administrators, and to government officials in municipal, provincial and federal government. And then we provide campus life services in the form of our student-run services and our commercial operations in the SLC,” said Benjamin Easton, the current WUSA president and former chair of the Board of Directors. 

However, there are several challenges associated with the current model, some of which have become more pronounced over the past two years, as student engagement in campus life has been restricted by the pandemic. 

One major issue WUSA faces is low voter turnout. From 2012 to 2017, the highest voter turnout was around 15 per cent, while the lowest was approximately 4.7 per cent. In the 2021 general election, turnout was only 5 per cent, meaning only 1,729 of 34,084 eligible voters participated in the election process. Moreover, many candidates run unopposed, weakening their validity as elected representatives, and several council seats are usually left empty following the general election.

Easton acknowledged that with such low turnout, it can be difficult to evaluate whether executives and councillors truly represent what students want. “How am I legitimately the representative?” he asked. “On paper, I’m the singular representative of all undergraduate students but people could challenge that and say, ‘Well, how does that make any sense? You ran unopposed. 900 people voted for you.’” 

Engagement with WUSA is further diminished by facets of the current structure that inhibit accountability amongst elected leaders and confuse students who want to be involved with the governance process. For example, WUSA’s current policy and procedure manuals are several-hundred pages long. “So you want to get involved in WUSA, okay, read 500 pages. Nobody does that, it’s an unreasonable expectation,” Easton said. 

It is also often unclear who students should contact with issues. “It’s almost a misuse of student effort, where people [elected representatives] want to guide the direction of the organization, but then they’re finding themselves in positions where they can’t really do that. And then that’s sort of like obfuscates transparency and accountability of our organization, where you have some any issue that you want to raise, but part of your effort is trying to find where in the organization you should bring your complaint to,” Easton added. 

Once issues are brought to WUSA, the delegation of power can be confusing. “In recent years, the person who has the power to make those decisions is getting a little confusing and muddled which makes it hard to hold people accountable,” Simpson said.

In light of these issues, when the current executives assumed their roles in the spring of 2021, they employed the services of governance consultants to review the organization’s structure and identify areas where changes would better serve the undergraduate population. 

The consultants were selected based on their success at other institutions, including a similar governance review for Students Nova Scotia as well as their work with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

The biggest recommendation from the consultants was that WUSA should combine the Students’ Council and Board of Directors into a single governing body of 13 people — fewer than the current council, more than the current board. While the current council consists of more than 30 elected positions selected from each faculty, campus and college, under the new structure, there would be no designated spots for students from any of these groups. Instead, the 13-member board would be elected from the entire student body at the winter general election. The board would then elect an executive team amongst themselves. 

Easton said he believes this system would encourage more competitive elections. “I would suggest part of the reason that we don’t have competitive elections is because we have too many seats,” he said, noting that students would still have opportunities to be involved with WUSA in other ways. 

Ultimately, both Easton and Simpson believe the proposed structure would enable WUSA to better serve students in several areas. 

Simpson argued that the new structure would encourage accountability and efficiency. “In the current system, it’s really difficult to hold people accountable to the decisions that they’re making,” she said. “That’s the part I’m hoping gets clarified [in the new structure], so students know where to go and know who their advocates are.” 

Additionally, it can often take a long time for proposed initiatives to be enacted. Under the current structure, WUSA’s advocacy abilities can sometimes be restricted because the different bodies are so separated. Currently, the board and council will often review suggestions separately, which can lead to duplicated efforts and slower uptakes, even when both bodies agree. Similarly, some responsibilities are duplicated between executives and administrative staff, which reduces the amount executives can accomplish during their term. Simpson said she believes that under the new structure, the 13 elected students would share corporate and advocacy responsibilities and work as one body advocating on behalf of all undergraduates. 

However, just as there are potential benefits associated with governance changes, there are also potential concerns. In a governance update published on the WUSA website, Easton wrote that “any move to a new model will include a period of transition where unforeseen problems will need to be solved.” He asserted that “it’s unreasonable to expect immediate perfection, especially in an organization as large as ours.”

When asked about what issues he expected might arise, he mentioned that the administrative staff, who typically retain their positions for longer periods than elected officials, will have to adapt to a new system. “It’s hard because you can’t know the particularities of the issues that will arise until you’re there. We have to make a decision based on the best available information we have,” he said. 

Still, he believes the change is necessary. “[We understand] that the status quo is not a sustainable solution for the long term of our organization, and change will have to happen at some point,” he said. “I’m optimistic about our ability to deal with it now, especially coming out of the pandemic with the return to campus. I think now is a good time to do it.”

Simpson added that the governance consultants would support the organization through the changes, which alleviates many concerns she would otherwise have had about such significant reforms. “[Because] we have the consultants who will be helping our staff, train our volunteers, train the people who will be making our policies and procedures, I have a lot of confidence that our regular scheduled programming will go off without a hitch,” she said. 

She doubts the changes will affect any services or supports accessed by the general student body. “Really, [students are] just going to see fewer people on their ballot. They’re going to see fewer elections throughout the year, which actually will deal with a lot of election fatigue.”

Since both the board and the council have accepted the consultants’ final report, the two groups are in the process of deciding how to move the recommendations forward. The proposed changes to WUSA’s structure will require significant updates to the organization’s policies and bylaws. To accommodate for the necessary changes, the 2022 general election, which is typically held in January, will be delayed. 

Easton outlined how student input will be considered during this process. “Any changes will have to be approved by a majority vote of the council, two-thirds of the board, and then ratified at a general meeting of the membership,” he said. 

He emphasized the importance of remaining transparent and keeping students informed. “We’ve shared [the review] with the [faculty] societies as well through the committee of presidents. We’re using our existing governing channels to communicate the changes, again, understanding, you know, it’s a pandemic, we have a lot of members, there are limits to communication,” he said, adding “I’ve offered to make myself available for students that have questions and asked for feedback.”