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Letter to the editor: Hard Talk on the GSA

by The Concordian April 7, 2015
Letter to the editor: Hard Talk on the GSA

It has been an important year for the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), but unfortunately nothing has been delivered. All year, members have contributed to the on-going debate about where to place blame. Popular targets have been the GSA executives, staff, and directors, as well as the diverse academic and experiential backgrounds of our graduate students’ community. Cries for reform take issue with GSA governance yet few have addressed the roots of the problem, and it is crucial for us to also now consider the role played by GSA membership inactivity. I write this to provide context for members interested in moving forward.

The GSA executives have received much disparagement. Given the role of experience in providing a benchmark to assess one’s own performance, it is not surprising that executives this year, as well as the year before, have misconstrued comments made by critics as personal attacks. However, few executives of students’ associations begin with enough background directly preparing them for their roles as student leaders; most learn on the job. Clearly, executives lacking experience is insufficient on its own to support our discontent with the GSA’s performance.

GSA directors have been next in line to receive critical remarks; council attendance and discussions have not matched members’ expectations. Some have also suggested that directors spend much of their meeting time policing one another. My observation is that directors typically work independently on impractical or short-sighted motions such as those entertained this year attempting to reduce quorum requirements for council meetings and general assemblies. When motions are worded in isolation, directors fail to test the waters and to understand views shared by others on the board. If directors engage each other outside of council meetings, then motions can be thought through better, and directors will never find themselves in a position where considerable energy had been exerted on motions which fail to pass. It is true that many hours of council meetings this year have been allocated to needless discussions. Considering that the GSA has for some reason capped the duration of meetings at three hours, limiting time available for discussion, it becomes no surprise that members cannot dig up productive resolutions in council meeting minutes. Beyond council meetings, directors make no time for the GSA and are inaccessible to the membership. Their weak commitment is also why committees of the GSA barely meet, with the assigned work then transferred to the GSA staff. I believe that the GSA committees are tasked with jobs which instead ought to be executed by working groups composed of executives and staff. Committees of the board of directors ought only to approve the output of such working groups, and to abstain from day-to-day matters.  Lacking this structure, it is understandable that directors complain about their workload, and that staff are caught exercising inordinate control over committee business.

GSA staff have been described as acting beyond the scope of their duties; staff are expected not to excessively dominate the decision making process. Some members go further by suggesting that our GSA staff cover for each other and that they act in their self-interest as a group. If they are valid, such claims ought to worry members. However with certainty, one may only deduce that our GSA staff need better supervision, and that any tasks assigned to them must never involve conflicts of interest. In addition, it is vital to introduce an explicit provision in the GSA bylaws which prevents staff members from chairing committees, council, or general assemblies given the influence of such roles on voting behaviour. Our GSA bylaws have been undergoing revisions this year, although the membership and the GSA council have yet to be presented with serious proposals for adjustments.

So where must we begin in order to move forward? It is clear that GSA executives and directors need to be engaged by the membership; we can begin by demanding more and by being specific about campaigns the GSA ought to adopt (or to drop!); we can begin by considering additions to our by-laws as well as policies which we believe are necessary (such as a policy for grievances); we can also begin just by showing up to council meetings and general assemblies and by asking our department associations (especially those very active groups in the arts & science faculty) to play a role in GSA affairs. After all, GSA executives and directors are your representatives who must be lobbied actively in order for them to advocate for student needs (such as more research funding, longer program term-limits, and protection of the diversity of course offerings). What has been missing these past two years is a vibrant culture of community awareness and engagement amongst graduate students. Let’s remind ourselves that democracy doesn’t come knocking but instead begins with active citizens who call themselves to action!

Firas Al Hammoud, MA Economics, Faculty of Arts & Science,
Graduate Student Governor 2014-15

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