On Jan. 14, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Board of Directors (BoD) ratified the Judicial Board (J-Board) ruling on the case of Glustein v. Koparkar. The J-Board received an appeal after the Oct. 23 Fall General Assembly (GA), when students passed a motion to vote on each BoD member’s ratification individually—the Board is traditionally ratified as a bloc. As a result, three nominees’ positions on the board—Noah Lew, Josephine Wright O’Manique, and Alexander Scheffel—failed to be ratified. The J-Board decision, released on Dec. 31, declared the motion to split the vote unconstitutional, ruling that all BoD members must be ratified as a bloc. The BoD was subsequently ratified online on Jan. 19, with an 84.5 per cent “Yes” vote.
Regardless of the fates of the individual directors or the GA voters’ motivations, the attempt to split the vote speaks to students’ increasingly politicized perceptions of the BoD and its members. These are exacerbated by the Board’s largely unchecked power as SSMU’s highest decision-making body. In addition to four SSMU executives, unlike Legislative Council, the BoD consists of eight student members-at-large appointed via a somewhat invisible internal nomination process. It ratifies or rejects all motions passed at Council, GAs, and referenda periods before they come into effect, as well as all J-Board rulings.
The majority of the time, the BoD’s role is a formality—a rubber stamp approval on a decision made democratically, through the Legislative Council, as it should be. However, recently, the BoD has exercised its power to interfere in SSMU procedures. For example, at its Oct. 29 meeting, the BoD passed a motion to add a question to the Fall 2017 Referendum proposing to raise the GA quorum to 350 students. While the decision was preempted by a student petition, the Board challenged SSMU regulations by adding the question to the referendum period after the Oct. 25 submission deadline. Merits of the motion aside, the fact that the Board went against SSMU internal regulations sets a dangerous precedent. Circumventing SSMU’s democratic decision-making processes flows from a misunderstanding of the BoD’s purpose and constitutes an abuse of the BoD’s power.
As a corporation in Quebec, SSMU is required to have a board of directors. The BoD “supervises the management and administers the business and affairs of” SSMU. Because it is internally appointed, the Board lacks the democratic mandate that the student-elected Legislative Council has. As a result, the Board’s main responsibility should be to ensure that decisions coming out of SSMU Council do not expose the Society to financial or legal liability. Because it is an unelected body, it is essential that the Board not stray from this narrow mandate. In light of recent controversy over the BoD membership and its power, moving forward, further mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that the BoD remains as transparent and apolitical as possible.
As part of an unelected body, Directors are responsible for checking their own political agendas at the door, and serving the student population. Given that there are no checks on the power of the BoD—not even the J-Board is allowed to rule on matters directly concerning the BoD—a Board that makes unilateral political decisions has the power to negate decisions made by the student body or its elected representatives. This leads to fears that members of the BoD will use its power to protect their own political views and interests. That their expressed interests could ultimately be ignored discourages students from participating in democratic SSMU proceedings, which already have infamously low participation levels.
In the future, to prevent further controversy around the BoD, improving the Board’s transparency is crucial. BoD weekly meeting minutes must be updated regularly—the most recent minutes currently available online are from October 2017, and the BoD resolution book hasn’t been updated since June 2016. Moreover, SSMU should make the nominating process for directors more transparent, so students have less of a reason to question the individual members. Still, there should be appropriate channels in place for students to voice concerns about individual board members if they arise.
If the Board remains apolitical and functions as it is meant to, existing simply to protect SSMU’s legal and financial interests and handle various business affairs, there is no need for members to be ratified individually. It should not matter who the individual members of the Board are, as they should all be working towards that same apolitical goal. As the J-Board determined, the BoD is meant to be an appointed body, not an elected one. But that should not preclude McGill students from accountable and transparent leadership at the topmost level of their student society.