On Feb. 17, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Executive Committee released a statement requesting the resignation of Igor Sadikov from his positions as a director and as an Arts representative to the SSMU Legislative Council. The request comes after Sadikov tweeted “punch a zionist [sic] today,” which the SSMU executives deemed “an incitement of violence” in violation of the Standard of Care outlined in the SSMU Constitution. The Feb. 17 statement came two days after a meeting between the SSMU executives and McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier, during which Fortier claims she shared her “strong belief” that SSMU should call on Sadikov to resign.
This meeting between Fortier and SSMU executives calls the relationship between student governance bodies and the university administration into question. The administration is justified in wanting to respond to the current situation; however, the administration must take care that the manner in which it exercises its authority does not undermine the independence of SSMU. Recent events demonstrate how susceptible student societies may be to pressure from the administration.
Under Quebec law, SSMU is a corporation independent from McGill, run by its 10-member Board of Directors (BoD). The relationship between SSMU and McGill is determined by a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) that guarantees SSMU’s independence from McGill. However, McGill can declare SSMU to have defaulted on the MoA if it judges that the society violated its own constitution.
Maintaining SSMU’s operational independence from the university is crucial—while McGill must balance the interests of many groups, SSMU is the only body on campus that exists solely to represent the interests of students. The society remains the most accessible governing body to students; if its independence is violated, students lose their most direct means to affect change at the upper levels of the university’s administration.
The McGill administration’s desire to intervene in the Sadikov affair is understandable: It must ensure the safety of its students after an incitement to violence, while maintaining its image in the face of a media storm in response to the tweet.
In order to avoid even the appearance of compromising SSMU’s autonomy, McGill must ensure that it engages with SSMU transparently. McGill can express its concern over SSMU and the decisions of its BoD, but it must ultimately respect that it does not decide who sits on SSMU Council—students do. Secret meetings with SSMU executives give the appearance that the administration is meddling in student governance. Even if the meeting is not coercive, the opacity of the process damages the image of both parties. Fortier’s justification that the Sadikov case is an “exceptional” circumstance is also worrisome, as this condition seems to have been unilaterally defined by the administration, and could be used to justify interventions in the future.
The administration must also ensure its actions do not preempt the student governance process. When a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) motion was passed at the Winter 2016 General Assembly, Fortier waited until the motion had been defeated in online ratification to express the administration’s stance on BDS. In her statement, which condemned BDS, Fortier noted, “The University as an institution has not commented publicly until now out of respect for the student governance process.” This standard of respect should apply equally to the current case—the student governance process is still ongoing, as the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) will vote on Sadikov’s impeachment on Feb 22.
The administration’s actions reflect a failure on SSMU’s part as well. To the administration, and to many students, the SSMU BoD failed its constituents by choosing not to impeach Sadikov, revealing the need for means of additional recourse within SSMU.The Judicial Board has been able to fill this role in past cases, but it does not have the authority to overturn BoD decisions. If a minority of students ever feel that they have been wronged—and especially they have been made to feel less safe—by a SSMU decision, channels for recourse must be fair and accessible.
In the meantime, the administration must make it clear that its role in this matter was not coercive. Further, it must clarify what it defines as “exceptional” so that it may be held accountable to this standard in future instances. SSMU’s representative autonomy is meaningless unless it is clear that it is able to make decisions with which the administration does not agree.
Lauren Benson-Armer, Aaron Rose, Clare Lyle, Joe Khammar, David Watson, and Natalie Vineberg believe that the McGill administration is justified in intervening with student governance if the student governance process fails to rectify extreme circumstances, such as cases of incited violence.