Analysis: who’s right about the status of the GSU Board?

The union’s leadership disagrees with its oversight body about who is allowed to conduct oversight on it

The Board of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) and the union’s leadership have presented competing views on the legitimacy of that board. In essence, the GSU Executive claims that the board’s term in office expired in July and that a “new board” has now been appointed “in accordance with established procedures”. The board says that no new board can be appointed except at a general meeting of the union, and that the executive’s action is clearly related to a board report over the summer that criticised the union’s leadership and its level of accountability.

Who’s right? The answer is somewhat complicated. The fuzziness stems from where this now long-running crisis began; the GSU’s EGM in April. That meeting was, among other things, meant to pass a new constitution for the union. Indeed, the union’s leadership claims that a new constitution was voted in then.

There are a few problems with that idea: first, one of the three votes implementing the constitution only passed by a 51-49% majority, but any changes to the constitution require a two-thirds majority. Second, many members reported being unable to participate in any of those votes due to technical issues. Third, partially due to the two aforementioned issues, the entire legitimacy of that April meeting and all measures taken at it is up for debate – that was what the board was investigating when it reported that GSU President Gisèle Scanlon did not cooperate with it.

So there are two constitutions—the pre-2021 version and the 2021 version—that have claim to govern the working of the GSU currently, depending on how you view the legitimacy of that April EGM. What, then, does each of those constitutions say about this issue of the status of the board?

The pre-2021 version unequivocally supports the board’s view. It says: “The mode of appointment of voting members of the GSU Board shall be through the nominating committee, as established under the relevant schedule. The Nominating Committee shall present nominees which shall be approved at AGM.” If that constitution stands, it’s clear; there can be no “new board” because there has not been an AGM.

The 2021 constitution is less clear. It says: “There shall be a Graduate Students’ Union Board which shall be constituted in accordance with [this article of the constitution].” One of the supposed benefits of the new constitution was that it delegates some procedures to by-laws rather than precisely enumerating them in the text.

The problem? Those by-laws, if they exist, are not publicly available anywhere. The GSU leadership did not explain what the “established procedures” through which its “new board” was appointed were, and even if GSU members knew what procedures were taken, there’s therefore no way to verify if they are the correct ones.

As an aside, there are numerous other problems with the 2021 constitution, aside from its frequent references to inaccessible documents and the lack of clarity as to whether it actually is the constitution. For example, article 18 says that “any question of interpretation of the articles of or by-laws created ancillary to this constitution may be referred to the GSU Board in accordance with the provisions of article 20”. Unfortunately, this version of the constitution only has 19 articles.

In summary then, there are two competing constitutions, one of which supports the board’s view (i.e. that it is still the board), the other of which says nothing in particular on the matter.

It is possible that there is somewhere a set of procedures that support the GSU Executive’s view that it is legitimate in claiming to have replaced the board. However, in this case, the executive would have taken this step behind closed doors, according to a set of rules that are not public knowledge, on the basis of a constitution whose legitimacy is the entire source of this controversy, to replace an oversight body in the process of investigating it. Aside from being very difficult to verify, no one could seriously claim that this would be in keeping with principles of transparency and accountability.

So who’s right about the status of the GSU Board? There isn’t a definitive answer, because it rests on a series of other questions about which there is no clear consensus. But the board can at least point to a constitution that supports its interpretation, whereas much of the executive’s position rests on missing documents and unexplained claims.

There’s also a broader point here; the board and the executive disagree over interpretation of the constitution, but the board is the body tasked with interpreting the constitution (in both versions) and overseeing the executive. The board’s interpretation can be overruled by a general meeting of the union but as mentioned earlier, there has not been one of those held on this issue. So there’s a strong argument there that, basically by default, the board is right.

Perhaps the simplest answer would be to hold a general meeting of the union and vote on these issues, once and for all.

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the Editor-in-chief of the 68th edition of Trinity News. He is a Computer & Electronic Engineering graduate, and a former Assistant Editor, Online Editor, and Deputy Online Editor.