WUSA Governance Review Update (November 2021)

Published: Friday, November 26, 2021
To promote and maintain responsible student government 

Object 2, Charter of the Federation of Students, University of Waterloo (link)

Editor’s note: On Sunday, November 21st Students’ Council accepted the consultants’ final report and its primary recommendation to combine Students’ Council and the Board of Directors into a single governing body, elected from the membership. Council and Board will meet in the next two weeks to identify the next steps for moving the recommendations forward. We will share updates when we have more concrete information, likely following the December Regular Meeting of Students’ Council on Sunday, December 5th.

A brief history

In 1967, three students applied to the Ontario government to become the first directors of the Federation of Students, University of Waterloo. The Provincial Secretary issued a Charter for the non-profit corporation, with the goal to “promote the welfare and interests of the Students of The University of Waterloo in all matters respecting their common interests[.]”

The young Federation had to create a set of rules to govern itself. These rules were outlined in the bylaws, which describe three main decision-making bodies: Students’ Council, the Board of Directors, and the General Meeting. Each group’s membership, powers, and responsibilities are derived from this document.

Students’ Council is the voice of the membership. Representatives are elected from each faculty, university college, and satellite campus based on population. The bylaws make Council responsible for preparing the budget, deciding student priorities through policy, and overseeing clubs, services, societies, and elections. Council can also act as the General Meeting, as needed (e.g., in a global pandemic). Members of Council are supposed to make decisions based on the interests of the constituents who elect them, though each member is entitled to decide what that looks like.

The Board of Directors deals with finance, human resources, and legal affairs, including budget approval and evaluating executive performance. Importantly, the Board is not a representative body; rather, it is responsible for the long-term health of the organization. This relatively smaller body includes four at-large students, two student councilors, the President and VP Operations & Finance, each who have a fiduciary responsibility to the corporation (i.e., they are bound to act in its best interest). The eight directors share ultimate legal liability for all activities of the organization, including the societies.

At the General Meeting, every student has a vote and the right to speak. It’s held annually in March, where students receive the audit, ratify executive elections, elect the at-large and councilor-directors, consider member proposals, and ratify any bylaw amendments proposed by the Board. Since March 2020, Students’ Council has conducted the business of the GM, since the minimum 200 in-person attendance requirement has been impossible to reach. This governance system made a lot of sense when the Federation had a few thousand members and a handful of employees. The Board helped the executives manage day-to-day operations, while Council brought together reps from the faculty societies to decide advocacy stances, plan events (like antiwar marches or founding a tent city) and organize volunteer student-run services (such as the Waterloo Baby Commune).

This governance system made a lot of sense when the Federation had a few thousand members and a handful of employees. The Board helped the executives manage day-to-day operations, while Council brought together reps from the faculty societies to decide advocacy stances, plan events (like antiwar marches or founding a tent city) and organize volunteer student-run services (such as ;the Waterloo Baby Commune).

Where we are today

Now, 55 years (and a re-brand) later, the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) is a very different organization. We serve 35,000 members through more than a dozen student-run services and commercial operations, 250+ clubs, six faculty societies, and three satellite campus student groups. We lobby the provincial and federal governments through our advocacy alliances and represent students to local government, too (see UCRUOUSA; and WUSA Housing Report for example). We employ hundreds of students part-time and have over 40 full-time staff. Our annual operating budget totals $7-million, and we are accountable for another $30+ million each year through transfers to societies, the GRT UPass, health, dental and legal insurance programs.

As WUSA has become an ever-larger organization, our governance has evolved through decades of iterative change. A bylaw amendment here,a new procedure there, and a never-ending revision of the policies to top it off. This process has left us with governing documents numbering over 500 pages in total. These documents are so complex and inconsistent that they often confuse where they should provide guidance, yet we expect all governance volunteers and executives to read and intimately understand them. I fear this expectation of expertise prevents would-be student leaders from running for office, thus contributing to an unintentional bias in WUSA governance.

Why a governance review?

The 2020-2025 Strategic & Long-Range Plan and 2021-2022 Annual Plan highlight these concerns, making a governance review a priority. Since the start of the fall term, we have worked with a pair of consultants with expertise in student association governance to help us address these issues. They have met with student councilors, directors, executives, full-time staff, and at-large students to understand how WUSA is governed today.

In the context of this review, we should reflect on what we want this association to be. What is our vision? What do we value? We are a democratic organization. We are accountable to our student members. We value diversity, equity and inclusion. How do we make these ideals a reality? 

An inclusive organization must afford equitable access to all members. Any willing student should have the chance to have their voice heard in our association. In this way, we can better reflect the diversity of students we serve. Governance expertise should not be a requirement to participate nor to succeed.

An accountable organization must be transparent. If governance volunteers and executives know what is expected of them, they become empowered to contribute to our association for the benefit of all students. There should be clarity of powers and responsibilities where the status quo complicates.

A democratic organization is controlled by its members. This power can be exercised in many forms. We should want a governance system that is responsive to the student voice, while aware of the administrative inertia that comes with any organization of our size. If we can find the right balance between these competing factors, we can help future student leaders be set up for success.

What comes next?

So, what about the governance review? On Thursday, November 11th, the Board accepted the consultants’ final report and its primary recommendation that WUSA merge Students’ Council and the Board of Directors into a single governing body, elected at-large from the membership. This group would act both as representatives and fiduciaries (not unlike a municipal council, for example), and elect amongst themselves a President and Vice-President to share responsibility for representing WUSA to governments, university committees, and student advocacy alliances. Students’ Council is now being asked to accept the report, as the Board has recommended.

To be clear, this is a significant change for our organization. Any move to a new model will include a period of transition where unforeseen problems will need to be solved. It’s unreasonable to expect immediate perfection, especially in an organization as large as ours. This process will continue to include Council and Board as we try to improve WUSA for the long-term benefit of students.

Nevertheless, we should consider the merits of the new model based on our values as a student-governed organization. Moving to a single governing body gives us the chance to simplify our policies and procedures, thus promoting transparency, accountability, and accessibility in WUSA governance. Separating professional management from governance gives students more control over the direction of the organization, making a system more responsive to the needs of our members.

We can keep better parts of our current system, too. For example, our committees let students get involved at a lower level of responsibility, while offering a platform for constituency-based representation through the faculty societies. Groups like the Education Advisory Council, Co-op Students’ Council, the Committee of Presidents, and the Committee on Access and Disability all do excellent work. There’s no reason for the new model to prevent that work from continuing.

The student leaders now in office will decide the future of WUSA governance based on what they believe is the best interest of students. What do you think? Get in touch with me by email at pres@wusa.ca. I’m happy to answer any questions about governance, or WUSA in general. Let’s talk!


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