‘We’re all mobilized, all of us’

“Resignations won’t fix the problem. Now if you want to talk about reform, I think reform is needed.” —Amine Dabchy, Student Representative on the board of governors

In the weeks since Concordia President Judith Woodsworth was dismissed, the university’s political landscape has been upended.

The departure, orchestrated by Concordia’s board of governors, ignited long-standing tensions between the university’s academic structure and its increasingly corporate and assertive governing body.

On Monday morning, the university’s typically cautious faculty association issued a damning message to the board’s chair and his entourage: resign. The faculty association’s strong statement was the last in a series of escalating demands from groups at the university.

The faculty association joined a unanimous motion of non-confidence from the 25 chairs of the faculty of Arts and Science; a call for the removal of the board’s 23 community-at-large members by the Arts and Science Federation of Associations; a call from the Concordia Student Union for the board’s 13 external members whose terms had expired to resign; and a letter signed by 300 professors detailing the need for an investigation into the board’s actions.

With the exception of the university’s alumni association, which came out in support of the board, the lines of conflict have been drawn; the board is facing the university’s students, faculty and staff.

The final showdown is expected on Jan. 21 at a meeting of the university senate, Concordia’s highest academic body.

If the senate approves a motion of non-confidence, the board will officially be found to be operating against the university’s best interests.

Reform the Board

Since 2000, the university has doled out $10 million in settlements to 45 departing administrators, according to Maria Peluso, the head of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association.

That amount represents the annual tuition of 3,300 Quebec students.

“They have failed to protect the financial interests of public funds,” Peluso said of the board. “The idea that these bailouts are confidential is rubbish, because public funds at a public institution are hardly private.”

Woodsworth’s $703,500 severance package was the latest in the university’s costly history of paying outgoing administrators. An agreement signed by Woodsworth and the board stipulated that the former president’s severance came with the conditions of confidentiality and that she officially resign for personal reasons.

“This issue is not going to be buried under soiled carpet, nor will a spin doctor be able to fix the mess,” continued Peluso. “It requires a serious understanding of where the issues and the problems are.”

On Monday, Peluso told The Link a serious overhaul of the university’s board of governors was needed and would only be achieved through an independent inquiry. The concept of reforming the board has united people from almost every faction within the Concordia community.

“We’re all mobilized, all of us,” said Peluso. “Some of us have different priorities and concerns, but we are all fed up by how this place is being run: a small group of people in the hands of a small group of people.”

Last Wednesday, former CSU president Amine Dabchy and student union councillor Ethan Cox cast aside debating rules, engaging in a frenzied argument in front of CSU Council.

Dabchy, who is the sole representative of students on the board’s executive committee, fervently defended Woodsworth’s dismissal while Cox motioned to have 23 board members removed from office.

However, both agreed that effective university governance required a series of reforms to Concordia’s board of governors.

“Resignations won’t fix the problem,” said Dabchy. “Now if you want to talk about reform, I think reform is needed[…] I would like to see a board of governors run like it is in France, by academics.”

Cox sees the board’s community-at-large members, who are largely corporate executives, as the source of Concordia’s dysfunction.

“We need to change the formula,” said Cox. “To increase the internal representation with the students, the faculty, the staff, the ones who actually make the school go round taking up a larger place on the board.

“We need to change the criteria of what constitutes a member-at-large,” continued Cox. “The members-at-large don’t represent the diversity within the Montreal community. I’d like to see someone from a non-profit organization in there.”

Peluso suggested that the board’s members-at-large be split into two groups: the number of corporate representatives would be capped at 10 while, an additional 10 members would be selected from community groups, youth groups and unions.

The Alumni Defends

The only group to come to the board’s defence was the university’s alumni association—Dabchy’s employer until recently. The association wrote, in a recently issued statement, that the process was conducted fairly and objectively.

“Every communication that the board issues engenders a lot of angst, more concern and anger,” said Peluso. “The latest incident was the alumni message that is on the Concordia website, where they have become apologists for the Board of Governors. As an alumni member, I don’t know where the alumni got their facts from.”

The Student Charge

Although Dabchy publicly claimed that Woodsworth had lost the confidence of Concordia’s students, the firing has caused a rift within Concordia’s two largest undergraduate student governments.

On Monday, just days after one of the most contentious student union meetings in recent memory, five CSU councillors signed a letter denouncing the four undergraduate members who represent students on the board of Governors. The letter also accused the board’s student representatives of acting against their constituents best interests and denounced the CSU councillors who wouldn’t take a stand against the board.

At Wednesday’s CSU Council meeting, the five councillors wanted all 23 of the board’s community-at-large members to step down, putting them at odds with some of Council’s more seasoned politicians.

Councillor Aaron Green and members of the CSU executive stressed the need for the CSU to be realistic about what change they could achieve by calling for mass resignations.

But to many in attendance, their request fell on deaf ears.

“The call for realism is over,” said Holly Nazar, speaking on behalf of the university’s Graduate Student Association. “When [GSA President] Adnan Abueid tried to present the board with a motion in September, most of them didn’t even bother voting on it.”

To the Board’s many opponents, the idea of collaborating with the governing body is no longer possible. While the issue of wholesale reform may have been a fringe topic in early December, the events that have transpired since then have made it a necessity to most groups on campus.

With all the rhetoric surrounding the firing, some critics have pointed out that the bigger issues have been lost in the chaos.

“It’s the frequency and pattern,” said Peluso of the board’s firing practices. “We don’t have hiring that is sustainable. Did the board not choose Lajeunnesse? Did the board not choose Woodsworth? Or did they choose badly? They need to take responsibility for what they did.

“They seem to ignore that the university belongs to us.”

By us, she clarified: the university’s students, faculty and staff.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 19, published January 18, 2011.