On November 29, 2016 the office of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) President released a report called “A Seat at the Table: An Analysis of the McGill University BoG [Board of Governors].” The SSMU press release announcing the research report stated that “the current state of governance at McGill University has perpetuated an environment where community members feel disenfranchised and unheard by the Board of Governors [BoG].” Among other things, SSMU asked to expand member-at-large seats (Board members who are not faculty, staff, or students) from the McGill community, the public nomination of said members-at-large, greater diversity, tracked voting for all decisions, and consultative protocols for student input in decision-making. Although procedure which addresses the final demand has since been implemented, it has been ineffective, and has shown a lack of true commitment to increasing student input. If the BoG claims to be open to the McGill’s community input, they must be held accountable. Instead, they are leaving no space for student engagement, activism, or dissent.
At the December 1, 2016 BoG meeting, the Board passed a resolution which established twenty minute community sessions twice a year. Members of the McGill community can submit written questions prior to the community session, and receive a written response. If they have follow-up questions, they are allotted five minutes to ask them at the Board’s community sessions.
However, community sessions are an ineffective solution to the BoG’s lack of accountability and transparency. The Board not only gets to choose which questions it gets to answer, but also retains the right to decline a question if an individual or group has previously appeared before the Board meeting asking a similar question, even if the question was inadequately answered or dismissed in a previous session. While the Chair of the Board, Stuart (Kip) Cobbett, has called the community sessions a “step ahead,” in reality the community sessions are a weak façade of democracy. Five minutes per interaction simply isn’t enough time to explain an issue and receive a substantial response. Moreover, during a community session, the Board has proven that it reserves the right not to clarify a response when pushed for additional details, and thereby shut down the discussion.
As pointed out by SSMU in “A Seat at the Table,” too many important discussions at McGill happen behind closed doors. The decision-making process lacks transparency at the best of times, and is riddled with conflicts of interest at worst. The Chair should relinquish their right to reject a question if a similar one has already been asked.Moreover, the choice of which questions get answered should not solely be at the discretion of the Chair: student representatives should have a role in deciding which questions get heard. In order to ensure that the BoG is held accountable to the McGill community, there must be a greater representation of students on the board – as of now, the only students who sit on the board are the SSMU president and the PGSS Secretary General, which is insufficient representation of a vast and varied student body. Additionally, the Board must heed SSMU’s recommendations on actively recruiting and creating designated seats for governors who reflect the diversity of the wider community, such as Indigenous people, people of colour, trans people, and people with disabilities.
This article has been amended for clarification. The Nominating, Governance, and Ethics Committee of the Board plans to review the SSMU requests when they meet in April.