SGPS transparency called into question

Graduate students challenge accountability of executives

Ex-Commissioners Jhordan Layne and Ciara Bracken-Roche express their fears for the current state of the SGPS following a heated restructure.

A recent restructuring at the Queen’s graduate student society has led to the removal of several commissioners, setting off an inflamed debate over the transparency of executive decisions.

The Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) now has four commissions – the social, athletics, equity and diversity and international commissions. The athletics commission was added during the restructuring process.

The restructuring — which passed after a vote at a special council meeting on Oct. 27 — removed the option to internally renew contracts for commissioners and coordinators who had the same positions last year.

This effectively voided contracts for commissioners or coordinators, triggering a new hiring period. Two of the three incumbent commissioners were replaced by new candidates.

The number of coordinator positions hasn’t been set by the new commissioners, so it’s unclear how many of the previous coordinators will be rehired.

SGPS executives insist that the decision erased an unfairly preferential and inefficient system where someone could hold a position for years. Commissioners and coordinators who were removed, meanwhile, have argued that the decision demonstrated a lack of transparency and communication with students.

The restructuring also removed the set number and set compensation levels of coordinators, gave commissioners responsibility for hiring coordinators and deciding on coordinator salaries, and created a new Athletics Commissioner position.

Read Special Meeting Agenda here. 

The restructuring of SGPS hired positions

The decision to restructure kicked off a rehiring period by voiding the previous internal contract renewal option. This resulted in the replacement of all prior incumbents except for Equity Commissioner Erica Baker.

In an interview with The Journal, SGPS Vice President (Professional) Mark Asfar said the restructuring increases the autonomy of the commissions.

“We decided to shift the ways the commissions are done, to make it basically more autonomous, give the commissions more power, let them pick the vision for their year.”

He said the commissioners’ new ability to choose coordinators, decide on pay and adjust the number of hires based on need allows for more effective work.

“Instead of having these set, stagnant positions that are very structured, and you can’t change anything about them, in the future, you can really do what you want with the commission,” he said.

Asfar said the option to renew contracts internally had been “vaguely nepotistic” and didn’t foster new talent.

The current executive team wanted to avoid “[commissioners staying] in a role for years on end, without ever seeking new talent,” he said.

He said Erica Baker was rehired because she was the only commissioner to indicate interest in being rehired by a given deadline. She went through the external hiring process before she was hired, he added.

While Asfar conceded that there has been no “extensive, formal feedback” with the commissions, he said the executive didn’t believe the decision drastically changed the commissioners’ responsibilities.

However, he said, no complaints have been addressed directly to him or other members of the executive, although they have heard about backlash from third parties and over Facebook.

“Nobody has contacted us, and none of the questions we’ve heard are about specific acts or concerns. I am happy to meet with people individually to discuss their concerns,” he said.

He says any concerns will be addressed directly for anyone who approaches the executive with their specific concerns.

“These changes have been brought up several times, and we’ve explained — thoroughly, and as transparently as we humanly can — what’s going on,” he said.

Ex-Commissions and Coordinators upset with alleged lack of transparency

In an email to The Journal, ex-International Student Affairs Commissioner Jhordan Layne spoke on behalf of himself, ex-Social Commissioner Ciara Bracken-Roche, and “several coordinators, and SGPS councilors.”

“It is our hope that you are willing to help voice the concerns of several employees of the SGPS that have been "pushed out" with questionable methods,” Layne wrote. According to his statement, the recent restructuring was missing from any of the executives' original mandates.

Layne wrote that he’s particularly concerned about the lack of discussion with SGPS commission members prior to the changes. They were only made aware of the motion, he says, by an email in mid-October.

Ciara Bracken-Roche agreed with Layne in an interview with The Journal.

“There’s been no transparency in the process,” she said. “[There hasn’t been] much accountability, and there’s been no communication.”

“If they were that concerned about fresh ideas and having fresh people in the commission they would have looked at maybe term limits for commissioners.”

She said Asfar and the other executive members have spoken about the restructuring in a way that masks the reality.

“If I were sitting in council, I would think it sounds very good. But [the flaws are within] the execution,” she said. One of the flaws, she said, was a lack of proper discussion before making changes.

Asfar said restructuring was done based on prior conversations with commissions about improving the positions. Bracken-Roche, however, says she never made more than an “informal, verbal” comment.

“I had asked if we could have meetings, because I’d love to talk to them about the ideas I had, and I was told ‘Yeah, that sounds great, but September is busy’,” she said.

“Between them and myself, a meeting just never occurred.”

She also said Baker wasn’t the sole commissioner to express interest in a rehire, despite Asfar’s claims to the contrary.

Instead, Bracken-Roche said, she and social coordinator Prashant Agrawal told Asfar they would be reapplying following the special council meeting.

“In everything but the exact language it was implied very strongly that we would be rehired, to the extent that we were told to start writing our year plans for the new position,” she said.

Neither Bracken-Roche nor Agrawal was re-offered their position. The social commissioner position has been re-opened for applications following the resignation of the hired candidate.

Asfar asks that the “personal reasons” that led to the individual’s resignation be respected as they search for a new candidate.

Facebook backlash from graduate students

Graduate students also expressed outrage on social media after a council meeting in December, where Asfar had answered questions about the changes.

Following the meeting, a post within the closed SGPS Facebook group erupted with a lengthy accusation against Asfar’s work.

“I just attended the SGPS council meeting. I have to be honest, I have never heard so much bullcrap presented so beautifully in my life,” wrote Yaoting Zhang, a fourth-year PhD student.

Zhang’s post then addressed the resignation of a newly hired social commissioner, a perceived lack of experience for the athletic commissioner and the shortfalls of the transition process.

“Mark hired someone [for the Athletic Commissioner job] who has NEVER attended any sports event organized by SGPS,” he wrote.

“[Asfar] is literally destroying all the hard work done by all the previous social commissioners.”

In the comments below, Danitte Kozai, an education student, noted that, similar to AMS positions, SGPS roles are a place to build experience and don't require past experience. 

Several other SGPS council members and graduate students responded to Zhang, both supporting and disagreeing with the executive team’s decision.

Asfar himself responded in the comment section. He wrote that Zhang’s post “implicitly insult[ed] our commissioners”.

“I would prefer you take shots at me than insult SGPS members at large who applied to help their fellow students. They do not deserve your abusive language.” 

Corrections

January 9, 2016

Graduate students posted Facebook comments about the restructuring after a regular council meeting in December, not after the special council meeting in October.

The Journal regrets the error.

January 10, 2016

Danitte Kozai is a graduate student in education, not computing.

The Journal regrets the error.

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