SUPRA: Council majority reaffirms course of action
WORDS BY SANDRA BUOL
This article on last night’s SUPRA Council meeting uses some commentary elements – mostly because I want to use words like ‘reasonable’ or ‘thoughtful’ and such words always carry position.
I will refer to opinions being presented, but I won’t quote people directly. I did not tape the meeting and as a consequence I don’t have exact statements. Most people expressed themselves very carefully and I don’t want to run the risk of misrepresenting them.
There is an underlying issue that has engaged and divided the Council for quite some time now. It was addressed under point 9 – “Student organisations need to stay in student hands” – and the Council had a thoughtful and relatively calm discussion about the big elephant in the room: The Presidents’ move to ask the Senate for an investigation into SUPRA’s governance structure.
Council member Nicholas Avery read out a statement concerning this issue, stating that “the interests of students are increasingly out of line with the corporate model of governance followed by universities” and therefore “inviting the university administration to take control of the governance of [student] organisations is a betrayal of student interests”, calling the presidents’ move “deeply undemocratic” as the “council was not consulted prior to the presidents’ decision”. He moved three motions:
- SUPRA council condemns all moves by student-led organisations to allow university management intervention into their conduct.
- SUPRA council directs the presidents, Mariam Mohammed and Kiriti Mortha, to retract their request for SUPRA to be investigated by the University of Sydney Senate.
- SUPRA council directs the presidents, Mariam Mohammed and Kiriti Mortha, to affirm their commitment to the staff Enterprise Agreement and the availability of grievance processes to assure staff have safe working environment.
Considering how last month’s meeting went – which was held in-camera for the most part, though I was allowed to stay in and listen to some of the arguments –, I expected a similarly heated outcome. However, for the largest part the discussion was thoughtful, at times sad, and definitely had more ‘trying to understand’ moments than last time.
This can also partially be attributed to some members of the Council from the left side of the room who seemed willing to build a bridge over the very deep rift that separates the progressive and activist Postgrad Action councillors and the more towards the centre leaning people around Mohammed and Mortha. They acknowledged that the experience of racism should never be dismissed, but at the same time wondered if there would be any other way to resolve the issues than inviting the University to investigate.
At the same time, the Presidents explained thoroughly the steps they’ve taken and the motivation behind them. They reassured that asking the Senate for an investigation would not lead to a disassemblement of SUPRA as the implementation of the recommendations made by an external investigator would be in the hands of SUPRA – but by asking the University to step in they wanted to make sure the necessary steps are being taken even after their term on the Council is over. Addressing the argument that such matters should be resolved within the Council, Mohammed mentioned that anyone who would think this possible might be overly optimistic, stating that the nature of the Council – with changing members every year – would make it very hard to resolve those issues.
What has shine through: the current majority on the Council – many of them people of colour – say that some of the staff members cause a toxic environment and that they have to deal with racism on a regular basis. As a consequence, many of the councillors don’t come into the office anymore. One specific account being mentioned is about the Presidents holding performance development reviews with the SUPRA staff and being told by a member of the staff that this person would not be willing to do this with the Presidents. They then delegated it to one of the Vice-Presidents – a person of colour too – who was refused as well. It finally had to be done by the other Vice-President – a white man.
Councillors, who are technically management, can try to address these issues via internal disciplining mechanism. However, Presidents and other Office Bearers are all casual workers. Meanwhile, the staff are mostly permanent workers protected under the Enterprise Agreement. So, when an Office Bearer tries to call out inappropriate behaviour, they may well see a grievance filed against them under the Enterprise Agreement. In that scenario, the Office Bearer has no choice but to stay silent and endure.
Back to the meeting. Finally, motion 1 and 3 under point 9 were dismissed, while motion 2 was presented with a counter-motion supporting Mohammed and Mortha on their course. The counter-motion was carried.
There were some other minor issues that were indicative of the same rift in the Council, for example when it comes to printing costs and what printing should be used for. However, it was reassuring to see that at times there is unity in the room. The motion for an additional Wine&Cheese event in June was carried by both sides of the table, and so was Mohammed’s request for a short leave of absence – despite personal disputes on the Council, members pick their fights carefully and refrain from being petty.
It remains to be seen how a third major party on the council will influence the current dynamics. Hopefully it will lead to more dialogue.