UPDATE: Rye announces next steps for student government, without CESAR’s support

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UPDATE: This story has been updated upon Ryerson providing comment to The Eyeopener regarding the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson’s allegations.

By Alexandra Holyk, Emma Sandri and Madi Wong

After Ryerson terminated its agreement with the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) two weeks ago, students have been left wondering how the school came to their decision. What went on behind closed doors?

In a statement posted to Ryerson Today on Friday, Jen McMillen, the university’s vice-provost, students provide a detailed timeline of the last year, including missed deadlines, withheld fees and communication troubles.

The statement also includes details regarding the university approaching the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) and updates on the selection of a new student government. 

McMillen mentioned the university approached CESAR last week to extend “an offer to provide CESAR with additional resources to increase the number of students the CESAR advocate is able to represent,” but that CESAR turned down the university’s offer on Feb. 6.

At around 4 p.m. on Friday, CESAR released a statement in response to McMillen’s updates. According to the statement, the university did not reach out to CESAR ahead of the university’s decision to terminate its agreement with the RSU. 

“The University only reached out to CESAR after the decision was made”

“It is concerning that the University has chosen not to address tangible and plausible next steps,” the statement reads, which was written by CESAR president Nicole Brayiannis. 

“Instead, they continue to demonstrate a lack of concern for negotiating with CESAR in good faith, and instead to proceed to share information solely and indirectly through their website.”

“The University only reached out to CESAR after the decision was made, and only responded concretely to CESAR’s request to meet after being questioned at [the Jan. 28 Senate meeting].”

Additionally, CESAR alleged in the statement that the university “offered money to undermine employees” and extend their services to students under the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). Brayiannis stated that Ryerson’s proposal was “inappropriate.”

“It would be a one-time lump sum fee where they would have some agreement that we would have to sign off with them to say they wouldn’t get to have a say in terms of how that money was used or how the service was run,” she said.

Brayiannis said this would have meant CESAR would then oversee the RSU’s operations of the equity service centres and academic advocate.

“This is just a decision that the university has made unilaterally from their own situation,” said Brayiannis.

“They didn’t consult CESAR in advance of terminating [the 1986 Operating Agreement], they did it as an ad hoc system.”

According to CESAR’s Feb. 7 statement, the university failed to “acknowledge and respond to [a] counter-proposal which includes recommendations for mediation, trusteeship and other avenues to resolutions that benefit students.”

Brayiannis added that this has put CESAR into “a very strange position” by asking them to “scab off of another union that has already shown well capacity within those domains to be able to represent their students.”

“We basically said ‘We don’t want your dirty money, We’re not here to take over this part for a few months.'”

When The Eyeopener reached out to Ryerson for comment, McMillen said in an emailed statement that transparency and trust with the community are “essential as we move through this challenging time.”

“The University respects CESAR’s decision to decline our offer to work with them, however we find their reaction disappointing and harmful,” the statement reads. “It is inaccurate for the meeting to be positioned as anything other than a legitimate discussion regarding the continuation of services for Ryerson students.”

The statement goes on to say that the CESAR’s Feb. 7 statement does not “[keep] with the strong, positive relationship Ryerson has had with CESAR for many years.”

“Misrepresenting these discussions benefits no one, discredits the University, and is a disservice to all involved.”

The CESAR statement also reads that Ryerson already has a student advocate with the RSU and should “return to the bargaining table and seek out possible mediation rather than bulldozing student democracy.

“There’s been a lot of finger pointing over the last year and a lot of hiding behind lawyers, not a lot of properly talking and actually working towards solution for students,” said Brayiannis.

“Try and make a solution for students that works for students.”

Rye says they’re responding to students’ concerns

McMillen told The Eye that the university has seen “very strong support” on social media and has heard from students who recognize that the termination “was not an easy decision.” 

“We’ve certainly received some concerns [from] students and recent alumni or other community members [about] not fully understanding the rationale and the decision,” McMillen told The Eye on Friday. 

In Ryerson’s Friday statement, McMillen addressed concerns about the availability of academic advocacy support since the university terminated its agreement with the RSU. “We know that this has affected five students to date. Every impacted student is having their options explained to them, and we continue to offer direct support.”

Forming a new student government

Previously, the university released statements that provided more details surrounding the nomination process, with a vote expected to take place in March.

McMillen also mentioned that Ryerson will appoint an external lead process officer (LPO)—whose name is expected to be released soon—to establish the rules of the selection process and determine the eligibility of candidates.

There will also be a student government selection committee to determine which groups are eligible to run for student government. The committee consists of four current Ryerson students, including former RSU vice-president education Daniel Lis.

“The committee members represent a diversity of perspectives…and have all demonstrated a strong commitment to student leadership”

The other members are Julia Spagnuolo, Katey Park, Zainab Bokhari and Michelle Park, a recent Ryerson graduate.

Lianne Newman, manager of student engagement and development in the Faculty of Communication and Design, will serve as the process manager in a non-voting role.

“The committee members represent a diversity of perspectives from across the Ryerson campus community and have all demonstrated a strong commitment to student leadership,” McMillen’s statement read.

Students are asked to submit proposals for the structure of their new student government to the LPO by Feb. 19 at 5 p.m., either in-person or through the online Google form. Guidelines for the nominations can be found on the RU Next Gov website.

“We’re excited about the commitment that we see from students,” McMillen said in an interview with The Eye. “And we’re interested in seeing a strong, independent student government…to work with in the future.

McMillen said that eligibility to run for the new student government will be based on enrolment status. This means that current or former RSU board members and executives could potentially be a part of the new government.

The RSU is still holding their elections. Its candidates were announced earlier this week.

“I don’t have details about how their planning to do that or in what way they are determining their membership for that,” said McMillen when asked about the union’s elections. “The university remains in our position that we do not recognize the RSU as the student government representing full-time undergraduate or graduate students.”

Rye releases timeline breaking down sequence of events

McMillen included a detailed “timeline” of the renegotiation process between the university and the RSU in Friday’s statement.

Back in October 2018, RSU president Vanessa Henry confirmed that the union was in discussion with the school about “a new collection and distribution agreement,” but she declined to comment on the content of the original agreement between the RSU and university, when she took over the negotiation process from the former RSU president and who is involved in the negotiation process. 

Ryerson’s timeline, which begins in January 2019, states the deadline to finalize a new contract was pushed back multiple times.

Following The Eye’s reporting on alleged financial mismanagement last year, the university informed the RSU that their fees would be withheld until three “expectations” were met: a forensic audit was conducted to investigate the allegations, the results of the audit were shared with the university and the RSU and Ryerson negotiate a new operating agreement by the end of March. 

We are no longer just defending the RSU, we are setting precedent for student voices throughout Ontario and across Canada”

According to McMillen’s timeline, the official “kick-off” meeting to negotiate the new contract didn’t happen until April 5. However, this meeting was adjourned after “three of five original executives arrived (two of whom were implicated in the credit card spending issues)” and the then-interim president Maklane deWever said “he won’t arrive for at least another 45 minutes,” reads the timeline

As previously reported by The Eye, the RSU’s Board of Directors (BoD) passed a motion in February 2019 to renegotiate the agreement between itself and the university. According to this outlined motion, the BoD would form an ad hoc committee, comprised of one full-time unionized staff, one full-time non-unionized staff, one director from each faculty, one graduate representative and two at-large directors.

The committee was required to update the rest of the board on their progress once a week. 

According to McMillen’s timeline, this never happened. Rather, the RSU insisted deWever and the original remaining executives—vice-president operations Savreen Gosal, vice-president student life and events Edmund Sofo and vice-president equity Karolina Suroweic—would be negotiating the new agreement.

McMillen agreed to “proceed, respecting their autonomy,” according to her statement.  

A new draft of the agreement was sent to the union on April 23. After deWever left office, McMillen met with current RSU president Henry on April 29. According to the timeline, the RSU failed to provide the university with feedback. According to the university, the RSU’s lawyer was of the view that Ryerson lacked “authority” to withhold the union’s funds and force a renegotiation of the contract.

In spite of this, the union said they would work toward providing the university with a new contract by the end of July. According to Ryerson, the RSU missed that deadline. 

The Eye reached out to Henry in a request to comment on McMillen’s updates but she did not respond in time for publication.

DeWever told The Eye that if accountability was Ryerson’s “ultimate goal” with the operating agreement, then a mutually beneficial deadline would’ve been set. “Ultimately, the RSU did not have a decision regarding the university’s self-imposed deadline making it impossible to negotiate or meet during my short tenure.”

After receiving a proposed agreement on Aug. 2, the two parties met in September to finalize the agreement. 

Weeks later on Oct. 3, Ryerson sent a letter stating that the university is “prepared to release funds upon receipt of audit findings and the provision of the RSU’s financial policies for review.” The next day, the union “reassert[ed]” that the university was in breach of its original operating agreement. The university responded to say that the union is in breach of the agreement. 

“The renegotiation process was difficult. We were willing to make concessions but not at the risk of jeopardizing our autonomy”

One month later, the union provided the university with a certificate to show that an investigation has been done into the RSU’s finances. The university said however that this does not satisfy the “assurances” that were requested by Ryerson.

Subsequently, the timeline states that they requested updates from the RSU on Nov. 25, Dec. 4 and Dec. 16.

Heading into the 2020 school year, McMillen met with the RSU’s executive director, Reanna Maharaj, on Jan. 8 to address concerns she had with the RSU’s “lack of communication.”

In addition, McMillen addressed concerns about recent impeachments, resignations and petitions for removal, failure to meet with university leadership and lack of engagement from the RSU. Shortly after the meeting, McMillen followed up via email with Maharaj in which the RSU did “not respond to most issues raised.”

This brings us to Jan. 24, when the university announced that they terminated its 1986 Operating Agreement with the RSU. 

“The renegotiation process was difficult. We were willing to make concessions but not at the risk of jeopardizing our autonomy and ability to effectively advocate for students,” said Henry in a press conference on Jan. 28

Only five days later, an email was sent from McMillen to all full-time Ryerson students stating that they will have a say in determining the structure of a new student government.

“We are no longer just defending the RSU, we are setting precedent for student voices throughout Ontario and across Canada. The administration has tried to silence students. We will not be silenced,” said Henry. 

“We as the RSU will not let over 50 years of history to be destroyed. The university has denied our request to release funds and has advised us that they will no longer be returning to the renegotiating table.”

On Jan. 28 the union also filed a legal claim with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against Ryerson University.

Their claim calls for $2,700,000 in damages for breach of contract, the release of the student fees withheld by the university, $100,000 in punitive damages and a declaration that Ryerson is in breach of its agreement with the RSU.

When asked for comment on the matter, McMillen said details regarding the claim should be “more specifically directed” to the RSU.

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