Three Critical Lessons from the GSA’s Special General Meeting23 March 2018
If you have not been keeping up with campus news this week, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) had a special general meeting (SGM) last night to pass significant constitutional reforms. Despite a firm push from the GSA, the motion was ultimately defeated. This is a significant blow to the leadership of the GSA, given their efforts in formulating these changes and campaigning for them. Rather than delving into the events of the week or a blow-by-blow of the SGM—now is the best time to reflect on the questions of why this happened, how might things have been done better, and where to go from here.
Why was the motion unsuccessful?
This is the easiest question to answer. Community consultation. It is also the hardest one to fix.
The GSA did the right thing in hiring consultants, reviewing their governance structures and seeking ways to incrementally improve their organisation. But failing to include large graduate student groups like the Law Student Society, or seeking support and advice from the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) is a massive misstep. We are all on the same team here, but important groups of students were benched. As much as the GSA has the right to conduct their reviews and reshape the organisation as they see fit, it simply is not best practice to keep the cards close to the chest on such massive changes.
If the events of the last week had taken place months ago with plenty of time before the SGM, I think amendments would have been made and the changes passed. The public back and forth between UMSU and the GSA just goes to show that there were so many unanswered questions, issues, and work yet to be done.
On the night of the SGM, a concession was made through a memorandum of understanding to reinstitute affirmative action and the inalienable pursuit of free education to the constitution—but it was too little too late. There was a very long list of outstanding issues and questions to resolve that should have taken place months ago, with all the relevant stakeholders.
How might things have been done better?
To put it simply, there needed to be more time, more transparency and more engagement. More time was needed so people could fully understand the changes, the process and how to best have a hand in shaping their organisation. To restate, it is not good enough to let people know that there is a SGM—students should feel like they own the SGM.
More transparency is about killing any perceived or real threat of conspiracy. People’s trust in the GSA took a serious blow after allegations of stacking were reported in Farrago earlier in the week. No matter how you cut it, the situation was not a good look even in the best case scenario. The lacking details, the defensive reactions and the speedy process all could build to a perception that things were being railroaded and rushed through.
The simple remedy is communication and engagement. Reach out to the presidents of graduate groups and their committees, step them through the issues months in advance and ask for their contribution. Work with UMSU rather than against it to assuage any anxiety about governance and student control. Publish the ongoing timeline of events. Book the SGM early rather than leaving it to the minimum window of notification. Invite students that are not a part of graduate groups to GSA council and working groups so they might also have the chance to contribute. Even if these initiatives fall flat you can still say that you did them and that people had the opportunity to contribute.
Where to from here?
Well my understanding is that these changes cannot be reasonably brought again or ammended before the next GSA election in May. No doubt constitutional reform will be the key issue for all parties involved. However there are other ways to better protect the GSA from a governance perspective in the immediate future. By reviewing their corporate services arrangements with University Services, they might be afforded the opportunity to bring more managers in to work closely with the CEO and GSA council. Some of the functions prescribed to the proposed directors could possibly sit with some GSA staff so the student representatives have the opportunity to work much more closely with experts in the area.
This might not be the answer the GSA want to hear, but UMSU could be of assistance. When I was the president of UMSU in 2016, UMSU’s general manager (now CEO) and I went to the GSA to open up a dialogue about how we might better work together to mutually benefit both UMSU and the GSA. Despite UMSU’s enthusiasm, the GSA issued a firm rejection. We could not even talk about helping each other out. I do not know why we were rebuked, but I was disappointed. Perhaps now is the time to mend bridges. After a lot of tough talk in the last few days, why not get back on the same page? We are all in the same boat, after all.