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Labour troubles on Concordia's Board of Governors

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As labour members protested in the statehouse in Madison, Wisconsin, and across the continent, a sign of workers finally coming to terms with the impact of proposed austerity measures, tempers flared at Concordia's Board of Governors meeting on Feb. 17.

The Montreal university, still reeling from a crisis of leadership after the dismissal of President Judith Woodsworth, saw tensions explode as two dozen irritated faculty members openly challenged the sitting chair and heckled Concordia's recently named interim president.

The jeers were met by poorly veiled threats from long-sitting governors against the university's unions.

Despite the confrontational atmosphere, the Board succeeded in ignoring calls from across the university community for the resignation of many of its governors for their role in firing Woodsworth and struck an independence panel of three external experts to examine Concordia's leadership crisis.

"I am worried. Are we talking about governance or are we talking about power?" asked Charles Cavell, the former CEO of Quebecor World, as the proposal to create the external committee was questioned.

"External members [on the Board] are what got us into this mess," cried a faculty member from the gallery as many heads bobbed in support.

Shrugging off the jab from faculty, the 23 external members on Concordia's Board of 40 governors has been dodging intense criticism since the costly dismissal of President Judith Woodsworth on Dec. 22, the second dismissed president in just over three years.

Faculty and student leaders have said that the $703,500 severance package given to Woodsworth less than half way through her first term was representative of a crisis gripping Concordia's upper administration. With nearly $10 million spent on severances and buyouts of senior administrators over the previous decade, the legitimacy of the Board's 23 external members was put into question as spending has lost control.

As a result, all of Concordia's unions, student governments and the Board's academic equal, the Senate, called for the resignation of certain Board members.

Despite the calls for resignation, the Feb. 17 meeting was about the proposed external committee.

Some faculty and governors present felt that the committee, formed under the supervision of the Board's handpicked interim president, Frederick Lowy, would not be critical of the crisis that rocked the university's upper administration.

"This Board, I don't believe has the right to delegate power, because that's bad governance," continued Cavell, a vice chair of the Board who has sat for 12 years.

"There are a number of issues where I am concerned about governance. I am concerned that we have committees that do important work where the balance [between campus and external members] isn't appropriate.

"We have union agreements, which award rights and privileges, which I think is bad governance.

"We are a well-run institution. I listen with great appreciation to Fred [Lowy's] efforts to say, 'Let's work together,' because I can propose a number of changes in government that I think will remove inappropriate allocation of rights that don't represent the best interests of the institution."

The sharp string of comments from Cavell, after an hour of debate in the Board chamber, surprised many of the unionized faculty in attendance. With the anger clear on both sides, the debate ended and a motion to create the committee passed.

"You have called for better communication and more interaction between groups, but not for accompanying substantive changes," wrote Holly Nazar, a graduate representative, to Lowy. "We came to this meeting and listened carefully to everything that was said, yet we have emerged with an even more negative opinion of decision-making processes at the Board of Governors, and of the humility and commitment to student concerns of certain individual community-at-large members, than we had before."

With 15 unions at Concordia, the university has a long history of labour negotiations that lead to pressure tactics. On March 22, members of the Steelworkers union picketed the university's administrative building. Those workers have gone with a contract for nearly a year.

According to Maria Peluso, the president of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association, the university has the dubious distinction of having the longest amount of time with its unions waiting between collective agreements.

"This is proof of a poisonous relationship between the administration and unions," said Peluso. "While I don't think that labour matters generally go up to the Board level, it does say something about the corporate types who run the Board."

Students came to the defense of Peluso and the university's unions.

"We feel that your calls for calm and communication were rather unevenly applied, as you failed to comment on community-at-large member Mr. Charles Cavell's shameful threat to work to reduce union representation in governance at Concordia in response to these discussions," the letter concluded, having been signed by four members of Concordia's Graduate Student Association.

While Cavell could not be reached for comment, the other members of the Board seemed less concerned with union affairs and more concerned with restoring the university's image.

"We will overcome the immediate crisis and we will come to see this, I hope, as an opportunity to explore change about how we govern ourselves, on the way we relate to each other and the way we foster learning, investigation and knowledge transfer," concluded Lowy.

Now that the Board has settled upon a means of examining its past behaviour, the interim president said he would concentrate on filling the gutted top ranks of the university, reassuring donors, rebuilding Concordia's battered reputation and meeting the demands of students.

University spokesperson Chris Mota could not comment on the letter from Nazar before press time.

Justin Giovannetti is a journalist and student. He recently completed his term as editor-in-chief of The Link, Concordia's independent newspaper.

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