Inequity at the board table: three students’ union directors quit in under two months
In a two-part investigative series, The Cord’s Editor-in-Chief, Emily Waitson, explores the resignations of three former directors from the Students’ Union Board of Directors. Fiza Iqbal and Muna Mohamed were the first to be interviewed on June 16, before an emergency board meeting that followed on June 24.
Just over a month into the 2021-22 term, Fiza Iqbal and Muna Mohamed resigned from their positions on the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union board of directors.
“Unfortunately, after a few weeks of being on the board I realized that it is not a suitable place for BIPOC,” Mohamed said in the caption of an Instagram post where she announced her resignation.
“In regards to a comment or statement regarding the resignation of both Muna Mohamed and Fiza Iqbal I am unable to do so at this time until a formal decision within the board is reached,” said Andrew Dang, chair of the board in response to The Cord’s request for comment, which was sent on June 14.
The students’ union has not posted an official statement in response to the accusations Iqbal and Mohamed made in their Instagram posts.
In similar letters written by the two former directors, both alleged inappropriate conduct took place, specifically during an emergency, in-camera session on May 31.
The meeting was labelled as “a follow-up response in support to all Laurier students affected by the Israel/Palestinian conflict,” Dang said in an email to The Cord.
In-camera sessions are most often used in order to discuss sensitive or confidential information, including internal problems, personnel issues and performance matters. Students outside of the board of directors, including the media, are not permitted to attend these portions of meetings or know specific details that were discussed.
“I definitely think that there’s [been] a misuse of in-camera sessions. Because they’re an in-camera session, we can’t talk about it. The second you leave it, even if you’re a board member who’s on the board, but you couldn’t come to the in-camera meeting, you’re not allowed to know what happened during it,” Iqbal said.
“So that’s where a lot of the unknown conversations happened, and when it’s about such serious conversations and things that are impacting a lot of Laurier students and the public doesn’t know, you have to make sure that you’re making really intentional choices to have those meetings.”
“I don’t agree that the emergency meeting should have happened in an in-camera space. I definitely think that’s a change they will make going forward, because now students are aware of the fact that in-camera sessions are happening more often than they know,” she said.
Although contractually unable to disclose specifics, Mohamed claimed the behaviour she witnessed towards other female directors and experienced herself during the meeting was unprofessional and discriminatory.
“It was automatically shutting Fiza down, shutting myself down, shutting other board members who are women down. It wasn’t even a useful, effective, in-camera [session] because it was just inappropriate … and there [were] unnecessary slick comments,” Mohamed said.
This is not the first time the students’ union has been accused of unethical behaviour at the helm of the board table.
In 2018, The Cord published an investigation into the students’ union’s 2017-18 board of directors, “following up with allegations of sexism and various other dysfunctions which were disclosed to The Cord by various board members.”
According to Mohamed, these kinds of objectionable interactions carried over into a conversation outside of meetings as well.
I think for me, one of the final nails in the coffin was a private conversation. That’s [when] I realized that it was not a safe environment for myself and there wasn’t much change I could do as a board member.Muna Mohamed
“I think for me, one of the final nails in the coffin was a private conversation. That’s [when] I realized that it was not a safe environment for myself and there wasn’t much change I could do as a board member,” Mohamed said.
“From my experience, I realized that especially for Black and Indigenous [people], I just didn’t feel [like it was] the best environment to be in. I think that was one of the final [reasons] where I was like ‘ok, I think it’s best for me to resign’.”
An emergency board meeting to discuss the directors’ resignations was held on June 24.
A representative from The Cord who was in attendance noted that a majority of directors kept their cameras off for the duration of the meeting, while fewer engaged in the discussion regarding the former directors’ resignations.
“I know that this news has been extremely important for the board and I appreciate everyone’s patience for letting the professional process play out … we are going to treat everything they said in their resignation letters very seriously and act in good faith,” Dang said during his opening comments.
Dang touched on the exit interviews — a common practice conducted with an individual who chooses to leave an organization — that took place prior to the meeting on June 18.
The meeting included himself, students’ union president Pegah Jamalof, a human resources consultant, Iqbal and Mohamed, as well as Laurier Brantford’s Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion coordinator Lauren Burrows.
When asked about Jamalof’s position during the instances that sparked their resignations, Iqbal commented on the overall inaction that took place on the part of the board’s leadership and resources.
“There wasn’t any action taken, is all I can really say. There wasn’t any call to correct the inappropriate statements made, no resources … There wasn’t a sense of support,” Iqbal said.
“We are now getting emails that are [saying] ‘if you need support …’ but that’s after [our] resignation[s] … I feel like everything that’s going to happen after this is going to be performative activism because they don’t have a choice.”
“This has gotten to a lot of students, a lot of people are reaching out, a lot of people are figuring this out now, so there’s definitely going to be a little show on their end being like ‘oh, we support you, if you need something…’ but, when we really needed it, and at the time that it was really needed and the support should have been there, it was not there,” she said.
Jamalof did not respond to The Cord’s original inquiry for comment on June 14.
Iqbal and Mohamed both believed Dang could have responded to their situations with less passivity.
“I think just from what I experienced, he should have taken a more proactive role. I can’t really go into more detail, but I think that one of the bigger reasons why I resigned … is that there was no action taken on his behalf, it was more so that we had to jump in and have each other’s backs, for him to … play the peacemaker,” Mohamed said.
“There should have been a bigger presence and a more proactive role that I feel like he should have taken.”
Iqbal mirrored Mohamed’s stance regarding the chair’s conduct and said in her personal Instagram caption that, “as a Person of Colour, I do not have the luxury to remain ‘neutral’.”
“Which, I understand, is something that you need to make sure you’re doing when you’re [the] chair. But you also have to make sure that you’re calling out people when it’s important and when they’re being disrespectful or violating any other policies.”
Iqbal and Muna also claimed there was a distinct lack of equity, diversity and inclusion training for incoming board members and clarity regarding human resources protocols, which they claimed heavily contributed to the issues they experienced.
“We had a few modules and I think we talked about EDI for ten minutes? I don’t even remember,” Iqbal said.
“They also didn’t tell us what to do … in instances like these, who do you go to? Sometimes you may not want to go to the chair or the resources because they may be the people you have concerns about.”
“They didn’t tell us who HR is, they didn’t tell us who to go to if we have concerns. I don’t know where that went, if it was lost in translation, if it was just something that people were supposed to know because there were a few returning members,” she said.
Mohamed added that the majority of onboarding training centered on policy, rather than beneficial tools that could be utilized to engage with equity, diversity and inclusion resources.
“The training that we did have, most of it, outside of that five-10 minutes on EDI, was really [just] about the mechanics and different [policies] … There were a lot of policies that were talked about … the same policies that can be changed to better fit the reality of the students today were used to shut us down,” Mohamed said.
Issues with accessibility and transparency were prominent problems the former directors touched on, noting that it was often difficult for them to find answers to the questions they had while they were still members of the board.
Information that should have been publicized and [readily] available to us was really hard for me to find.Fiza iqbal
“Information that should have been publicized and [readily] available to us was really hard for me to find,” Iqbal said.
“Resigning in itself was such a scary thing for us to do because we didn’t know the [reaction] we would get from it. I think [it’s] really inappropriate that we’re scared to resign, because we’re scared of the pushback that we’re going to get for speaking out.”
Board meeting recordings had been previously uploaded to the Students’ Union’s Facebook page, but have not been updated since March, 2020. Current meeting recordings and agenda packages can be found on the SU website through the board of directors contact page under “Board Resources and Agenda Packages.”
Similarly, for the feedback section located on the same page, Iqbal believes it lacks accessibility for students in finding specific information about the board.
“I’m not sure how much that’s utilized, and if students know about it … because there’s a disconnect with every student I talk to,” Iqbal said about the “Customer Service and Satisfaction Policy” provided to students by the SU.
“When you have a general framework to follow, it gives you a little bit of a structure to be like ‘ok this is how we are going to handle it’,” Iqbal said.
“So, one thing I thought of was having a four-step structure that includes: representation, recognition, advocacy and support. Representation is having appropriate representation from the group you’re talking about to ensure you’re acting as allies and not speaking on behalf of the group you’re not a part of.”
“Recognition is just recognizing what’s happening, because I think it’s really important for students to know that the institution is recognizing things that they are going through and how it’s having an effect on them,” she said.
Iqbal thinks that revised, comprehensive equity, diversity and inclusion training would greatly benefit board members and aid them in more effectively engaging in sensitive conversations and supporting BIPOC students.
“Advocacy is just speaking out, making sure that we’re creating an inclusive environment like we [the board] claim we do … I think if we use that four-step plan we could definitely get farther in having more productive conversations because we’d have a structure to have those guidelines for,” Iqbal said.
Mohamed shared Iqbal’s sentiments.
“I think as well, actually having genuine EDI training that is effective. And also speaking to marginalized students and understanding the disconnect, not hiding behind policy that can be changed if they want it to be changed,” Mohamed said.
According to Iqbal and Mohamed, shining a light on their experiences with intention so students are aware of the alleged problems that BIPOC members are facing through their involvement with the board, is necessary.
“The support from the people who are supposed to make sure the board stays orderly, was silenced,” Mohamed said.
“A big issue I had was the environment and the fact that it was predominantly white males, and that’s not the issue itself, it’s the privilege they hold and not recognizing the privilege they hold is what became an ongoing issue,” Iqbal said.
“Because whenever we’d bring up issues, coming from a Person of Colour, you have to listen. And you may not fully understand because you haven’t gone through [those experiences] but that’s when key points of listening came in.”
Following the emergency board meeting, a third director, Kianna Low-a-Chee, posted her resignation letter.
Neither Dang nor Jamalof responded to The Cord’s second request for comment.
This is part one of The Cord’s two-part series. Keep up with any breaking developments through The Cord’s Twitter. More to come.