Facing the threat of sanctions from the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) concerning an alleged dysfunctional working environment, Science Students’ Association (SSA) president Anthony Cao tendered his resignation last week.
In December, the union passed an emergency motion seeking a governance audit of the SSA and moved to withhold fund disbursements to the association if Cao refused to participate in mediation to resolve in-house conflicts. An independent chair was also appointed to oversee SSA meetings.
On Jan. 28, Cao emailed his resignation, citing health and academic concerns.
“The personal problems, infighting, and other issues within the SSA were something that I couldn’t witness anymore,” he told the Manitoban in an email.
“The UMSU sanctions didn’t really play a factor other than to take up a bit more time, which was already something I was pressed for,” he said. “That’s probably all I’ll say about my resignation.”
SSA vice-president Dara Hallock said she proposed the December motion through UMSU as a near-last ditch effort to resolve conflicts she said began as far back as the summer.
She said that, while the SSA council had the authority and the votes to pass its own motion removing Cao from his leadership role, members wanted to pursue every avenue available before taking such a severe measure.
“We want to be able to say we did everything we could have before taking the most extreme measure, which would have been voting him out – and we did have council support for that,” Hallock said.
She conceded that some members of council weren’t hopeful the mediation would ultimately lead to a resolution.
However, with Cao stepping down voluntarily, Hallock said that the association can now move forward through the winter and try to make up the ground lost during the first term.
“We wanted to do what was best for council and [Cao] was, honestly, inhibiting us from doing anything for the students or for the faculty,” she said.
“The general vibe I get from people is that people are hopeful that the rest of the year will be good and we can finish out with a good year.”
UMSU vice-president advocacy Rebecca Kunzman said the potential sanctions against the SSA are considered resolved.
However, the governance audit, which UMSU offers to all student associations, is ongoing. Results will be reported back to the SSA.
“The requirements from the motions, as far as the sanctions go, were met when all parties agreed to engage in mediation,” she said.
“As far as the sanctions are concerned, that piece of it was met.”
Cao and Hallock ran for the SSA executive together in March 2015 as a slate branded “Unite.”
However, Hallock said it wasn’t long before divisions started to build and by September, she had already held one-on-one meetings with Cao concerning the council’s dysfunction.
There were administrative issues surrounding committee appointments, a member was disciplined without council oversight, and the meetings themselves grew so combative that members became discouraged from presenting ideas, she said.
At least one member resigned from the council citing stress, Hallock said, admitting she considered stepping down herself.
“The environment in the council meeting was quite disheartening,” she said. “No one wanted to speak or discuss motions and even when there was discussion, there was lots of tension.”
As the fall term wore on, Hallock said the SSA grew more disjointed to the point where the proposal to compel mediation was brought to UMSU.
Cao told the Manitoban in January that the student union’s sanctions were “extreme” and said he hadn’t been approached by anyone from the SSA with concerns.
“I can say that the stuff in SSA council was, I think, being blown a little bit out of proportion and it’s a little bit excessive for UMSU to threaten us by withholding our funding,” he said at the time.
The SSA scheduled an emergency meeting this week in order to move forward. Hallock said she expects the UMSU appointed independent chair to lead meetings through the end of the term.