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Sabbatical Officers questioned at YUSU AGM 2018

Image: the University of York Students' Union
Image: the University of York Students' Union
Image: the University of York Students’ Union

York students questioned their Union’s Sabbatical Officers at the Union’s Annual General Meeting earlier this week, asking about topics including past staff misdemeanours, referenda, dental health and the Big Student Debate.

On June 11th, in a crowded seminar room in the Spring Lane Building, the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) Sabbatical Officers delivered reports about their activities since taking office and answered questions from students in the audience.

Chaired by Josh Mackenzie, the YUSU Policy Coordinator, students asked questions to each Sabbatical Officer after their report and again in a general ‘question time’ period to conclude the proceedings.

After minutes from the last AGM were ratified, Julian Porch, the YUSU Academic Officer, summarised the Union’s annual accounts. It was noted that YUSU has suffered a £67,000 deficit this year. However, Porch told students that this should not be negatively perceived in light of an increase to staff pensions.

Commencing his report, Alex Urquhart, YUSU President, made clear that he would not comment on any activities or behaviour of previous members of staff. This remark was likely made in response to students’ concerns about previous staff’s alleged misconduct going unpunished. When asked about this by students, Urquhart insisted that he was not legally permitted to discuss previous staff behaviour.

A key feature of the York Sport President’s report concerned the grievous misconduct of the Hockey Club. As reported by York Vision, members of the Hockey Club were seen on campus and in the City of York wearing shirts bearing offensive messages such as Nazi emblems, racist epithets and references to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. The York Vision story, written by its former Editor-in-Chief Huw James, was picked up by the national press and resulted in investigations by the Union, the University and the police.

In spite of the length of time a response to the Hockey Club’s actions took, Laura Carruthers informed students that much of her manifesto had been fulfilled during her tenure as York Sport President. Additionally, during the year, York’s students defeated Durham in the annual Varsity tournament.

Mikey Collinson, the Activities Officer, cited amendments to the YUSU Media Charter in his summary. The Media Charter governs the conduct of the ratified media societies such as Nouse and York Vision. The Charter has been unpopular with student journalists for some time. This unpopularity came to a head this year when Nouse journalists were unable to report on a student’s misconduct during a referendum when the student claimed such a report would jeopardise their mental wellbeing.

Collinson listed achievements in his summary, such as the reduction of time for societal ratification from ten weeks to four weeks and a higher sum of money raised for charity by the Raising and Giving (RAG) Officers this year.

The Yorker‘s correspondent asked the Sabbatical Officers about the conduct of students during the Working Class & Social Mobility Officer referendum. During this referendum, illegitimate conduct on the part of both campaigning teams was exposed by Nouse journalists and one campaigner publicly stated that he had considered taking a leave of absence from his studies in light of how he was treated by other students.

Alex Urquhart told our correspondent that YUSU could only do so much to persuade students to conduct themselves well and said that students’ behaviour, especially online, cannot be controlled by their Union. The YUSU CEO, Ben Vulliamy, added that heated online arguments and abuse were widespread across the country and were by no means a problem exclusive to YUSU and its members.

When asked about YUSU’s relationship with the National Union of Students (NUS), the Sabbatical Officers held differing views. Urquhart was glad to have met the Sabbatical Officers of many other Students’ Unions across the country at NUS Conferences and felt he had benefited from NUS training he had received; however, Carruthers indicated that meeting so many officials all at once was “overwhelming”.

A critical question from a representative of The Lemon Press concerning the Big Student Debate was challenged by Mia Shantana Chaudhuri-Julyan, the YUSU Community & Wellbeing Officer and the recurring event’s creator. Harry Kelly implied that the most recent Big Student Debate was mismanaged and that all the debaters privately opposed the motion. Kelly suggested that complaints had been made by the Debating Society.

Chaudhuri-Julyan denied the claim that the Debating Society had complained about the event’s management. She stated that she had clearly addressed any concerns about the management of the Big Student Debate. However, a critical report on the Big Student Debate, written by Nouse News Editor, Chay Quinn, printed in Nouse the day after the AGM, featured critical quotes from key members of the Debating Society committee.

A moment of hysterical laughter from The Lemon Press‘s correspondents interrupted the AGM proceedings when Carruthers asked whether the Centenary commemorated the end of the First World War. In response, York Vision suggested that this reaction reinforced a stereotype of student journalists as members of an “obnoxious boys’ club”.

An online question concerned elected YUSU Officers’ efforts to make staff activities transparent, perhaps again in reference to students’ concerns about previous staff’s alleged misconduct. This question was answered by the Vulliamy, who referred to the Union’s constitution, “approved by students,” giving the CEO the powers to discipline YUSU staff, though putting the CEO under the scrutiny of the Board of Trustees.

A final question from the audience concerned the petition, launched by the Sabbatical Officers, calling for the University of York to adopt a protocol for anonymous reporting of other students’ misconduct. Students, including The Yorker‘s correspondent, suggested that the proposed model would simply generate data and did not compel the University to investigate any of the anonymous reports of abuse that might be submitted. This would differ from other institutions’ anonymous reporting protocols, in which investigations into the misconduct are launched.

In response, Alex Urquhart suggested that the University would naturally launch investigations in response to numerous reports of misconduct or abuse. Mia Shantana Chaudhuri-Julyan added that the proposed format would do more than create data and that such a limitation had been borne in mind during the proposal’s drafting.

Reactions to the AGM from students present tended to be critical. One student told The Yorker that the Sabbatical Officers had been “evasive”. Harry Kelly, writing and Tweeting for York Vision, commented:

It was my first YUSU AGM, so I wasn’t all the sure on what to expect. It ended up being a bit dry at times and the reports from the Sabbs were all quite long, although it seemed out of necessity rather than frivolity to be fair to them. It seemed odd to me that it wasn’t being live streamed at all, especially as I was under the impression that SLB seminar room all have lecture capture facilities… I believe I was the only person live-tweeting the event which was a shame for democracy. Had I not been there it would have seemed like YUSU had things they wanted to hide I think.

Harry Clay, writing for The Lemon Press, told The Yorker afterward:

The YUSU AGM revolved primarily around a series of reports that left the room almost asleep, despite the importance to the annual review of YUSU. Notable in this was the apparent drop of total funds from £474,409, to £415,196, and the increase in pension reserve spending from £12,327 to £151,389, an impressive achievement. Other than that, the only other significant moment was the apparent unimportance of YUSU’s preparations for the Centenary, leaving one Sabb asking, ‘Do you mean World War One?’

As an student media publication independent of YUSU, The Yorker is not obliged to follow the Media Charter.