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Calls for Senate to force SUPRA restructure

Faced with a culture of racism and toxicity, the Presidents of USyd's postgrad student union are calling on the University Senate to intervene.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence and University Senate Fellow Peter Fitzsimons take SUPRA in hand.

Senior figures within SUPRA, USyd’s postgraduate student union, are calling on the University to take the extraordinary step of restructuring their organisation, which they claim is plagued by racism and infighting. The calls come in the lead up to the union’s annual elections later this month.

The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) represents 26,174 postgraduate students, who can access its caseworker services and vote in its council elections.

Yet SUPRA Co-Presidents Mariam Mohammed and Kiriti Mortha describe their union as “toxic”. They claim certain staff members and councillors are destabilising SUPRA with industrial disputes, abusive grievance procedures and workplace racism.

The Presidents today met with Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education) Pip Pattison, requesting that the University Senate exercise its reserve powers under SUPRA’s constitution.  Using these powers, the Vice Chancellor can recommend that the Senate, the University’s supreme governing body, order an investigation of “governance irregularities” within SUPRA.

If an investigation goes ahead, the Presidents hope it will recommend appointing a professional chief executive to take control of SUPRA’s day-to-day management and deal with the internal dysfunction.

They also hope the Vice Chancellor will use further reserve powers to force this change on the organisation.

No decision has yet been taken. “The decision to investigate SUPRA currently rests with the Vice Chancellor, before being escalated to the Senate,” Mortha said late this afternoon.” The Senate will next meet on 16 May.

SUPRA is made up of both professional staff—including administrative staff, caseworkers and lawyers—and elected student councillors.  According to the Presidents, certain staff members target councillors who identify as people of colour, falsely accusing them of workplace misconduct and bringing oppressive grievous procedures against them.

Staff also allegedly bring repeated complaints about employment decisions—decisions the Presidents say they are entitled to make.

Dealing with these industrial disputes and grievance procedures drains SUPRA’s coffers: in 2016-17, SUPRA spent $44,000 on internal legal matters.

The Presidents also claim they are unable to do their jobs. As well as chief political advocates for postgrad students, the Presidents are SUPRA’s general managers, making staffing and operational decisions. Given ongoing staff difficulties, their management responsibilities have become all-consuming, they complain.

“The way the organisation is currently structured does not allow us to do effective advocacy,” Mortha said. “That problem is multiplied when you’re a person of colour.”

In fact, the problem is so bad that the Presidents “do not feel welcome in their student union”, and according to Mohammed, rarely use their own office space. Other people of colour within SUPRA painted a similar picture: “The message is to keep away,” Wom*n’s Officer Natasha Chaudhary said.

Yet other insiders rejected this characterisation. Secretary Oliver Moore located SUPRA’s toxicity elsewhere: “If there is any toxicity in SUPRA,” he said, “it comes from the Presidents and their top down, authoritarian handling of SUPRA’s business.”

Moore went on to say they had never observed racist behaviour from SUPRA’s staff, though they admitted that as a white person they don’t face racism themselves.

Nicholas Avery, who was Vice President in 2016-17, dismissed allegations that staff abuse process. “Any disputes that any staff member may have raised against a councillor have overwhelmingly been found to be justified,” he said.

“The only grievances that have ever been found to be vexatious have been lodged by councillors against staff.”

Both Avery and Moore, who are standing in the upcoming elections, are associated with Postgrad Action, a broad left-wing grouping.  This group opposes the Presidents’ centrist coalition, which is contesting the 2018 elections as ‘Impact’. Mohammed and Mortha themselves are not running.

When asked about the mooted restructure, Avery expressed concern. “Nothing of this sort has been discussed on council,” he said. “This shows a distinct lack of consultation and transparency on their part.”

He also disapproved of the Presidents’ decision to refer the matter to the University.

“The postgraduate student body is more than capable of directing the organisation. Any changes to the SUPRA constitution must be made by SUPRA members at a General Meeting.”

Yet for the Presidents, University involvement is the only way to secure change. “We’ve already lost control to the staff,” Mortha said.

Other insiders agree: Chaudhary argued that the annual council turnover meant change was difficult and inexperience could be exploited.  “The staff have been there for so long. [Councillors] are at the risk of manipulation because [they] don’t have that knowledge or expertise to deal with these issues.”

“We need a longer-term solution,” she said. “The council needs to be kept away from all of the toxicity.”

The University’s position remains unclear. According to a spokesperson, “SUPRA raised the issue with Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Pip Pattison and the request is currently being carefully looked at.”

More to come.