Incoming president Cecil VanBuskirk wakes up dormant 1972 Act
During the 2016 U.S primaries, the Washington Post made an ominous change to their slogan: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The message intended to provoke conversation surrounding the state of democracy in the United States. Without discourse, democratic institutions would certainly perish. Death, however, would not come swiftly; rather, the slow creep of apathy would inevitably lead to the erosion of democratic institutions. Discourse is the preserving light; without it, the roots of democracy atrophy, and darkness follows.
Today is a day for discourse.
Prior to debate, participants must have mutual understanding of the reality, principles and series of events that necessitate discussion. Contra principia negantem non est disputandem. The past few weeks have been full of debate lacking a common ground; therefore, an overview of recent events is in order.
As outlined in the SU Bylaws (the operational document for the Students’ Union), the hired (as opposed to elected) positions of the Students’ Union (SU) have historically (15+ years) been selected by a panel composed of the incoming SU President & Vice-President, outgoing Vice-President (for the position being hired), two councilors and the General Manager (GM) of the Students Union (advisory role, no vote on panel). This panel interviews applicants and then conducts a vote to hire the most competent candidate. A panel system was likely designed to avoid nepotism, especially given the relatively small size of this campus. Once a decision is made, the individual is appointed by the incoming president via an email with an offer of employment attached.
During the recent hiring of the VP Finance and Operations, two candidates were interviewed: Patrick Wallace and Brody Haskell. The panel voted 3-1-1 in favor of Mr. Wallace’s hiring. Following the decision, incoming president Cecil VanBuskirk sent an offer of employment to Mr. Wallace, who accepted the offer.
During the following days, VanBuskirk brought a discrepancy between the By-laws and the SU Act of Incorporation (The Act) to the attention of the GM and the Chair of Council. Within the By-Laws, a panel structure is described for the VP hiring process. In The Act, however, a line item states that the president shall appoint the VP Finance and Operations.
The Act has not been reviewed in decades and is not a document referenced to for day-to-day operations. With that said, legally, The Act is the superseding operational document for the Students’ Union. Up until this point, the line had been interpreted as the president offering the position to the candidate once the panel had voted. Under VanBuskirk’s interpretation, however, the statement provides the president with the unilateral authority to appoint whomever they chose to the position.
VanBuskirk then proceeded to act on this interpretation. Within 24 hours, the already-accepted offer of employment to Mr. Wallace was rescinded, and a new offer of employment was sent to Mr. Haskell. When the issue was brought before council, VanBuskirk referred to the discrepancy between the two documents. VanBuskirk also stated that he felt the panel’s decision to hire Mr. Wallace over Mr. Haskell was rooted in prejudice pertaining to the candidate’s race, gender, ethnicity, and political affiliations. It is worth noting that both candidates are straight, white, cisgender men from Nova Scotia. This leaves political affiliation, which was allegedly not discussed in the interview. When questioned about his comments, VanBuskirk stood by his original allegations of bias:
“Why did I do this then… The reason is that I witnessed some unethical behavior… I witnessed actions that caused concern that would impact the voting on the hiring panel. And then, as a counselor… I have a duty to act in accordance with the Students’ Union by-laws, policies, procedures. So, then I posed the question as to what qualifies this hiring panel, and what criteria makes it a hiring panel…”
A member of council prodded VanBuskirk further, requesting he elaborate on the specific unethical behavior he observed on the panel.
“To me, this boils down to fairness. And when I witnessed fairness not being properly practiced in the hiring panel, that’s when I raised a question to Happiness (International Student Representativa) … The procedure that was followed, I prefer not to directly comment on the circumstances around them, but I witnessed unfairness and I witnessed discrimination, what I perceived as discrimination under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act and under the [StFX] Code of Conduct.”
The alleged discrimination is not, however, VanBuskirk’s main concern. Again, and again, he reiterated that the issue at hand was not the selection of candidates, but the discrepancy between two major organizational documents.
“It’s not so much a matter of what was done. The bylaws need to be changed. And I understand that there will be a motion on the agenda to change that, and I couldn’t be in more support of that. But for right now, we need to uphold the bylaws and do the bylaws justice.”
The majority of council agreed that a discrepancy exists – that is, the way in which the Students’ Union had been conducting the VP Finance hiring process was not in line with the process outlined in The Act. Additionally, the lawyer retained by the SU has confirmed that The Act is the superseding organizational document.
In fact, several line items of The Act conflict with current SU electoral and operational practices. For instance, The Act states that the President and VP Academic are required to run as a slate; that is, as running mates. This discrepancy draws the validity of the past election, along with those of the past four years, into question. Vice President MacLennan and Incoming President VanBuskirk debated the issue in council:
MacLennan: “Why are you only choosing to follow one point, rather than the rest of the points in The Act of Incorporation… For example, if you want to actually follow The Act of Incorporation, then we should be talking about the election processes thus far. Within The Act of Incorporation, the President and Vice President should have been elected via slate.”
VanBuskirk: “I agree.”
MacLennan: “So why aren’t you contesting that point?”
VanBuskirk: “Because it has already happene- “
MacLennan: “Because it benefits you. But you also already hired someone for the VP Finance position.”
VanBuskirk: “Here’s the issue, O.K. The issue was around the hiring process. We seek out legal advice around the hiring process and after an expert guided us on what exactly to do, we followed that legal action. Not Cecil, The U.”
When VanBuskirk was asked in Council about his relationship with Mr. Haskell, he stated they were not close:
Sasha Paul, Gallery Member: “I have serious concerns based off of what everyone has been bringing up already, that the moment that you chose to bring up these discrepancies, was just when you didn’t feel like your friend had been given a fair chance. Because let’s be honest-“
Unknown Gallery member: “Friend?”
Paul: “He is your acquaintance, is he not?”
Cecil: “Ah, no he’s not, actually.”
Paul: Ok, if you want to go down that route that’s fine. But [inaudible] you are not proving yourself to be a trustworthy President… You’re not even in the position yet. And so, I think this really is going to impact how your team is going to move forward in the next year, and how people are going to view you, because you continue to refer to fairness and to ethics, but your actions are the complete opposite of that. What you are doing here is manipulating things that [inaudible] are at fault, rather than to actually genuinely fix them, you are using that fault to push forward your own agenda. And that’s not what the Students’ Union is about. The Students’ Union is about representing everybody in this room, because they pay Students’ Union fees. This is not free, right? And what you’re doing is taking away people’s voices. You, eliminating the other people’s voices from that panel, the five members that you chose to ignore, is really taking way their voices, and that demonstrates to me what you’re going to do next year, and I’m very concerned about that.
In response to the allegations that VanBuskirk is acquaintances with Haskell, a number of students directed The Xaverian Weekly to an Instagram photo of the two of them, posted to Mr. Haskell’s account. Additionally, two students noted that Haskell and VanBuskirk sit together in class and have presented a group presentation together.
The Xaverian Weekly reached out to VanBuskirk to comment on his relationship with Mr. Haskell:
“I can say that he is someone I know from doing a group project with in the business faculty. I would argue that I have a similar relationship with both Paddy and Brody, they are both aquiantances (sic), nice guys and are both supporters of mine.”
The recent comments by VanBuskirk appear to contradict his previous statement made in front of council.
In response to the controversy surrounding his actions, VanBuskirk wrote a statement for The Xaverian Weekly that has since been published on his personal Facebook account. In summary, VanBuskirk states that the initial hiring process was unconstitutional. Additionally, he outlines why Mr. Haskell was the superior candidate, citing past experience in student government, leadership experience, and base-level Government of Canada Security Clearance, among others. The full list can be found in his statement, published to our website. In comparing Mr. Haskell to Mr. Wallace, the statement alleges that Mr. Wallace was only originally picked because of his popularity and reputation as a “nice guy”.
The posted statement has garnered a significant amount of controversy, with students posting comments both in favor of and against VanBuskirk’s actions. The Xaverian Weekly reached out to some of the vocal students for comment; their statements are included at the end of this article.
In summary, a disagreement between the By-Laws and The Act left VanBuskirk with the legal authority to circumvent the established hiring panel and appoint the candidate who was not chosen for the position. This required VanBuskirk to rescind the offer that had already been accepted by Mr. Wallace. While the legality of the move is no longer under significant dispute, the ethics of circumventing a hiring panel composed of democratically elected councilors and the incoming Vice President has been challenged. Additionally, the rationale behind selecting a single line item to pursue as contradictory, rather than the entire document, has raised questions regarding the intent behind VanBuskirk’s move.
For any readers wishing to follow this story, Council will be meeting to discuss the issue this Sunday at 3:00pm in Council Chambers, 4th Floor SUB.
“I am incredibly disappointed in the initial response that was released by Cecil in regards to the VPFO selection process. He did not demonstrate an understanding of the concerns raised by the students towards the decision made, as most of his letter focused on justifying his actions. If he was truly listening to what students have been saying, he would be finding a solution to right perceived wrongdoing, rather than doubling down and blaming students for taking issue with the choices made. This is not acceptable conduct for the incoming student union president.” - Student, anonymous by request
“If it's broken, then it should be fixed. Cecil may have not addressed the situation as discrete as most of the U would have liked him to, but what Cecil did was address it in the most transparent way that he possibly could have. I'm proud to call Cecil a friend because of how real he is. His personality is contagious and he stays true to himself, which is very hard to find these days. To add to this, it takes a true leader to attach their name to a controversial subject and I applaud his passion for the StFX students. Instead of attacking his character or actions I personally think people need to accept that the U has not been following the correct rules and should now take action by correcting the mistakes that have been made. I am excited for Cecil and the rest of his team and to see what steps they can make towards a truly transparent Union.”
- Elizabeth Gushue, Student
“There are several things that, for me at least, don’t add up. Constitutionally, yes you are supposed to appoint the VP Finance, but why not appoint the VP finance that that was democratically chosen by a hiring panel within the U. As Emma already said, as students we put our faith in the hiring panels of the U, and clearly, they thought that Paddy was the better choice. I refuse to believe that
the hiring panel selected Paddy because he was the “nicest guy” and for you to say that is rude and disrespectful. Yes you may believe Brody to be the best candidate for the position, and I’m sure you fought for that, but you lost, and to go against the democratic decision of the hiring panel goes against the core values we have as StFX students and just as responsible citizens. Further, to now go and say “well I chose Will Fraser over him for a different position” is just ridiculous. Obviously you weren’t going to appoint Brody to a different position when you wanted him as VP finance. Arguing that you passed him over for something else is a weak and superficial argument argument at best. I have never felt this let down by the organization that is supposed to defend me as I do right now.”
But what do I know, I’m one of those people who “doesn’t have a brain” as per one of your former posts...
- John Walker, Student
“I know I’m not around anymore but I’m deeply saddened and frustrated by your actions, Cecil. The U has taken tremendous efforts over the last couple years to be more inclusive and dispel the belief that it is a clique. I can’t help but feel you’ve taken the step forward that was made towards that goal, two steps back.”
- Annie Sirois, StFX SU President 2017-2018.