A member of a powerful Union committee stands accused of using her position to influence Union decisions at the highest level, raising serious questions about fairness and transparency within the Students’ Association.
Courtney Lewis, who sits on the Students’ Association Executive Committee (SAEC), allegedly used a private meeting for “purely personal” reasons to prevent an Honorary Life Membership (HLM) being awarded to a fellow student, Radim Dragomaca, with whom she disagreed over an internal society matter.
Not only did the committee accept Ms Lewis’ testimony despite her apparent conflict of interest but, in a breach of Association rules, Mr Dragomaca was not given the opportunity to defend himself. Furthermore, the meeting was held in camera, meaning it was closed to the public and everyone involved was sworn to secrecy.
SAEC is responsible for mediating disputes between other Union councils, conferring Honorary Life Memberships and dealing with some disciplinary matters. It is comprised of the sabbatical officers and two senior nominees from each of the SRC and SSC. Ms Lewis, the societies officer for the Association, sits on SAEC as the senior representative for the SSC. As head of the societies committee she is responsible for overseeing more than 140 affiliated societies. She repeatedly declined to comment for this article.
The student targeted by Ms Lewis, Mr Dragomaca, was nominated in May 2013 for an HLM for his work as founder and editor of the Foreign Affairs Review, the journal of the Foreign Affairs Society (FAS). When SAEC convened to discuss HLMs at the end of the last semester it awarded around 90 of them, including one to Mr Dragomaca.
Ten days later, however, SAEC met to reconsider Mr Dragomaca’s award “in light of new information.” This was presented by Ms Lewis, who at the time also served on the FAS committee as the vice-president for operations. She alleged at the SAEC meeting that Mr Dragomaca had acted poorly in the course of his FAS duties by revealing the details of a secret society project and that, because his HLM was based on his FAS work, the award should be withdrawn.
On the sole basis of her testimony, and without notifying Mr Dragomaca or allowing him the chance to defend himself, SAEC decided to rescind his HLM. This failure to give Mr Dragomaca a right to reply was contrary to the rules that govern the Union councils. Section 14 of the Association’s Standing Orders states that: “Whenever a motion makes allegations of wrong doing, iniquity or incompetence or lays out a strong and damaging critique of Members of the Association, the Members of the Association criticised shall be given a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations.”
[pullquote]There is absolutely nothing you can do. The matter is closed[/pullquote]
In fact, Mr Dragomaca was never officially made aware of SAEC’s decision at all. Instead he only found out later when speaking to a member of the committee informally. He went to the then president of the Students’ Association, Freddie Fforde – who sat on SAEC – to ask whether he could present his side of the story. But according to Mr Dragomaca, rather than acknowledge the mistake Mr Fforde said: “There is absolutely nothing you can do, the matter is closed. There is absolutely no recourse. The body is not meeting again and will not hear your side of the story.” Responding to a request for comment, Mr Fforde declined to be quoted but said he was confident that last year’s SAEC members carried out their duties properly.
The FAS was also not asked to testify about the reconsideration of Mr Dragomaca’s HLM. In a letter to SAEC, the president of FAS later said: “Had the Society been contacted to give testimony on the evidence presented against Mr Dragomaca, my recommendation would have been to not rescind the award on any grounds pertaining to FAS.”
Mr Dragomaca said that he only became aware of his right to reply in October, when informed by a friend. He wrote to SAEC requesting this right and was invited to speak at a meeting the next day. He found the atmosphere unwelcoming, however:
“I think that the tension and, I would say, hostility in the room was palpable, centred around perhaps some individuals more than others. There are a number of members of the committee I have never met and have never spoken to, and I would like to think their view of me is as neutral as my view of them. I am glad I was given the right of reply… I can’t gauge how it was received. I think for all of them it was a matter of we’ll listen to it and that will be the end of it. There isn’t really a recourse for redressing the decision.”
In addition to this “hostility” the committee also voted to strike from the record several items that Mr Dragomaca had deliberately placed onto the public agenda, including a resolution from the Foreign Affairs Review in support of Mr Dragomaca’s case. Max Baldi, the Association chair, who presides over SAEC, said this was because the items were “not relevant to the Honorary Life Membership” and “inappropriate because … [they] would have the effect of breaching the secrecy [of the previous in camera meeting]”.
A vote of no confidence
[pullquote]These actions were taken covertly, without any benefit to the Society, and in contravention of all principles of professional collegiality[/pullquote]
Despite concerns being raised about Ms Lewis’ inappropriate use of power, no action has been taken against her by the Association. The FAS censured her for her actions, however, stating for the record: “Ms Lewis has acted on internal FAS matters externally, to the detriment of a fellow board member. These actions were taken covertly, without any benefit to the Society, and in contravention of all principles of professional collegiality.”
The FAS also held a vote of no confidence in Ms Lewis, reasoning: “On 10 May, Courtney Lewis, as a member of the awarding body, moved to strip Radim Dragomaca of his HLM, on the grounds that he allegedly violated the trust of the FAS. Courtney has not sought to address this matter with Radim or the FAS, the impact is purely personal and without benefit to the Society, and is fatal to the professional and collegial relationship between the vice-president for operations and the editor-in-chief.” Although Ms Lewis narrowly survived the first vote in May, the FAS then sought to hold another in October. Ms Lewis resigned from the FAS committee immediately before that vote could take place.
The FAS also reiterated its support for Mr Dragomaca. In his letter to SAEC the president of the FAS, Qi Tian, said: “On behalf of the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society (FAS), I would like to write in support of the editor- in-chief of the Foreign Affairs Review and board member of FAS, Mr Radim Dragomaca […] On behalf of the Society and its committee, I want to affirm that Mr Dragomaca has to my knowledge never acted in bad faith to the society. I must also recognise his exemplary contributions and ongoing service.”
Mr Tian declined to comment further.
“Hiding behind procedural gimmicks”
The actions of Ms Lewis and the lack of action taken against her by SAEC are certain to cause concern about how important decisions are made in the Union.
The use of in camera meetings in particular has come under fire for being a “procedural gimmick.” Mr Dragomaca said: “When they said ‘let’s adjourn in camera so we can protect that individual,’ it isn’t really protecting that individual. It would be protecting that individual if that individual were invited to the meeting and given a chance to give his/her side of the story. If it’s not about protecting the individual against whom allegations are being brought, it only protects the accuser.
“It is the core of this incident that a student without their knowledge can be, from my point of view, maligned and slandered in front of an Association committee and only find out by pure chance because he happens to know a few people; otherwise, I would never have found out.”
The councils of the Students’ Association can adjourn in camera with the assent of two-thirds of members voting and present. For SAEC, which has a voting membership of eight, this means that when all members are present convening in camera requires the assent of only six people. Because they are often used for situations involving the discussion of personal information, all proceedings of in camera meetings are secret.
[pullquote]A violation of student rights[/pullquote]
In the case of Mr Dragomaca, the meeting to reconsider his HLM was convened in camera yet, although Ms Lewis’ allegations were not made public, the decision to withdraw the award was published as part of the minutes. Mr Dragomaca therefore feels that his “good name and reputation have suffered” from speculation because there is no record of the reason his HLM was withdrawn.
Chloe Hill, president of the Students’ Association and a member of SAEC, said she could not comment on the substance of in camera proceedings but provided the following statement:
“HLM meetings are held in camera because it involves talking about individuals and their contributions to the Association and student life, some of which can be sensitive information, for example students involved in Nightline. We have been working hard this year to make the Students’ Association as transparent as possible – including making minutes available online promptly, including voting records of our elected members, and advertising motions in advance so that students can find out what is being discussed. This also included changing the rules in April to allow students the right to reply – a process which Radim has subsequently used.”
The case also raises questions about the effectiveness of the Union’s policy on conflicts of interest. Mr Baldi explained that currently there are no official Association rules on the matter and that the general guidance is: “If you feel that you are being improperly influenced or that you cannot make a decision independent of something else, then you can choose to excuse yourself from the conversation… It is up to each individual to decide whether they can make a decision or not.”
This guidance could be seen to be insufficient as it failed to prevent Ms Lewis from taking part in the debate over a fellow FAS committee member’s Honorary Life Membership.
For his part, Mr Dragomaca feels the issue of his HLM is closed. Instead, he wants to focus on improving the way the Union operates: “This isn’t about reinstating the Lifetime Membership. This is about pointing out a flaw in how the Union does business […] The Association should not hide behind procedural gimmicks to justify what I see as a violation of student rights.”
Editorial: Damaged, but not lost…
- This article originally stated that the FAS passed a vote of no confidence in Ms Lewis. In fact she resigned moments before the vote could take place.