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Recapping the RSU scandal and the importance of student press

By: Sherina Harris
February 07, 2020
Compilation of headliners from the Ryersonian and the Eyeopener

I wasn’t expecting anything the night I wrote what became the defining story of my university reporting career. I was going to the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) January 2019 board meeting with my two other Eyeopener news editors, Raneem Alozzi and Emma Sandri. The meeting needed a certain number of directors to reach quorum so the motions on the agenda could be voted on. Based on conversations with Board of Directors (BoD) members, we were pretty sure that the meeting wouldn’t reach quorum — meaning we’d all go home, eat dinner and relax.  

That night, the agenda included a motion that demanded more financial transparency from the RSU. For months, we’d been receiving tips to look into the union’s finances. In our print issue that week, Sandri had written about two executives holding RSU credit cards — something that went against the union’s financial policies and bylaws.  

We had also obtained copies and photos of credit card statements that showed purchases on credit cards under two executives’ names — purchases that included hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars spent at restaurants, gas stations, entertainment, clothing and sporting goods stores, a club and the LCBO. We laid out a game plan earlier in the week about our timeline for the investigation, but it all sped up after that board meeting.  

The meeting didn’t reach quorum, but the directors and executives present decided to have a discussion about the agenda anyway. During this discussion, Maklane deWever, then-student groups director, read items out loud from copies of the credit card statements. He and other directors demanded answers from the executives, who were sitting in the middle of the room with directors seated in a U-shape around them. In response to questions, Ram Ganesh, the RSU president at the time, said the statements had not been reconciled and he couldn’t provide explanations for the purchases until they were reconciled.  

After the meeting, Alozzi, Sandri and I ran back upstairs to The Eyeopener’s office. We got on the phone with our Editor-in-Chief, Jacob Dubé, in a call that lasted four or five hours. We wrote one article, external link about deWever’s allegations that over $250,000 had been spent on the executive-held credit cards. Then we got to work trying to confirm that the credit card statements we had were real. We spoke to several people within the union about them. When president Ganesh told us over text that he was disappointed that the statements had been “released without context,” we published an updated story, external link confirming the statements were accurate.

By that point it was around, midnight. We all headed home, exhausted but on an adrenaline high. We knew something big had happened, but we were so caught up in our reporting that we hadn’t stopped to consider how big the story was from the outside view.  

A year after being part of the team who broke the initial story at The Eyeopener, I’m in a unique position: I’m currently a reporter at the Ryersonian, and I’m still covering the story on what feels like a daily basis. Despite what you might have heard about an Eye-Sonian rivalry, I can honestly tell you that both newsrooms are full of hardworking student journalists who are doing their best to hold people in power accountable.  

In the wake of Ryerson terminating their operating agreement with the RSU, a lot of people online, including many journalists, were congratulating The Eyeopener on “bringing down” the RSU. As one of the reporters who has been following this story from the beginning, I want to make it clear that it was never my intention to “bring down” a student government. As soon as I read about Ryerson’s decision, I was worried about the people employed by the RSU, and the equity service centres that do incredibly important work for students and community members. Many of these people spent the last year advocating for their importance in lightof the provincial government’s introduction of the Student Choice Initiative, which with the potential reduced funding, posed a huge threat to campus papers like the one that broke the RSU story in the first place.

The Eyeopener in particular has been working hard this year, external link to develop a closer relationship with the groups it covers on campus. The paper held an equity reporting workshop last week aimed at hearing from the students on campus who it covers. Student newsrooms are a model for better, more diverse, mainstream media newsrooms, as The Varsity editor-in-chief wrote for CANADALAND, external link. Student newsrooms, like both The Eyeopener and the Ryersonian, show what is possible in journalism: not just investigations into a politician’s finances, but also listening to sources.  

Covering the RSU over the past year has meant a lot of late nights, frantic phone calls and breaking news updates. Memorably, it has involved me and my co-editors talking to CBC and other news outlets about our reporting and me standing at the top of a staircase in the RSU office shouting questions to the president who was running down the stairs. Without taking a course in investigative journalism, covering the RSU over the past year has given me the political and investigative reporting crash course of a lifetime — as a third- and now fourth-year undergraduate student, and all alongside talented young reporters I’m lucky to call some of my best friends.  

It’s all reminded me of a quote that was on the wall of the Newseum in Washington, from journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken: “I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager and energetic young reporter.”

Covering the RSU has shown me that the work we do, even as student journalists, matters. If I know one thing about how this complicated situation is going to unfold, it’s that Ryerson’s student papers are going to keep doing what Alozzi, Sandri and I were doing when we showed up to that board of directors meeting where the credit card statements were read out loud: holding the RSU and Ryerson University accountable, and making headlines in the process.  

A timeline of what’s happened with the RSU in the last two years

May 1, 2018: A new, five-person RSU executive team comes into office and fires their general manager, external link, who typically would provide financial oversight.  

Jan. 22, 2019: The Eyeopener reports, external link that two RSU executives hold credit cards, which were previously held by the general manager breaking policies and bylaws.  

Jan. 24, 2019: Items from credit card statements are read out loud at a Board of Directors meeting. The Eyeopener confirms the statements are real. Financial controller Dharshini Jay sets a deadline of Feb. 1 for the executives to reconcile their statements, saying no receipts had been submitted since the team came into office in May.

Jan. 26, 2019: The RSU’s president and vice-president operations, who both held union credit cards, are suspended, external link by the executive team in a private emergency meeting. Some directors tell, external link The Eyeopener they believe the suspensions are “illegitimate” under RSU policies because the emergency meeting wasn’t open to them.  

Jan. 30, 2019: Ryerson University administration members meet with RSU executives., external link The university requests the union undertake a forensic audit of its finances. Later in the day, the university meets with the BoD and announces they will withhold the RSU’s funding, external link, except for fees like health and dental, until the audit results are available. Ryerson also requests that the union negotiates their operating agreement, which is from 1986. Throughout their statements and conversations with campus media, Ryerson administration repeated that the RSU is a separate corporate entity from the university.

Jan. 30, 2019: RSU vice-president education resigns, external link, saying he was “not privy to transactions.”

Feb. 1, 2019: An emergency board meeting takes place. RSU president Ram Ganesh does not attend over concerns for his safety; in an email obtained, external link by The Eyeopener, his lawyer says he has received death threats. The meeting has a big turnout from students. Jay, the financial controller, says the total amount spent from May 1, 2018 to Feb. 1, 2019, is $273,000. The board approves a motion, external link to have PricewaterhouseCoopers conduct a forensic audit. Notices of removal from office are given to the four remaining executives.  

Feb. 11, 2019: The board votes to impeach Ganesh, external link, the president who had a credit card under his name. Vice-president operations Savreen Gosal, who also had a credit card under her name, is suspended. DeWever, the BoD member who read the credit card statements out loud, is voted in by the BOD as president in a secret ballot election.  

Feb. 26, 2019: The RSU finalizes their agreement, external link with PwC to get the forensic audit started. During the rest of this executive team’s term, the RSU attempts to negotiate its operating agreement with the university. Both sides say they negotiated in good faith.  

May. 1, 2019: A new executive team takes office, all from the Refresh slate. This team has six members because a new executive position was ratified by the board at a March meeting. From May until December, the RSU misses several deadlines and meetings regarding the negotiations with the university, according to Ryerson’s timeline of events.

Dec. 10, 2019: Two RSU executives, the vice-president equity and vice-president marketing, resign, external link, citing an unhealthy and toxic work environment within the union.  

Dec. 17, 2019: The RSU’s vice-president operations is impeached, external link. The motion calling for his impeachment cites missed hours and claims of harassment.  

Jan. 6, 2020: The RSU’s vice-president education resigns, external link, citing a “series of employment violations and internal corruption.” Out of the six original Refresh members holding executive positions, now only two are left.  

Jan. 8, 2020: Jen McMillen, Ryerson’s vice-provost, students, requests an update from the RSU by the end of the week and communicates her concerns about the recent impeachment and resignations, as well as a petition, external link with over 1,000 signatures calling for the president’s resignation. The RSU doesn’t send the update on time, according to Ryerson’s timeline.  

Jan. 12, 2020: McMillen follows up on the missed deadline.  

Jan. 13, 2020: The RSU responds to McMillen via email but does not reply to “most issues raised,” Ryerson says. Also on this day, the Ryersonian reports that the Ministry of Labour is investigating a complaint, external link against the RSU over how workplace complaints are handled.  

Jan. 21, 2020: The RSU announces that they have filed a report, external link with Toronto police now that the forensic audit is finished. In their Facebook post, they say the audit was looking into the expenses of the former president, vice-president operations and financial controller.

Jan. 24, 2020: Exactly one year after the board meeting where the credit card statements were read out loud, Ryerson’s administration announces it is terminating its operating agreement, external link with the RSU, “effective immediately.” They say they “remain unsatisfied with the RSU’s progress in restoring the university’s confidence. The university says they have not received a report or copy of the forensic audit, and learned of its completion from campus media. The university also feels the RSU “has ceased responding to the university’s efforts to finalize a new operating agreement.” In a statement posted to Facebook later this day, the RSU says they do not accept the termination as valid. The RSU has also said they were hours away from sending a draft new agreement when they learned of the termination.  

Jan. 28, 2020: The RSU announces they are taking Ryerson to court , external linkfor damages of $2.7 million. The Ryersonian obtains the statement of claim, in which the RSU says the university’s termination of the operating agreement is unlawful because there is no provision in the agreement that would allow them to end it. The RSU also says they have had to pay for student health and dental fees out of pocket because they don’t know if the amount released to them by the university was adequate. The RSU also says their student issues  and advocacy co-ordinator has been barred from representing students, external link in academic appeals and misconduct hearings since Ryerson terminated their agreement.

Jan. 29, 2020: Ryerson releases details of the next steps for creating a new student government, external link. The RSU, meanwhile, still plans to go ahead with the election for their 2020-21 executive team and board.  

Feb. 3, 2020: The RSU releases a financial review, external link, saying that a forensic audit would have been too expensive and lengthy to complete. Their audit committee finds $99,477 in expenses they could not verify werelegitimate. The committee also finds that the former RSU president paid $36,000 for a union lawyer’s first-class trip to India.