The alleged role played by top USC employees in the elimination of certain full-time positions at the Ryerson Students' Union (RSU) has come under scrutiny after an investigation by the university newspaper — the Eyeopener.
A major restructure at RSU led to controversial layoffs — including a human rights complaint — and was allegedly the result of an "audit" by a company formed by former USC managing director Scott Courtice and current Chief Operating Officer (COO) Jeff Armour.
What happened at Ryerson?
In late 2015, the RSU eliminated two full-time staff positions in an attempt to restructure the student organization.
The case that received the most attention both on and off campus was of Gilary Massa — RSU’s executive director of communications outreach — who was three months into her maternity leave at the time.
The full-time positions which were at the time unionized were later succeeded by a non-union general manager position.
Massa’s labour union — Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 1281 — declared it would dispute the layoff through a grievance procedure.
Other groups including the Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) released statements condemning Massa’s lay off.
Massa filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against the RSU citing sexism.
The complaint was later deferred to CUPE 1281.
The RSU's stance was that the restructuring was part of a larger overhaul and not directed towards individual positions.
“Individual people were not the reason for why this role was eliminated,” RSU president at the time, Andrea Bartlett, told the Eyeopener. “This was a business decision because of serious financial concerns and serious operational concerns.”
A resolution was reached in the human rights complaint but Massa told the Eyeopener that she could not comment on it.
How is the USC involved?
An investigation by the Eyeopener, revealed that a number of RSU employees and board members have questioned the legitimacy of Appian Way Group — the company hired to conduct an audit of the RSU’s business model.
Appian Way is a registered business with the province of Ontario and is a partnership between Scott Courtice and Jeff Armour.
At the time of its registration — Nov. 10, 2015 – Courtice was the USC’s managing director of government services and Armour was managing director of facilities and operations.
Courtice left the USC in April 2016 and Armour was hired for the top staff job as COO in Nov. 2016.
According to the Eyeopener, Appian Way was paid $3,955 by the RSU for the consultation and final report.
The Gazette received a copy of the executive summary of the report by an anonymous source. However, Appian Way and the RSU have kept the report “confidential” and reporting is limited to publicly available information.
“Appian Way provided some general recommendations relevant to any student union about governance and continuity to empower student leadership,” Armour told the Gazette in an email. “Our involvement ended with the recommendations and we were not involved beyond that. Again, specific questions about our recommendations should be directed to the RSU, as the advice was confidential.”
Despite Armour’s claim of general recommendations, the Toronto Star, which received “two heavily redacted” pages of the report audit reported:
The executive hired an external company, Appian Way Group, to do an audit. Among its recommendations were hiring a non-union general manager and eliminating the position of communications/outreach executive director, which was “not necessarily adding value to the RSU.” That would “open up budget room to hire a General Manager.”
What is the controversy?
Several people involved with the RSU expressed concerns to the Eyeopener over Appian Way's ability to perform an adequate internal audit and also the lack of staff interviews taken on in the process. While the RSU had used more experienced auditing firms before, this audit was the Appian Way’s “first consulting project.”
The Eyeopener reported:
However, Ryerson auditing expert Richard Deklerk said it’s common to begin the auditing process with interviews and verification. “It’s pretty hard to do an internal audit without questioning the people involved,” he said. “The staff is the most knowledgeable … They’d at least need to speak to both of those staff at least once beyond looking at job descriptions.”
Two board members who saw the full report said it was not to the standards that they were expecting. Dahab Ibrahim, a current Board of Directors member, said the audit couldn’t be emailed to them—a common standard for personnel audits—and could only be read in an executives’ office. “It didn’t seem up to code as you would have expected a professional report to be.”
Anna Stevenson, current board member, said there were no citations for the statistics, numbers, budget materials or pros and cons of amalgamating a position. “There were spelling mistakes throughout the report, there were grammatical and sentence structure errors,” Stevenson added.
The article later stated:
After reviewing both owners’ resumes, Deklerk said their qualifications did not align with the work they did for the RSU. Courtice graduated from Queen’s with a History, Politics and Economics BA and a not-for-profit management professional certificate from Western. Armour has a Genetics BSc and a project management certificate from Western. “Usually the credentials you would need would be some sort of internal audit history,” Deklerk said. “He’s (Courtice) got a post certificate in not-for-profit management. I’ll give him that, does that make him an auditor? I don’t think so … He’s not a certified management consultant. He’s not an internal auditor. He’s not an accountant of anything.”
Was there a conflict of interest for the USC?
Bartlett confirmed that the group’s experience in “a student political environment” made them suitable for the job. Much of Armour and Courtice’s expertise in student governance has come from their experiences with the USC and both were senior employees at the time of the RSU audit.
The USC’s code of conduct has a conflict of interest clause which states, “Declare and take appropriate action to manage any interest that may conflict with the performance of our USC administrative duty.”
The USC's secretary-treasurer Isaac Jacobi said via email that role and scope of work was declared. However, there is no available record of a declaration. Since the audit wasn’t officially declared to the USC’s board of directors, there is no confirmation as to whom this declaration was made to. Courtice and Armour’s supervisor at the time, former USC general manager Cathy Clarke, left the USC earlier in 2016 and couldn’t be reached to confirm the declaration at the time of publication.
When asked about the legitimacy of such ventures by management employees in the future, Jacobi said each case is unique and will be assessed as such.
“Every situation is unique and would follow a similar process in that a review would need to be conducted so that the nature and scope of work could be assessed accordingly,” he said.
The timing of the audit and future of Appian Way
Appian Way began consultations for RSU in the summer of 2015. According to the Eyeopener, their website domain was registered in May 2015.
However, the business was not officially registered with the province until Nov. 10, 2015.
When asked by the Gazette how long Appian Way had existed prior to the official registration date, Armour said: “It was a short term endeavour that we planned to grow but then parted ways as our collective careers diverged.”
The Eyeopener reported:
Under Ontario’s Business Names Act, “No corporation shall carry on business or identify itself to the public under a name other than its corporate name unless the name is registered by that corporation.”
This means Appian Way Group should not have operated under the company name until they were registered in November—after the initial audit was performed.
RSU’s major restructure, including Massa’s removal came just 20 days later, on Dec. 1., 2015.
Appian Way’s online presence has also come under scrutiny. The company’s website is no longer live and a LinkedIn page exists but has no information. While both Armour and Courtice’s LinkedIn profiles detail their work experience, there is no mention of Appian Way.
While experts interviewed by the Eyeopener found the online disappearance of the company suspicious, Armour confirmed the Appian Way is no longer in business.
“After Scott left the USC our career paths diverged and it did not make sense to continue,” he said.