Jackson's exit signals new USC direction

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Aron Yeomanson

The University Students’ Council frequently describes itself as student-driven and student focused. With the removal of Karen Jackson, former general manager of the USC, those statements could be truer than ever.

Jackson had served two years of her five-year contract when it was announced on Oct. 17 she was no longer with the organization. The USC is being tight lipped about her departure.

“Karen has left to pursue other opportunities,” USC President Tom Stevenson said in a press release. He offered no further explanation.

According to Michael Lynk, a Western law professor specializing in labour law, an employer has no obligation to release information about an employee’s termination.

“Most employers will not want to comment publicly because they will invite a lawsuit when no suit is planned, or have a defamation suit added to the suit,” Lynk explained.

The role of the GM, as it existed when Jackson was hired, was established in 1991.

The USC was in a period of financial instability and hired a consulting firm to write a report on what the USC needed to do to turn things around.

“They said if you want to keep this business going, you are going to need someone that can keep it stable, so you can have that institutional memory,” Stevenson said.

Following the report the USC hired Jim Walden, a former Lt. Colonel as GM. Mark Sellars, another Lt. Colonel, succeeded him. Jackson, who has a business degree from the Richard Ivey School of Business, worked under both GMs in several roles, including as comptroller from 1999 until her promotion to GM in September 2005.

Stevenson described the environment under Walden and Sellars that Jackson was trained in.

“They were ex-military guys with definite leadership styles. It worked for the time,” Stevenson said.

With a GM in place, the USC moved into a period of fiscal stability, moving its reserve fund up to its goal of $3 million.

Last year’s USC president, Fab Dolan, discussed some of the changes that have taken place in the GMs role while Jackson was in charge.

“The GMs salary increases used to be tied to union’s negotiated salary increases,” Dolan said. “The GM ended up being the one negotiating with the union for the collective bargaining agreement. So you had a GM who stood to gain from having higher wages for the union staff.”

Dolan also expressed concern for the old incentive plan for the GM, where the size of the reserve fund affected the GM’s salary.

“After we reached a certain point where we were financially stable, we continued to operate with reserve funds and contingency funds and consistently ensuring we had a year-end profit,” he said.

“I would never accuse anyone of abusing the system, the system had flaws, there was the potential to abuse it if you were sitting in the GM position.”

With the USC’s long-term plan released last year, both of those issues were addressed; it abolished all incentive programs for the GM.

Jackson’s sudden departure also means the USC does not have a transition period for the GM for the first time.

“There is going to be a knowledge gap there. There are a lot of nuances in learning to manage the USC, because there is so much turnover on the student side,” Dolan said.

Stevenson said the Board of Directors would assume the GM’s responsibilities.

Former USC presidents Nick Staubitz and Ryan Dunn discussed the challenges the board will face without a GM.

“This decision could weaken the board since it is a business,” Staubitz said. “When I was on the board I didn’t have much business experience, having a GM with business knowledge is useful.”

Dunn served when Jackson was hired to replace Sellars.

He said part of the role of the GM is to mentor new boards, providing institutional memory and helping transition.

“[Our board] took on a lot of the GM responsibilities,” Dunn said. “I know this year’s board and they have the capability to step up and handle this situation.”

Stevenson said the USC would hire an outside consulting group to help in the search for a new GM. He said the process would take a few months.

Stevenson described some of the key qualities needed in the new GM.

“It has to be someone who understands not-for-profit, understands students,” he said. “Someone who knows how to lead full-time staff, how to mentor student leaders and how to bring those two together.”

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