This is an unfortunate tale of the destruction of La Trobe University, by their own hands.
Young people have suffered more than most during the COVID-19 pandemic – losing the formative years of our lives, facing an economy designed to disadvantage us, suffering through a gutted education system, and fighting rising political tensions.
This history details the actions of a few individuals that would set about a series of destructive events that have turned La Trobe University into a shell of what it once was – I’ve been here since 2015, I know what it used to be (and what it could be once more).
In January of 2020, the President of the La Trobe Student Union (LTSU), Annabelle Romano, released a statement – one that would ultimately bring about the destruction of student representation at La Trobe University. The Statement advised students that from 2021 onwards, the University would no longer fund the separate student bodies (being Bendigo Student Association, Mildura Student Association, Shepparton Student Association and the La Trobe Student Union) and was instead forcing an amalgamated Student Representative Body.
Following this announcement, a project team was established to create the new organisation. This group consisted of Annabelle, Elissa Khoury, Brody Tanner, Jenna Boyd, Mitch Trevena, Olga Novak, and Will Griffin (no representatives from the Melbourne City or Sydney Campuses were invited). The eight of them worked in complete secrecy for 6 months.
In the July of 2020, the La Trobe University: All Students Forum was held online and recorded over 200 students in attendance. A question to the panel was asked – ‘Why was the University forcing the organisations to amalgamate during a pandemic, at a time when students should be supported not silenced?’
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Jessica Vanderlelie replied that the individual heads of the pre-existing students’ organisations (the aforementioned gang of eight), came to her with the planned amalgamation and that John Dewar and Jessica Vanderlelie simply supported the idea.
During the same Forum, the University was also asked to confirm whether they stated to Annabelle Romano that they would not continue funding the LTSU in 2021. In a response that shocked the student body, Jessica Vanderlelie responded that the University was ‘committed to funding as many student representative organisations as existed’. This response from Jessica Vanderlelie invalidated everything that Annabelle and Elissa had told the Student Union Office Bearers, Council Members, and wider student body.
Following this revelation, the La Trobe Student Union General Members raised a motion in LTSU Council to open an inquiry into the actions of Annabelle and Elissa. They requested information on the creation of the La Trobe Student Association (LTSA), asking specifically for communications between Annabelle and the University Administration. The vote between the General Members was tied, and Annabelle used her casting vote as the Chair to defeat the motion. Her actions have never since been examined.
Annabelle Romano had also raised a motion to cancel the 2021 LTSU elections. She argued that with the LTSA’s creation, there was no need for an election. The Council united against her motion and voted it down, as it would leave all of the students of La Trobe University without any elected student representatives until an unspecified date when the LTSA held its election. A second motion was raised by a General Member in the LTSU Council to schedule the Election of the 2021 LTSU. Annabelle’s supporters abandoned her and voted in favour of this motion, calling the election for the second week of October 2020.
Student Organisation Created Without Consultation
Shortly after the election was called, the LTSA’s constitution had been registered with ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission). The constitution was submitted to ASIC without any input from students, only that of the Project Team. Upon this notification, the LTSU attained a copy of the LTSA’s Constitution and found that it gave the University Administration unprecedented and unchecked power over the LTSA. The LTSA Constitution also gave the LTSA CEO the ability to expel any members for any reason (a power that was later used numerous times throughout 2021).
Worse yet, it was revealed that the University Administration paid for the creation of the Constitution and that Vice-Chancellor John Dewar had the opportunity to review and rewrite the Constitution. The general student body was not consulted and had no input into the new “student” organisation, whilst LTU’s Senior Executive was given unparalleled discretion in its creation.
In September 2020, Annabelle, Will, and Jenna assigned themselves as the Founding Members of the LTSA and appointed Mitch Travena as its CEO. Together, these four people would have complete control over the LTSA until elections were finalised, which would be over 8 months later, in April of 2021.
Soon after, Annabelle raised a motion in the LTSU General Members council to wind up the LTSU and transfer all assets from the LTSU to the LTSA. This motion was unanimously dismissed; zero votes in favour.
On September 28, an article was published in the Herald Sun detailing the events that had transpired. The article alleged that the Student Union was at war with its 2020 President over attempts to move $2 Million in student money and assets into her own name. When questioned about her actions and the structure of the LTSA, of which she had been a key architect, Annabelle stated to the reporter that she would be “making no comment on that,” and hung up.
After the LTSU elections, it was assumed after stopping Annabelle’s Motion that the LTSA would not be operating on the Bundoora or City Campuses. In October 2020, the LTSU, under President-elect Jake McGuinness, proposed a funding package for the LTSU to operate to their full capacity on the Bundoora and City campuses. Upon approaching the University, it was made clear that the University would be diverting the vast majority of SSAF funds to the LTSA.
In a hard blow to what had already been a difficult year for the union, the University Administration announced a 88% reduction in funding to the LTSU. This was despite the funding application made by the LTSU including clear data highlighting the unprecedented growth in calls for emergency assistance, advocacy, counselling and general support. In the 10 months of 2020, up to October 30, the LTSU would see the number of enrolled LTU students decrease, but the number of advocacy sessions increase by 52%. The number of cases where students required financial counselling increased a whopping 69% on the year prior. Requests for emergency financial relief tripled the year prior.
This decision for 2021 meant that only a third of Students Service and Amenities Fees (SSAF) went to funding student organisations –a total of $2,475,000. This was a significant decrease from 2019, in which student bodies received a collective $4,457,740. The University was hellbent on defunding student voices at La Trobe.
By the time the LTSA Elections were held in April 2021, the LTSA had been operating for 8 months without a single elected representative. The self-appointed Interim Board consisting of Annabelle, Jenna, Will, and CEO Mitch, had complete control over the LTSA’s $2.2 Million in funding and its assets.
Suspending Bundoora Student Council
On April 27, the newly-elected Bundoora Student Council (BSC) elected their 2021 President, Joel Blanch. In the Zoom Meeting to elect Joel, where CEO Mitch Trevena was hosting, the chat function had been disabled and she directed all motions be delivered orally.
Upon his election as the Bundoora Student Council President, Joel Blanch was accepted to the LTSA Board as the representative for the Bundoora Campus. In his first act as the Bundoora LTSA President, Joel Blanch requested access to the finances of the Company, as is his right, outlined in the LTSA’s Constitution. The financial records requested included expenditure reports from the CEO and La Trobe University, records of Expenditure, and pay packets of senior LTSA executives (Interim Board of Directors (IBD), Board President and CEO). Joel Blanch would also request the communications between the IBD – Annabelle Romano, Jenna Boyd, and Will Griffin – and the University Administration, to examine the validity of claims about the instigation of the amalgamation. The CEO refused to release these documents.
On April 28th, following Joel’s request, the Interim Board of Directors, under direction from LTSA CEO, voted to invalidate the appointment of the Bundoora LTSA Executive, due to a perceived ‘procedural error’ – being the presentation of the motion verbally, rather than in written form. Acting without oversight, the Board passed the motion to invalidate the election of the LTSA Bundoora Student Council Executive and remove Joel Blanch from his position as President.
The Interim Board of Directors met again and voted to suspend the Bundoora Student Council on May 3rd. No reason was given to the Councillors even though this suspension would last over a month. In that time, all members of the BSC could play no role in the direction or governance of the LTSA – a move that would silence approximately 30,000 Bundoora Students.
On May 7th the Interim Board of Directors stepped down; and three days later, the Wodonga President and early member of the LTSA Interim Board of Directors, Jenna Boyd, was appointed unopposed as the Chair of LTSA Board. The Bundoora seat on the Governing Board remained vacant.
Following the appointment of the Chair, the LTSA Board of Directors was notified of the complaints lodged by the CEO against two Bundoora Councillors. The Board was advised on the subject of the complaints, but the content, context and response of the pair were withheld from the Board. The Board was also not made aware that the catalyst for the complaints was the submission of complaints made by the CEO, Mitch Trevena, and that the complaints had never been adequately investigated nor substantiated.
The Board, having reviewed only the topic of the complaints, was given the option to either “suspend or expel” the elected members of the LTSA Bundoora Student Council and was not given the opportunity to vote on allowing the pair to continue within the LTSA. The two were expelled on the basis that they wanted to “politicise an apolitical organisation and create division.” In a seemingly politically charged move, the leaders of the LTSA made clear they would suppress any real opposition to their vision for the LTSA.
After a two-month suspension and a total of five months of no representation for Bundoora students in the LTSA, the remaining 14 Bundoora Student Councillors were reinstated.
Since this time, the BSC has operated at a limited capacity due to the structure of the LTSA. The motions raised and passed on the LTSA Bundoora Student Council must then be passed by the Board of Directors to have any effect.
A multitude of motions passed by Bundoora Student Council were rebuffed by the Board. The most notable and distressing example of this is a motion to condemn the University for their ‘restructure plan’ which would result in the redundancy of 200 full-time equivalent staff members. This motion unanimously passed the BSC, but was rejected by the Board of Directors.
Further, Jenna Boyd, the LTSA Chair of the Board of Directors released a statement in support of the University’s restructuring proposal – stating the following:
“The proposed operating model focuses more sharply on LTU strengths and distinctiveness in teaching and research. Additionally, it has been designed to simplify business processes and operations while making a positive difference to students, communities and partners.”
Other motions that have been struck down by the Board include calls for climate action, support for student activist campaigns, requests to access the LTSA’s financial records, and an independent social media presence for the BSC.
Since its inception, the Board have had numerous secret meetings, where attendees are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. The records of these meetings have never been released to students, despite numerous requests to make them public.
The LTSA continues to act with disregard for the student body at La Trobe, acting in their own self-interest. The LTSA has failed students every day since its inception. The LTSA continues to destroy student representation and seeks only to protect the University and its funding agreements.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t have to end here. There are calls to Shut Down the LTSA, but we need your help.
If we don’t take a stand, what is happening at LTU could create a wave of destruction around the country. Make no mistake, other Vice-Chancellors around the country are watching what is happening.
If we allow the destruction of Student Unions to go unchallenged, other Universities will follow suit. Student representation will suffer. Student advocacy and support will suffer. Students will suffer.
We have to take a stand and fight this.
We have to Shut Down the LTSA.