One of the two new members of the WMF's Board of Trustees has resigned. Arnnon Geshuri's appointment 22 days ago sparked controversy in the Wikimedia community. His selection and departure come amid growing concerns about not only the composition of the Board, but the direction of the Foundation itself.
In a message on Wednesday, January 27 to the Wikimedia-l mailing list, board members Patricio Lorente and Alice Wiegand wrote:
|Earlier today, Arnnon decided to step down from the Board. To paraphrase his words, he doesn't want to be a distraction for the important discussions that the community and the Foundation need to face in the times to come. We want to thank Arnnon for his ongoing commitment and for helping us to move forward.
The surprise announcement came just a day after Geshuri had made his first public statement on his new role, with the Board expressing its intention to stand by Geshuri's appointment. But by that time, concerns about Geshuri's background and selection process, as well as worries regarding the links to Google and other Silicon Valley technology corporations on the Board, were growing in the Wikimedia community and were becoming news items in the mainstream press. A non-binding vote of no confidence in Geshuri has been reported in Ars Technica, BBC News and Le Monde, among others, which is likely to have been a factor in Geshuri's resignation (see this week's "In the media").
Only yesterday, Wiegand posted on Wikimedia-l that the Board would be standing by their choice. She wrote that while the Board was "listening to your worries" and "discussing the concerns" raised by the community, she concluded: "we want to be clear that the Board approved Arnnon unanimously and still believes he is a valuable member of the team." Geshuri had commented publicly for the first time on the same list about an hour before Wiegand's message:
|It has been almost three weeks since my appointment to the Wikimedia Foundation Board and I have read the feedback and comments from representative members of the community. My first reaction was how amazing the community is in its vibrant culture – there is direct and honest dialog, celebration of diverse ideas, debate and counterpoints, and an overall genuine passion to ensure that the WMF sustains itself for another fifteen years and beyond. Witnessing firsthand the commitment and energy of the community is truly inspirational. Although I would have preferred the tone surrounding my appointment to be more positive and supportive, I deeply understand and respect the criticality of free expression, rallying around convictions, and open disagreement.
Regarding the concerns that have been raised, I have listened closely. That said, in my opinion, there are some misconceptions and there are mitigating considerations. As a general matter, I will say that, throughout my career, I have been charged with enforcing company policies as part of my role as a people manager. I have tried to do so thoughtfully and consistently. I have done so realizing company policies and practices evolve over time as circumstances change.
As part of the current narrative, members of the community generated a running theme within the online conversations related to trust. Comments were expressed questioning their trust in the Wikimedia Foundation Board and asking if the community could accept me as a new Board Member. Wanting to understand the challenges ahead, I have spent the last few weeks speaking with current and former Board members and reaching out to folks in the community. I have more conversations in the coming days and appreciate those who have been generous with their time. Given the story line that has been shaped over the last couple weeks and based on the feedback from my conversations, I know I have a longer journey than most new Board members to prove to the community and WMF alumni that they can put their trust in me. I joined to make a positive difference and be a part of the important effort to grow the WMF for the next generation of editors, contributors, and users.
As the community gets to know me, folks will see the way I work is with thoughtfulness, transparency, diversity, and a focus on doing what is right. I have key experiences in both my professional and non-profit careers which lend a distinctive perspective to the honorable work of a Trustee – especially the learnings gained over the last decade. I passionately believe in the core values of the WMF and trust that the community and even the most energetic community members come from a place of good intent. And as we all become closer and transition to debating the issues and not the people, the community will see I consistently speak from the heart, I am passionately committed to the movement with the best intent, and I am working hard to earn your trust.
While some praised Geshuri for speaking out at all, his paean to Wikipedia's community and culture did little to sway those who wanted him to address the issue of his participation in the High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation more directly. Among epithets used by community members to describe his message were "a public-relations exercise" and "unctuous". Votes on Meta in favor of Geshuri's removal grew to 291 before the RFC was closed following the announcement of Geshuri's departure. The supports included six current employees of the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as a number of former WMF employees, including former senior designer Brandon Harris (Jorm) and Frank Schulenburg, currently executive director of the Wiki Education Foundation. Many of the support votes cited the comments of former Board of Trustee chairs Florence Devouard (Anthere) and Kat Walsh (Mindspillage), who had raised concerns about Geshuri's appointment in previous weeks. Another former trustee (and the Signpost founder), Michael Snow, raised his own concerns following Geshuri's message, making him the third former chair of the Board of Trustees to speak out regarding Geshuri's appointment. He wrote, in part:
|The Board has indicated that you were appointed for your expertise in human resources. I agree that your career includes some impressive experience and you would be a highly qualified candidate in that sense. I can also appreciate why the Board might have felt a need for your kind of expertise. ... But under the circumstances, I struggle to see how your appointment would lead to a net benefit for the Foundation. Your skills and contacts might bring something that is lacking, but the problematic pieces of your background also reflect directly on the same area. Considerations such as staff morale have fluctuated over time, but I cannot imagine how having someone associated with these practices on the Board would be anything but a negative influence on it. Whether they would acknowledge it to you, the rest of the Board, their managers, or anyone at all really, I think this is an extremely serious problem. It seems like it would take an incredible amount of good work from you to overcome the damage your mere presence on the Board is likely to cause.
Discussion of the vetting and selection process is likely to continue following Geshuri's departure. On his talk page two days before Geshuri's resignation, Jimmy Wales conceded that he needed to shoulder some of the blame ("I feel remorse"). He wrote:
|The subcommittee of the board tasked with finding good board candidates did not flag this issue to the rest of the board, and as far as I know, they were unaware of it. I'm not going to speak right now as to whether or not the board would have voted to approve him after a full investigation, and I'm certainly not going to speak about my opinion of whether we should have voted to approve given what we know now. My point is that the process of selection did not flag the issue and so we did not deliberate about it. That's obviously a failure of the process. (A plausible position is that it could have been flagged, investigated, and deemed to be fine. Another plausible position is that it could have been flagged, investigated, and deemed to be not fine. But it is not ok that it wasn't flagged at all.)
As to my own culpability here, I can say that I feel remorse. I googled his name, I saw that he had been at google and mentioned in connection to that story, and I didn't dig deeper. I should have and I'm sorry about that. My only reasoning is that I was just googling for the hell of it – I assumed (incorrectly) that the process was working and that there was nothing to be concerned about.
Beyond a discussion by Wales and other members of Board regarding their Google searches for Geshuri's name, nothing has been said publicly about how Geshuri was vetted or how the candidates were found, weighed, and selected. Also unknown is the involvement of the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, whose VP of Human Resources, Boryana Dineva, worked as Head of HR Systems, HR Operations & Data Analytics under Geshuri at Tesla Motors
from 2013 to 2015.
Also of concern to many is the fear that the selection of Geshuri, whose actions as director of human resources at Google were troubling to the community, may be symptomatic of a desire to instill a similar corporate culture in human resources at the Foundation itself. Adam Wight, a fundraising tech lead at the WMF, wrote:
|As a current WMF staff member, and having received a formal scolding two weeks ago for expressing my professional and personal opinions on this list – that a hierarchical corporate structure is completely inappropriate and ineffectual for running the Foundation – I don't feel safe editorializing about what membership could mean for the future of the Wikimedia movement.
Earlier this month the Signpost covered employee discontent at the Wikimedia Foundation. Wight's message echoes similar complaints that other WMF staffers have made to the Signpost about a perceived cultural shift at the Foundation. One of them described it as "a culture of risk-management and fear", while another noted that they were "terrified" of speaking out in public for fear of retaliation. They are just two of several staffers who have privately expressed similar concerns to the Signpost. At least one speculated that the way recent employee departures from the WMF have been handled may be related to these changes.