Meetings at Trinity, Victoria, St. Michael’s and Engineering this week unanimously approved the holding of referenda to sever financial ties with the University of Toronto Students’ Union. Trinity scheduled a vote from March 25–29, and Victoria from March 23–26.
Shaun Shepherd, the outgoing UTSU president, has said the union will not host the referenda, as requested by the units seeking defederation. Instead, Shepherd offered to meet again with college leaders, saying he wanted to “focus on issues of primacy” such as illegal fees and access to multi-faith prayer space, and less on “silly” issues, including defederation, that he says are a “distraction.”
“Every few years we see this push for some type of drastic change,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd’s offer of mediation was swiftly rejected by college leaders, all of whom are determined to put the question of continuing financial ties with the union to a vote before the end of this academic year.
“Faith has been lost in the UTSU’s ability to hold meaningful dialogue,” said Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) president Shoaib Alli.
“This tactic isn’t new. They’ve been doing it all year. They defied the will of their members at the SGM in February, they’re trying to defy the will of their members now, and they’ll keep defying the will of their members until we fight back and throw off this degraded, corrupt system,” said Sam Greene, co-head of Trinity College. “Ninety per cent of what we’ve heard from the Union this year, and for the past decade, is prevarication, equivocation, misdirection and obfuscation,” said Greene.
Shepherd has publicly maintained that the UTSU’s bylaws do not allow for such referenda, and that only the union itself may determine its membership. However, item XIIc of the utsu bylaws states that referendum questions: “must be approved by the Board by three-quarters (3/4) of the Directors.”
Shepherd, who has a vote on the Board of Directors, acknowledged that a referendum could be approved this way, but ruled out the option, saying, “I’m just not going to do that.”
“The only possible explanation for the UTSU refusing to have a referendum is that they know they’ll lose,” said Greene. “They’re left with only two options: allow a democratic referendum and lose, or shut down and ignore the democratic will of their members.”
Unanimous Support from Colleges
The Trinity College Meeting (TCM), VUSAC , St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU), and the Engineering Society’s Board of Directors all voted unanimously to host referenda under their own rules if the UTSU will not supervise a vote on the prospect of their financial exit.
Three student societies released reports this week on the logistics of defederation. The reports all reach the same conclusion: local units can provide all of the services UTSU does, at equal or reduced cost. SMCSU says their report is forthcoming. The UTSU rejected this analysis and repeatedly voiced concerns about the accuracy of the reports.
The engineer’s report claims that there is a potential for a $94,830 surplus if Engineering were to secede. Similarly, the VUSAC report claims severing financial ties with the union and re-routing student fees would yield “at minimum” $99,328 in new funds.
All colleges have indicated that it would be up their members to decide whether to allocate the funds to new projects, or return it in savings to their members.
Corey Scott, UTSU vice-president, internal, authored the union’s response to the Trinity report; the response alleges “many false factual and interpretive claims.” Scott added that “accurate information is crucial to the democratic process” and voiced concern that “students at Trinity will be voting based on the inaccuracies” contained within the original report.
Despite Scott’s objections, the Trinity College Meeting attendees, all of whom received copies of both the Trinity report and the UTSU response, unanimously approved a call to hold a referendum in late March.
The UTSU’s vice-president, equity, Noor Baig, attended Trinity’s meeting as an observer and declined to answer questions.
Following the TCM, Shepherd sent a letter to VUSAC president Shoaib Alli, requesting that discussion of defederation be taken off the agenda.
“Our position continues to be that a dialogue between the UTSU and the VUSAC is the preferred approach to addressing issues raised by VUSAC,” Shepherd wrote.
Shepherd also attended Friday’s VUSAC meeting, and responded to questions for around one hour. It was here that he conceded that the union could hold a referendum, if the board approved it by three-quarters majority, while also reiterating that he did not feel a referendum was in the best interests of students.
A number of students at the meeting raised concerns about defederation, although it was unclear if they were Victoria students. At the end of the meeting 17 voted in favour, with zero against and zero abstentions.
Vice-Provost appears “non-commital”
Last week, Shepherd sent a letter to Trinity warning of “clear legal precedent” prohibiting financial secession. The Engineering Society and VUSAC received similar letters this week.
A courtroom conclusion seems probable, and will hinge largely on what action, if any, the university administration takes. The UTSU maintains that any referendum will be “of no effect,” although it is the University Affairs Board (UAB) of Governing Council that will ultimately vote on whether to approve the diversion of fees.
In letters sent to the units seeking defederation, Shepherd wrote that the UTSU “takes issue with your attempts to involve the university administration in the UTSU’s internal affairs.”
Vice-Provost Jill Matus declined to answer The Varsity’s questions on whether the UAB would consider a referendum from the colleges. Matus said only that “the University is analyzing the issues and will be writing to UTSU President Shaun Shepherd.”
Matus has also met in recent weeks with college leaders seeking defederation, including Sam Greene and Rishi Maharaj. According to Maharaj, Matus remained “non-commital” during those meetings but indicated that UAB would likely consider the referenda.