The University of Toronto administration is inviting students to provide feedback and comments on the first draft of the new Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations.
The policy aims to implement recommendations made by the provost in response to concerns raised during the 2013–2014 Student Societies Summit — a series of meetings between different campus organizations centred around their operations and mandates as “open, accessible, democratic” student groups.
“The issues discussed in the Summit — including complaints from members regarding the operation of societies, and disputes between societies — are evident beyond just those societies involved in the Summit,” reads the web page of the consultation.
Student society elections, the structural operations of student organizations, and various inter- and intra-organizational communication breakdowns were among the most contentious issues discussed at the summit. Sandy Welsh, vice provost, students, received complaints related to these topics on a frequent basis.
A month after the summit’s conclusion, the provost released a report that included recommendations on how to best respond to the issues discussed. The report speculated on three broad topics: the enhancement the democratic operations of societies, the implementation of on a policy for the recognition and restructuring of student societies, and the future scope of the presentation of student societies.
Welsh explained that the draft policy addresses all three areas by providing clarity on what it means for a group to be open, accessible, and democratic.
The policy suggests a method of resolving disputes between and within student organizations by proposing the appointment of University Student Societies’ Complaint and Resolution Council (SSCRC).
According to Welsh, the SSCRC is intended to provide a mechanism to deal with complaints within and between student societies when their own internal mechanisms have been exhausted. Welsh emphasized that the clause that requires student societies to attempt to resolve complaints internally before bringing them forward to the council.
As stated in the drafted policy, the council would consist of six members, four of whom would be students selected through an election process, with the remaining two being appointed by the vice president and provost as chair and secretariat support. Out of the four student members, two would be nominated by divisional student societies, while the other two would be nominated by representative student committees.
Welsh told The Varsity that some of the feedback the administration has received so far has included questions and comments about the student representation within the committee, including details of the election process. “In terms of electing student members to the council, it’s really up to the student societies themselves,” Welsh said.
Maina Rambali, president of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) is primarily concerned with how the policy would affect student organizations. “In 2014, APUS expressed our concerns to the Governing Council about its lack of jurisdiction over student unions. Our priorities are protecting the rights of our members and our autonomy as an organization.”
Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) appears to share Rambali’s sentiments, especially regarding the possible implementation of a new council and grievance process.
“Student societies and student politics will always have disagreements — this is part of democracy, it is important that whatever system comes into place, respects this and only functions when there are clear egregious violations occurring,” Shihipar said.
Welsh has received a “range of comments” on the issue. She stated that the council will not supersede the student societies. She stressed that since the policy is still in its early stages of development, the need for feedback is paramount to any further development. “While the idea has come out of the student summit, it is really important that we take feedback from student society members as it reflects what students think of the council.”
Rambali said that she sees the need to clarify the terms “open, accessible, and democratic” for the general public. “I have questions on the Complaint and Resolution process and how it… may threaten the autonomy of student societies, and… create a path for disruption by trouble makers,” said Rambali.
Shihipar believes that, given the “myriad of bureaucratic channels that students have to navigate” it is necessary to flesh out the details of the policy prior to implementation; if this does not happen, “we may be left with an inefficient system that takes up time and resources but does not work.”
When asked about a deadline for the possible implementation of the policy, Welsh responded that future plans for the policy depend on the feedback received before March 15.