U of T to take over St. George Campus food services

University ends contract with Aramark

U of T to take over St. George Campus food services

On January 27, Aramark employees working at the UTSG campus received a letter from their employer informing them that the university had decided not to extend its contract with the company. The letter arrived on the same day that the university announced it would be taking over all campus food and beverage services for the entire campus. The contract was due to expire in 2016.

According to the letter, the university has scheduled three information sessions for employees to learn more about the transition. Aramark representatives will also be in attendance.

“This move will allow us to take a more active role in creating comfortable and welcoming dining areas,” said Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, “We’ll also be able to enhance the food offerings available to students on the St. George campus, particularly those who don’t live in residence.”           

In early October, the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education sent out a survey to many varsity athletes about the Starbucks in the Athletic Centre, citing that in the coming months the faculty will have the opportunity to suggest changes to the food services offered at that location. Questions and comment ranged from how often student-athletes used the Starbucks, to possible improvements or changes that need to be made to the location,              

The change will affect employees working in locations such as Robarts Library and Sid’s Café, as well as those at New College and Chestnut residence dining halls, both of which were contracted out to Aramark. According to U of T News, the university is intending to offer around 250 UTSG Aramark employees opportunities to work under the new management. 

The prospect of employment has current Aramark employee Robin* cautiously optimistic. “I would hope that a renowned institution like U of T wouldn’t put people out of a job,” they said. When asked about any concerns they had about changes in job description and hourly wage, Robin expressed concern. “Now am I concerned that my pay and hours will change? I am a bit. We haven’t been briefed on the situation yet, so that alone is a bit concerning.”            

Aramark has held UTSG’s food service contract since 2006 when the company replaced Sodexho, a French company who were employed by the university for 16 years. During the transition, many concerns were raised by employees about the future of their collective agreement under UNITE HERE Local 75. Currently, the university has several union groups, many of which are under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).   

During the transition from Sodexho to Aramark at the Athletic Centre Starbucks, several employees, many of whom were students, were not re-hired.

In July, 2013 Ryerson University decided against tendering its contract with their Aramark in favour of food service operator Chartwells. Ryerson had been covering over $5.6 million in losses which former operator Aramark had agreed to undertake upon signing a contract with the university.              

Owned by British company Compass Group, Chartwells contracts out to Ryerson, UTM, George Brown, and Humber College. Food services at UTSC operate under both independent and institutional providers; one of which is Aramark.              

The university’s announcement not to renew its contract comes some months after the Starbucks in Robarts Library, one of Aramark’s contracts, was shut down temporarily by DineSafe, following a failed inspection

Robin hopes that under U of T, working and managerial conditions will improve. “I am hoping that there will be better organization. Aramark doesn’t seem to have the right handle on scheduling,” said Robin, adding, “Although the problem may come from workers not showing up at times, I’d say this is a direct effect of how things are managed. I want to be able to come into my job every day and know that I have people to work with. Not to mention that I want my work environment to be good, without unnecessary tension.”           

U of T and Aramark are still discussing the terms of the transition, including the date of effective termination.

*Name has been changed at subject’s request

Disclosure: Emma Kikulis was previously employed by Aramark; she no longer works for the company.


Debunking U of T’s dropout myth

Students in need of support when leaving university

Debunking U of T’s dropout myth

“I’d heard that the dropout rate was nearly half, and was told that the first year of U of T was designed to weed people out,” says first-year student Tessa Mahrt-Smith. It’s not an uncommon opinion among incoming U of T students. Chatter among high school students, first-year students, and Internet forums such as College Confidential and The Student Room perpetuate the myth.

Contrary to the opinions of many, U of T has one of the highest first-year retention rates in the country  a rate that stood at 91 per cent between 2002 and 2012. From 2012-2013, it rose to 92 per cent, compared to an average of 88.5 per cent among other “Highly Selective Public” universities and 82.6 per cent among all other public universities. 

“I’d heard going into U of T that a lot of people dropped out, but then I came to realize in second semester that I didn’t really know anyone who had left or noticed any significant number of people at all missing from my classes,” says first-year student John-Alan Slachta. 

Perhaps the reputation itself is self-defeating. “I feel like a lot of  people hear that 50 per cent dropout rate statistic and decide that they wouldn’t be able to cut it here. And suddenly those potential dropouts don’t even come to the school,” first-year student Kamal Jha speculates.   

U of T’s entrance averages in the 85 per cent – 100 per cent range are significantly higher than those of other Ontario universities as of 2013; dovetailing that statistic is the lower number of students in the less than 80 per cent and 81 per cent –84 per cent ranges compared to other Ontario universities. 

The Varsity spoke to former students who left U of T before graduating and their comments painted a different picture than the stereotypical dropout would suggest. These are individuals who dropped out due to personal reasons but have concrete plans for their futures.   

Marie*, a former student who dropped out at the start of this semester, said she dropped out because she was not enjoying the course in which she was enrolled. “Architectural Studies at U of T was my backup program and I have not been able to find enough, if any, enjoyment in it in order to want to continue on,” she explained, Marie’s plans for the future “include obtaining a Bachelor of Design degree in Fashion Communications from Ryerson and possibly Mastering in Fashion so I can pursue a career in a field I’m excited about.”   

Sarah*, also a former student, dropped out for mental health-related reasons. “I had to drop out because I was having panic attacks very frequently and it just escalated really fast so I needed to take a break and figure out what I want to do and get help.” She said that she plans to return to U of T, “ideally for a couple of summer courses but, if not, September for sure.” 

Both former students had different experiences interacting with the university when they dropped out. “Honestly, University of Toronto didn’t support me at all through the process of dropping out. I emailed my registrar and they just told me they were sorry that I was not longer interested in my program and sent me links on how to possibly apply to a separate program within the university and how to drop out. It was very much a do-it-yourself process,” said Marie.   

This is in contrast with Sarah’s experience, which she says was positive. Sarah says that her registrar “fully supported my decision and made the process so much easier and more comfortable for me. She told me about all the different things I could do when I return, like contacting accessibility services if I need help and places for counselling on campus. She was also the reason I got some of my tuition back, and I’m forever grateful for her.” 

The widespread myth of first-year failure may be unfounded, but the varying processes of dropping out are very real. This university, which does not have a systemic issue with dropouts, has no unified process that all students can consult.

From the seams of student activism

Students Against Sweatshops’ legacy continues

From the seams of student activism

Students gathered at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) recent Special General Meeting-turned townhall  to discuss a motion for ethical divestment. Over 15 years ago, students fought to end the sale of unethical products at U of T.

Establishing ethical guidelines

In 2000, U of T’s Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) successfully lobbied the university’s Governing Council to pass a code of conduct for U of T’s clothing suppliers. To this day, Trademark Licensing, a program at U of T, aims to ensure the university’s marks are ethical and of high quality.

U of T  has an intensive vetting process that companies, called “licensees,” must go through before they can produce goods and apparel with U of T’s logo or marks on them.

In an open letter to president Prichard published in The Varsity in 2000, SAS admonished the university for its indecisiveness.

“We were surprised to learn of your recent hesitation in adopting a code of conduct with provisions for a living wage. After the forum hosted by the University on 31 January 2000, we thought it would be clear that a new code without such language is ‘behind the times’”, the letter stated.

In another article published in The Varsity, SAS organizer Ian Thomson, emphasized what students were hoping for in the code of conduct.

“We demand that they tell us in which factories U of T clothes are being made,” said Thomson. “No more secrets! The code demands that the factory location must be made public.”

SAS bargained with the university for over a year, and after a decision was pushed back one too many times,  17 students held a ten-day sit-in at then president Prichard’s office. Since the code of conduct was passed, U of T has been a leader in ethical sourcing among Canadian universities.

Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, pointed out that post-secondary institutions in the United States began similar programs before U of T, but that U of T was the first to do so in Canada.

“It’s not just that we started doing it first, it’s also that other schools have contacted us and asked about having programs similar to this across Canada,” Macdonald said. “That’s a positive thing, if other schools see that were doing something good and they want information about how to implement something similar, that just helps to raise awareness about apparel manufacturing.”

Current policies and remaining problems

Today, U of T works with Learfield Licensing, a licensing agent that checks U of T’s licensing companies, as well as two NGOs to ensure the ethical production of its branded clothing.

The Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) works with businesses and corporations, while the Fair Labour Association (FLA) has on the ground employees that take in direct reports from factory workers.

“[Licensees] sign an agreement with our licensing agent, but effectively they sign an agreement with the university that they will abide by our code of conduct and that they share information with us at that time about where they manufacture, factory names and so on,” Macdonald said. “They sign off on that and they renew that agreement every year. Then they are permitted to produce U of T merchandise.”

The current agreement licences require companies to disclose to U of T where their products are manufactured. However, loopholes can still be found due to the complicated nature of supply chains. U of T has agreements with their licensees, but the licensees have their own suppliers.

For example, an unethical source could sell blank products to a licensee, which could then responsibly use those products at their own businesses.

“What we can do in that instance is we can urge the company that we have a written agreement with to procure responsibly,” Macdonald said. “If we have reason to be concerned about the activities of a supplier of our supplier, if you will, we still do have recourse… We could raise concerns and we could apply pressure to the company that we have an existing written agreement with, to investigate the concern with that and the manufacturer.”

For products without the U of T logo, the Bookstore has more leeway, and suppliers do not necessarily have to follow the same code of conduct. However, in an emailed statement to The Varsity, the Bookstore said, “The Bookstore [uses] the same sources for those items for the ease of purchase.”

For the most part, U of T receives reports from the WRC and FLA about areas of concern and then Trademark Licensing will investigate further to see if any of the licensees are involved.

“Typically what we would do is if we heard there was a factory of concern or a region of concern is talk to our licensees and work with our licensees and engage them,” Macdonald said. “If they are actively involved in doing something wrong, obviously the very end part of the process would be that we would stop doing business with them, but the real goal for them is to change what they do to ensure that if they are in fact engaged in these countries and there are conditions in the workplace which are substandard and not according to our code of conduct, our goal would be to try to get them to change that. Not to just cease doing business with them, our goal would be to try and influence how they operate.”

The current policies allow for dialogue, but some students do not think this is enough. As various groups on campus call for divestment from other investments at the university, students  remain critical about where their fees are going. 

Reaching for the Stars

U of T Aerospace Team seeks student levy

Reaching for the Stars

The University of Toronto’s Aerospace Team (UTAT) is looking to take its funding to the next level. The group will be proposing a divisional referendum concurrent with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Spring Elections. The levy, if passed, will charge students in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Professional Faculties 85¢  per session. The levy would be collected through the UTSU, an avenue that UTAT has never used before.

One of the university’s largest student design teams, UTAT is composed of students from both the Arts & Science and Engineering faculties. Over the past five years, UTAT has been pursuing increasingly high-flying and complex projects in space and aviation, hoping to add a student-led satellite project to their repertoire. The team hopes to expand all five of its divisions (Aerial Robotics, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Rocketry, Space Systems, and Outreach) over the next two years.

In pursuing a levy, the team hopes to not only realize larger projects, but also to gain support for more student-powered research and development at U of T as a whole.

Jeremy Chan-Hao Wang, executive director & senior engineering designer of UTAT, explained the need for additional funding: “Our growth will soon outpace that of traditional funding avenues from the University — e.g. grants from offices/departments — and though we make a concerted effort to secure in-kind industry donations wherever possible, — more than 90 per cent of all software and hardware we receive is donated — no one is willing to donate a satellite launch!”

The majority of money from the levy would be put toward a project to launch a satellite into space sometime in late 2018 or early 2019. The UTAT aims for this satellite to be the first satellite in Canada, completely designed and built by students.

“As part of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, UTAT is bringing together students from engineering, physics, and life sciences to conduct microbiology experiments in support of astronaut health,” Wang said. “We aim to develop a low-cost, open platform for students around the world to carry out space medicine experiments, using standardized and miniaturized satellite design combined with our microbiology research setup.” Of course, launching a satellite into outer space is costly, and requires greater funding than the team is currently able to receive.

The rest of the money would go toward UTAT’s current projects and equipment, including “multi-purpose quadcopters, fixed-wing drones for environmental monitoring and emergency medical services, sounding rockets for atmospheric research, and the satellite development prior to launch.”

Highlighting the many awards UTAT has received from organizations such as NASA, the UN, U of T, Ryerson in addition to six annual competitions attended by the team, Wang describes the team as “one of many student groups at U of T creating a tangible impact in key technical areas and educational outreach, and redefining what it means to ‘just be a student’.”

What are they doing with your data?

Behind the university’s statement on Piazza

What are they doing with your data?

There are some at U of T who worry that Piazza may be permitted to sell the information of its student users, an accusation that the company flatly denies.

Piazza is a free online Q&A platform commonly used by — but not limited to — instructors teaching computer science, statistics, and mathematics. Students can post questions, to which instructors and other students can provide answers, and instructors can also post announcements on the website.

U of T released a statement to instructors and students this past December, outlining its concerns. “The Piazza Privacy Policy and Terms of Use provide for substantial sharing and use, including commercial use, of personal information of students,” the statement reads. However, the university has placed no formal restrictions on the use of Piazza.

Professor Susan McCahan serves as vice provost, innovations in undergraduate education. Part of McCahan’s role at U of T is to evaluate new educational technologies.

“The company has publicly said that they do not sell student data without the student’s permission,” McCahan said. “But their documents, their agreements, the click-through that you do when you create a Piazza account, does not make that clear at all. It’s not clear that there is an opt in.”

Rather, McCahan interprets those documents as allowing the company to “do what they want” with student data. “Anyone they sell it to can do what they want with your data as well,” says McCahan. “It frees up a whole chain of data transfer from any kind of oversight.”

The Varsity contacted Piazza Technologies, the parent company that developed the platform, and who denied any wrongdoing is taking place. “We don’t sell student data,” said John Knight, of the Piazza User Operations Team. “We were built on trust and take that trust seriously.”

Why use Piazza at all?

Paul Chow is a professor of Computer Engineering and Electronics at U of T. One course he teaches, ECE532 Digital Systems and Design, uses Piazza extensively; in addition to the discussion board, nearly all course information is placed exclusively on Piazza with the exception of student grades, which appears on Blackboard, U of T’s main online learning platform.

Chow explains that Piazza’s ease of use makes it a better system for communicating with students. “The approved university platform does not allow me, and my other colleagues using Piazza, to provide the interaction we want to provide to the students,” he says. “We use Piazza because the students will get more out of the course.”

“Piazza is significantly better than the Blackboard discussion platform,” said Theo Poenaru, a second-year computer science student who said that roughly half of his courses have a Piazza component.

In addition to the “very natural organization” of the Q and A platform that makes it easy to use, Poenaru also likes the ability for questions in a discussion to be posted without revealing the posters name to other students. He says this feature “removes the fear of questions being labelled stupid and pushes students to ask more questions than they would otherwise.”

As far as privacy concerns, Poenaru doesn’t have any. “I see they have my name, university, courses taken, and email address. That isn’t information for which there is generally a high expectation of privacy. I would definitely not stop using Piazza because of this.”

Chow said that no students have come to him with privacy concerns thus far, that if needed, he could help a student register on Piazza using non-U of T email address, under a pseudonym.

Piazza allows students to use alternate names. Chow is critical of the fact that U of T did not make instructors and students aware of this feature, which he learned of from colleagues at other universities.

“I think the university could have spent more time investigating how to help the instructors use their choice of platforms within the “rules” rather than just posting a warning about it,” said Chow.

A better Blackboard?

Given the caution in U of T’s December statement, it may come as a surprise to students and instructors to learn that the university had been looking into the possibility of integrating Piazza directly into Blackboard as early as 2014, when they first reached out to the company.

Using third party technologies is a standard part of U of T’s approach to improving Blackboard. “We regularly review all kinds of technologies that can bolt into Blackboard,” explains McCahan. “We have some of them that are available, sort of seamlessly integrated … In fact, you might not know that it’s a different vendor, right, because it just sort of appears inside the course shell as if its part of Blackboard.”

Relating the story of the initial contact between Piazza and U of T, McCahan said that Piazza expressed hesitation in engaging in the discussion and that the university’s understanding time that they were hesitant because they were still a relatively small start-up company.

Correspondence between Piazza and the university picked up again in March of 2015, and continued through October until, in McCahan’s description, the company stopped responding.  “They haven’t been returning our phone calls, essentially,” she said.

“We went forward with doing a little bit of digging,” McCahan continued. “We didn’t go through a formal review, which we would do to accept a technology. But we did enough digging to determine that there were some issues with the technology.” It was these issues that led to the December statement.

Knight said that the reason for Piazza’s lack of communication with U of T was simply the small size of the company; the employee who handles partnerships with universities was assigned to a different project. “We’d very much like to build a relationship with UT [sic] but we’re a small team (34 people) serving over 1M students for free,” he explains. “We’re certainly not abandoning a partnership, just putting it off until we have the bandwidth to make it happen.”

Centre for Civilizations and Cultures to replace McLaughlin Planetarium

New building to be built at 90 Queen’s Park Crescent

Centre for Civilizations and Cultures to replace McLaughlin Planetarium

The University of Toronto recently announced plans to construct a new Centre of Civilizations and Cultures. The building will be built at 90 Queen’s Park Crescent, replacing the location’s current resident, the decommissioned McLaughlin Planetarium.

Scott Mabury, U of T vice-president, university operations, emphasized the value of the project to both the university and the global community. “This is a great combination of academic faculties [and] academic superstars… Bringing them together will advance the conversation,” he said.   

The centre will house the departments of History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, along with the Institute of Islamic Studies and the research arm of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies. It will also boast an open plaza on the ground floors, an auditorium for the Faculty of Music, and more open access to the Philosopher’s Walk pathway.

Toronto’s Architects Alliance will collaborate on the design with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a high-profile architectural studio. The Architects Alliance has worked with U of T before, assisting with both the Woodsworth Residence and the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. 

When asked why the university was building a new centre as opposed to addressing existing buildings in need of maintenance, Mabury stressed that updates would remain a priority, saying, “We’re doing both.” He pointed to many current efforts to rehabilitate structures, including about 70 different projects across the St. George campus. Mabury also cited more major undertakings to rebuild and repurpose buildings, such as at the Faculty of Law. 

“We needed additional space, and the question was how best to capture the academic needs,” Mabury said.  “How do we create something truly marvelous and exceptional?” 

A report presented to the Business Board of the U of T Governing Council in the spring of 2014 estimated the total cost of deferred maintenance on the St. George Campus at $443 million, well above that of the satellite campuses. The report also argued that the university’s policies have had some success in tackling high priority issues. 

It is not just U of T academics who stand to gain from the new Centre. The surrounding community has been anticipating its creation since the university bought the space at 90 Queen’s Park in 2009. The Royal Ontario Museum, the location’s previous owner and current next-door-neighbour, expressed enthusiasm at the announcement. 

“This development will enhance the area’s overall cultural experience by increasing the number of visitors, programs, and events offered in the Bloor Street Cultural Corridor. The ROM looks forward to collaborating with U of T to present joint programming, exhibitions, lectures and more at both the Museum and the new Centre,” said Marnie Peters, ROM spokesperson.

Some may be sad to see the McLaughlin Planetarium removed entirely, even though it has been closed since 1995. It has been a part of Toronto’s history since its opening in 1968, and has its own place in the culture of the area. However, its prominent location meant that the space was unlikely to go unused. 

The proposal for the centre was first released in September 2014. The complex was originally intended to include the Jewish Museum of Canada, which has since been removed from the plans due to changing funding priorities at United Jewish Appeal. 

There is no definite timeline for the construction, as the project is still in the design phase.

The Portal to the future

Faculty gathering student input for new learning interface

The Portal to the future

The Faculty of Arts & Science is reviewing U of T’s learning management engine (LME), which is currently provided by Blackboard. There are plans to develop a new LME: the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative. In anticipation of this new system, the faculty hosted a townhall on Portal, where students came to air their grievances and give feedback about the interface. 

A little over a year ago, The Varsity reported on the persistent outages and maintenance hours that Blackboard faced, and many students believe that they feel a disconnect with their instructors.

Professors and students have expressed frustrations with the current LME. One student who attended the town hall criticized its user unfriendliness, mentioning that one of her peers pasted her assignment in a comment box rather than the assignment submission box, which could have affected her grade. In addition, professors are not required to use Blackboard to submit grades, which leaves some students frustrated with the inaccessibility.

Learning tools such as gamification modules, marking interfaces, publishing capabilities, and many more are on the long list of suggestions for the new framework. The faculty discussed features such as a calendar for assignments and exams, and many of the technologies were scheduled for renewal last year. Out of the three stages of the LME development, the initiative is in its second phase. 

Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union, also criticized the lack of “user-friendliness” of the current Portal system. 

“No one knows how it works,” Shihipar said. The lack of a search option, the inability to edit the types of tools needed for each course, and nothing “more than just a text option” for the current organization function, were a few of the grievances he aired on behalf of himself and other students who reached out to him over social media.   

The university is currently accepting comments for the new LME online. Shihipar encouraged students to have their voice heard saying, “before this process is over, get [your feedback] in.”

Chinatown shooting leaves two dead, three injured

Incident brings Toronto homicide total to nine this year

Toronto Police were called to the scene of a shooting that occurred just south of College Street on Spadina Avenue at 3:18 AM on January 30. The violence killed two people and injured three.

A yet to be identified assailant fired at a group of five men in front of the New Ho King restaurant, a Chinese restaurant popular among U of T students due to its close proximity to campus.

Detective Sergeant Mike Carbone told media at a press conference that “some type of altercation” prompted the shooting. One victim was pronounced dead at the scene; another succumbed to his injuries in hospital. The other three victims remain in hospital. The identities of the victims will remain confidential until their families have been notified. Spadina Avenue was closed off between College and Dundas for the police investigation. Carbone said that there are not enough details to release a suspect description and that police are canvassing the area for video footage of the incident.

“As you probably already know, it’s very, very early in the investigation,” said Carbone. “My message here today is to report or to encourage anyone who was in the area of Spadina and Nassau at around 3:15 in the morning to give the Toronto Police a call, or Crime Stoppers.”