UTSU: Nothing unfair about our elections

Reformers, complainants unsatisfied with union’s response to 2011 grievances

Nearly one year after receiving a letter detailing Simcoe Hall’s concerns with its handling of elections, the University of Toronto Students’ Union has formally responded, conceding little and largely rebuffing the administration’s recommendations.

In a late-November letter from union president Shaun Shepherd addressed to vice-provost, students, Jill Matus, the union’s official response to the electoral and operational concerns raised by the university in January 2012 stated that “the complaints in question are insufficient to suggest that the electoral process is unfair.” Shepherd added that the union has already resolved to conduct “an independent, non-partisan legal review” of their electoral process.

Matus’ original letter outlined a number of areas of concern that the administration found in its review of UTSU, including an absence of specific internal grievance procedures, failure to provide financial information to board members upon request, biased decision-making in regards to electoral oversight, and other procedural issues, such as the inclusion of executive members on the electoral oversight body, the Elections and Referenda Committee.

In her original letter, Matus was cautious to avoid accusing the union of electoral misconduct, instead stressing the importance of optics in running elections that are perceived to be fair, accessible, and democratic. Like many students now calling for reforms to the electoral system, Matus suggested that the union move to online voting.

Shepherd wrote in reply to Matus’ concerns that Board of Director, commission, and annual general meetings provide plenty of opportunities for students to voice grievances. Shepherd also denied that board members were unable to access requisite financial information of the union, suggesting that the information desired by the board member in question was confidential human resources data bound by “labour and privacy law” that, according to Corey Scott, vice-president, internal, for the UTSU, can be “found with ample research.”

“It’s a real shame that UTSU has, at every turn, attempted to delay or prevent substantive discussion about their electoral procedures. Along with not replying to our letters, they’ve attempted to discredit anyone who has raised legitimate concerns about the process as being ‘randoms’ only interested in ‘political jockeying’ and expressing ‘non-substantial opinions,’” said Matthew Gray, a former UTSU presidential candidate and one of the original complainants in the 2011 electoral dispute.

“We want UTSU to, at the absolute least, have the decency to engage with reformers directly, something which three successive executives have refused to do.”

Shepherd also deflected Matus’ concerns about election oversight, suggesting that executive oversight of the election process is “fairly common” at U of T, referencing similar systems of oversight on the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit) and Woodsworth College Student Association.

The union expressed its concerns with transitioning to online voting, replying to Matus that when the UTSU had previously done so, it was forced to revert to paper balloting following “complaints, technical difficulties and a decrease in voter turnout,” adding that while the Elections & Referenda Committee would explore all options, “at a cursory investigation, it seems as though online voting is a costly, unreliable system.”

Shepherd’s letter did not address concerns about the undue involvement of the Canadian Federation of Students’ and affiliated organizations in University of Toronto Students’ Union elections.

Detractors were quick to respond to the union’s letter. Sam Greene, co-head at Trinity, said the college saw a marked increase in voter turnout when it began employing the online voting system last year. Matus had previously pointed out that the current version of the U-elecT voting system has been successfully used by many student societies and that it helps increase accessibility for students. Greene also found fault with the grievance measures, saying that “a policy regarding internal grievances would outline a step-by-step procedure for dealing with complaints” and that the response is providing a “non-answer.”

Benjamin Dionne, president of UCLit, also cautioned that Shepherd’s analogy comparing UTSU elections with the UC Lit was “misleading” because “the individuals we have on our oversight committee are not associated in any way to the people who are running for election — we don’t have slates, just individuals.”

The exchange over electoral policies began two years ago, when eight students filed a complaint to former UTSU president Adam Awad on March 14, 2011 in regards to the 2011 election. After not receiving a reply for several weeks, the complainants went to the university.

With the administration acting as a middle man, the complainants and UTSU responded to allegations, until Matus’ office sent a letter to then-president Danielle Sandhu in January 2012. (The original letter is dated incorrectly.) The letter from Shepherd is a response to Matus, even though Shepherd and his team were not in office at the time of the original complaints. Shepherd’s reply is one of four letters exchanged between complainants, Simcoe Hall, and the union.

Gray said he suspects that since the letter arrived a few days after the AGM, the response was “intended to control the political fallout” and “discredit reformers generally.” He also claimed that the UTSU has not formally responded to their inquiries since they raised them in March 2011.

Matus is currently drafting a response to the union. The university’s Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, Section B.2, maintains that the university will collect fees for student societies as long as they operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner. Section B.3. states that installments of fees may be withheld if significant irregularities continue to exist.

In spite of calls from opposition members, administrative actions such as withholding fees may not be in the cards, as Scott says that “the University and the union are two separate entities” and in meetings, the administration has indicated that “they are not interested in becoming involved with UTSU’s internal structures.”

Class action lawsuit filed over student privacy breach

12,000 students join suit filed in federal court by Newfoundland lawyer

Newfoundland lawyer Bob Buckingham has filed a national class action lawsuit on behalf of 583,000 people whose personal information was kept on an external hard drive that was lost by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (hrsdc).

As previously reported by The Varsity, the lost hard drive contained the personal and financial information of students who obtained Canada Student Loans between 2000 and 2006, including names, social insurance numbers, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, amounts of money borrowed, and spousal and parental information. The loss was announced on January 11 by the hrsdc, nearly two months after the drive was first reported missing.

Buckingham says that almost 12,000 students have joined the class action suit. “It changes by the moment,” says Buckingham, whose firm has been inundated with phone calls and emails from those affected. Buckingham says he anticipates tens of thousands more will eventually join the suit. Buckingham’s firm website and social media presence have also attracted a considerable following since the press coverage of the suit began late last week.

The lawsuit is seeking compensation for time, expenses, hardship, breach of privacy, stress incurred, and “additional damages to impress upon the government the seriousness of this loss of information.” Although several firms have already filed with courts across the country, Buckingham says he is the only one to have filed with the federal court.

Buckingham says he has requested a meeting with the federal privacy commissioner, the superintendent of the rcmp, and Minister Diane Finley as the next step in the lawsuit. He said he hopes to “discuss ramifications of this issue” and press the government for immediate action to address the situation.

“We have a group of people who are between the ages of 24 and 30 who are affected by this, and they are going to live to the age of 80 or 90, so how is this going to affect them down the road, if this portable hard drive has been stolen or fallen in the wrong hands?” asks Buckingham. “People are going to be living with the issue over their heads for the next 40, 50 to 60 to 70 years. Where is my identity? Will it ever be used? And could it be used by someone down the road?”

Buckingham says one of the primary objectives of his lawsuit is to prompt the government to take a more proactive approach to the privacy breach. “Things have to be changed,” says Buckingham. He has urged Finley to implement new policies to protect those affected from future harm and wants the federal government to pay for the development of software that will monitor transactions through financial institutions for any suspicious activity.

“The department will be making every effort to contact the individuals whose information was lost. This includes direct notification to those for whom we have current contact information,” Finley said in a statement announcing the loss of the drive.

“I want to see the government step in and state very quickly ‘we are looking at this issue’ and put in place programs to deal with this loss in the short term,” said Buckingham.

The suit will also seek to compel the federal government to pay for credit checks, identity protection insurance, lost wages, and other potentially costly side-effects for those affected by the breach. “I want the government to say that because they are suggesting to people to go and get credit checks and buy identity theft insurance, which is what some of the people in the government call-in centres are suggesting, I want the government to say ‘we’re going to pay for that,’” said Buckingham. “I want the superintendent of the rcmp to come out and say this is a security issue.”

Affected students voiced their frustration over the situation to The Varsity when the loss was first announced. Jaroslava Avila graduated from U of T in 2011, and received federal loans in 2005 and 2006. She said she was still unsure if she has been personally affected by the breach.

“This is just one more thing for students to worry about on top of paying thousands of dollars in students loans,” said Avila.

Munib Sajjad, vice-president, university affairs, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said he had around $6,000 of federal loans taken out during the time frame in question. His personal information may also have been compromised in the breach.

“I’m kind of baffled, and really, really surprised that our government is losing student records,” said Sajjad.

“This failure by the government to protect people’s identity has certainly raised questions concerning the priority the government is giving to protecting personal privacy,” said Buckingham. “We rely on the government to protect the information they collect on us, and along with the ability to collect goes an obligation to protect.”

Goldring Student Centre construction delayed

Unexplained holdup prompts refunds for graduating students

Goldring Student Centre construction delayed

A new delay on construction of Victoria College’s much-anticipated Goldring Student Centre has forced the college administration to issue refunds to graduating students who will not be able to use the facilities for which they were charged.

The delay, which Victoria College president Paul Gooch attributed to “unforeseen circumstances,” means that the Centre intended to be finished in 2013 will instead be pushed back another year. The building’s designers, Toronto architectural firm Moriyama & Teshima, were unavailable for comment.

A 2009 referendum to determine student financing for the Centre ultimately supported levying a $100 fee on full-time students every year from 2010 through 2012, increasing to $200 in 2013. Part-time students paid $50, increasing to $100, over the same time frame.

Only fourth-year students will be refunded in full, while first- to third-year students will be refunded half the amount, as well as being given a chance to move down to the pre-access rate. “Students paid the full fee this year in anticipation, but since that expectation has not been realized, there will be a refund according to the schedule of the agreement,” said Gooch.

The refund comes as the result of an agreement between the Victoria University Student Administrative Council (vusac) and the college, which held that “a student should not be required to pay the fee if he or she would not be able to enjoy the Goldring Student Centre before graduation.”

“When it became apparent in December that the [Centre] was not going to open on time, I brought up this issue with Kelley Castle, the dean of students, and she agreed that this needed to happen,” said Shoaib Ali, vusac president. “vusac and Victoria College students are definitely glad to be getting this money back, though it’s unfortunate that the cost comes at the price of not seeing the centre after the construction that has gone on for so many years.”

Ali says he and other alumni who are eligible for refunds will likely return to campus to see the completed centre, after having invested so much in the building over a number of years.

Named for Victoria College graduates Blake C. Goldring and Judy G. Goldring, the centre will be attached to Wymilwood, a historic campus building.  When the levy was originally approved in 2009, The Varsity reported that administrators anticipated finishing construction of the building in 2011.

In spite of the delay, the centre’s final construction is eagerly awaited by students at Victoria College. Amenities include meeting rooms, new office space for vusac and nearly 20 other student groups, a café and two-storey lounge, an assembly space, and lockers. The centre is expected to triple available student space at the college and unlike the current Wymilwood building, the Goldring Centre will be wheelchair-accessible.

The modern design of the extension fits in with the diverse architecture at Victoria. Borrowing design elements from Wymilwood, the centre will stand alongside the neo-gothic Burwash Hall, Romanesque Old Vic, and the more contemporary Isabel Bader Theatre.

The delay could potentially pose fresh problems for the Faculty of Law, which is preparing to move from its current site at 84 Queen’s Park Crescent to Victoria College, and was depending on completion of the Goldring Student Centre to accommodate law school students who need study space and clubs offices.

“The new building will be a state-of-the-art student centre,” says Gooch. “We are all eager to see it completed.”

Law faculty plots move to Victoria campus

Administrators to replicate Rowell Hall student space in Birge-Carnegie, including famed sculpture of Bora’s Head

Law faculty plots move to Victoria campus

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law is forging ahead with plans to decamp to Victoria College from 2013 until 2015 as its existing facilities undergo extensive renovation and expansion.

According to a December 2012 report released by the Project Planning Committee for the Faculty of Law Expansion, $33.1 million has been raised through private donors for the renovation. The committee is confident it will attain its private fundraising goal of $36 million. A combination of loans and university funds will cover the remainder of the expected $54 million cost of the project.

On Wednesday, at a student information session, the faculty provided updates about the move and addressed issues raised at a town hall meeting last year. Students were concerned about the availability of study rooms and access to library resources during the transitional period.

Challenges around accessing library resources have now been mostly resolved. Of the approximately 220,000 print volumes currently in the library, chief law librarian John Papadopoulos has identified a core of about 20,000 to 30,000 that are in high demand. These volumes will be moved to Birge-Carnegie, where the existing Wymilwood Café will be renovated to become the new law library.

Library resource offices will be relocated to the ground floor. Given that the bulk of case law and legislation is available online, the loss of the Bora Laskin Law Library is not expected to substantially affect students’ ability to complete coursework.

Concerns about a lack of study space have not yet been fully addressed. The Students’ Law Society (SLS) anticipates consulting with students to assess needs. Similarly, Papadopoulos is identifying current usage amongst both Victoria College and law students.

Sean Ingram, senior development officer at the Faculty of Law, said that the law school is also looking at leasing additional space for faculty and students.

However, limited meeting space may be available at Flavelle House, one of the current law buildings, which is expected to remain more accessible during construction than had been previously anticipated. With the exception of the Bora Laskin Law Library complex, lockers, a kitchen and the offices of faculty members and the student society will remain mostly untouched. Although the extent of the disruption is unclear, classes, mostly those taught in the evenings, will continue to be held at Flavelle House.

Falconer Hall will remain open. A reserved space for graduate students, a kitchen, and a reading room will be also added to Birge-Carnegie. As for classrooms, the Office of Space Management will oversee their allocation between law and Victoria College students.

The identification of space needs will be an ongoing project for the faculty over the next few months as it prepares to move into Victoria College over the summer, after students have finished their exams. When asked about how the move might affect Victoria College students, Ingram explained that the law faculty will be leasing space that Victoria College will be vacating. He stated that the college’s student union would move into the Goldring Student Centre that will be completed in March, which would be an improvement over its current facilities. (For more on the delay in the Goldring Student Centre construction, see “Refunds” on pg 3).

Ruta Rudminaite, vusac’s communications commissioner, agrees. In an email, Rudminaite said that “with the incoming Goldring Student Centre, Vic students will have as much bookable space at Victoria College as they need (which is our first priority), so we’re excited to see the relationship between the Faculty of Law and Victoria College evolve naturally.”

Law students have equally been concerned about maintaining a strong community. To mitigate the move’s impact, the ground floor of Birge-Carnegie will be renovated to create an exclusive student lounge to replicate the Rowell room, a popular space where law students often convene to mingle and to hold events. “The administration has always been animated by the primary concern that the law student experience be as contained and as cohesive as possible,” said Kate Hilton, assistant dean of the advancement office. To this end, Bora’s Head, the bust of the late Supreme Court Justice Bora Laskin, will be relocated to the new student lounge.

Hilton is confident that the incoming first year class will have as a good of an experience as current students. The faculty plans to hold orientation events to ease the transition.

Questions For Bruce Kidd, Warden of Hart House

Questions For Bruce Kidd, Warden of Hart House

The Varsity

You’ve been here in one capacity or another for many decades. When did you first decide to come here as a student?

BRUCE KIDD

In my last few years of high school, every evening after school I would jump on the Bloor streetcar and come down either to train at Varsity, or at Hart House. And although we didn’t always run upstairs in Hart House it was really the base for fall and spring running too. And that did change my life.

In my Grade 13 year I could have spent every weekend going to recruitment weekends at different colleges in the United States. They were all trying to recruit me but I wanted to have time to run and I couldn’t do that if I was away every weekend. I narrowed it down to Harvard and U of T, but in the end chose U of T.

The Varsity

There’s an ongoing debate in the athletic community at U of T about potential restructuring. Two options seem to have emerged: either continuing to fund all teams roughly equally, or slashing funding for those teams that are less successful and focusing on the ones that are most successful. What should be done?

BRUCE KIDD 

You know I’m reluctant … I know my colleagues in the Faculty of Kinesiology are wrestling with very difficult financial challenges. In finding worthwhile opportunities for U of T students, I would say that I had much to do with the creation of the broadly-based program and I’m a great believer that, given the educational benefits of sport in a university environment, you should provide as many opportunities as you can.

The Varsity

Can you tell students a bit about what’s coming up at Hart House that they might want to get involved in, anything new or anything old that’s worthy of note?

BRUCE KIDD

You know there’s so much going on in Hart House…

The Varsity

Where’s a good place to start?

BRUCE KIDD 

Every day, every room in this house is buzzing with student energy, and you know the learning that goes on is extraordinary. We provide opportunities in the visual, literary, and performing arts through the committees and facilities in those areas. Sport and physical activity through the fitness wing, public policy and social justice through the debates and social justice committees, and culture and food through the farm committee. Students sit on all those committees and participate in programs that are as intellectually challenging and as invigorating as the learning that goes on in any classroom in this University. Yet we have students who say they’ve never heard of Hart House, or they’ve only been to Sammy’s and they’re unaware that there’s an art gallery or a fitness centre.

The Varsity: 

Why do you think that might be?

BRUCE KIDD

I would share that question with you and your readers. We invest significantly, although we don’t have pots of money, in communication — in print, in digital, we’ve just upgraded our website, we have big Facebook and Twitter feeds. We have student ambassadors who go to every faculty and college on all three campuses, but we can never communicate enough. My advice to students is just spend an hour walking around the building and if you see something that you like, just screw up your courage and go to the first meeting. If you need an introduction, come and see me and I’ll take you to the first meeting!

The Varsity

You mentioned that Hart House doesn’t have pots of money. Hart House has been operating at a structural deficit for years now.  

BRUCE KIDD 

Hart House is funded by a combination of student fees from the compulsory ancillary fee that all students pay into, and the user fees that we charge others for using the space. Beyond that, we’re entirely self sufficient. We receive absolutely nothing, despite the contribution Hart House makes to the educational mission of the university, we get nothing from the operating budget of the university. Nothing. Repeat nothing.

The Varsity

There’s been some talk about unnecessary overlap between the Office of Student Life and Hart House. If money is tight, why not cut back on either osl or Hart House? 

BRUCE KIDD 

That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I guess I’m totally shocked. Hart House provides special opportunities: it provides space for student activities on the three U of T campuses, and it provides this extraordinary ceremonial and social heritage. We overlap with Student Life in that we are also engaged in leadership training. Student Life encompasses the health service, international exchanges, a whole slew of things — there’s very little overlap.

The Varsity

I was wondering if we could talk a bit about your own plans. You’d mentioned that you were considering retiring in the next few years. 

BRUCE KIDD

You know I’m here, I’ve signed a four-year contract so I’ll be here until 2016…

The Varsity

Are you planning to stay on after that in some capacity?

BRUCE KIDD

[laughs] I’m scheduled to retire, I will be well past my expected retirement date at that point so let’s leave that as an open question.

Eric Luong appointed UTSU’s new Chief Returning Officer

Eric Luong has been appointed UTSU’s new Chief Returning Officer (CRO). As CRO, Luoung will be responsible for handling the upcoming electoral process and enforcing the Elections Procedure Code, a document outlining everything from candidate eligibility to fundraising rules.

Luong steps into the role at a crossroads in university student governance. Student opposition leaders on campus have renewed calls for electoral reform following last year’s elections, including proposals to end proxy voting on UTSU’s board of directors and to implement online voting.

Luong replaces Daniel Lo, a controversial figure in campus politics during his term last year. Trinity College’s student government passed a motion calling for Lo’s immediate resignation.

Also during the previous election season, Lo faced repeated criticism for perceived lack of independence, disparities in demerit points awarded to candidates, and an all-candidates debate called on unusually short notice. Lo infamously awarded current UTSU president Shaun Shepherd demerit points when The Varsity endorsed him, construing the endorsement as an unapproved advertisement.

1 Spadina receiving expansion, makeover

The Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design unveiled a plan this week to transform 1 Spadina into a state-of-the-art centre for architectural research and education.

The proposed plan will see 1 Spadina, an historic neo-Gothic building on the west edge of campus, expanded northwards, with a new three-storey complex  featuring design studios and research spaces.

Further plans include building a series of pavilions, one of which will house the new Global Cities Institute, and removing the fence that surrounds the existing building.

“We didn’t want just another glass box,” said Richard Sommer, dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture. “This project needs to raise the bar for Toronto.”

Architect, philanthropist, and faculty namesake John Daniels provided lead funding for the project in 2008. Additional gifts are planned early in 2013 and the remaining funds will be raised as part of “Boundless,” the university’s fundraising campaign.

With files from U of T Magazine

Western University campus paper faces forced shift

Western University’s student council drew criticism this week for its decision to move The Gazette, Western’s student newspaper, from its offices in favour of campus faith-based groups that say they don’t want to move.

The Gazette, Canada’s only student-run daily paper, announced Wednesday that the University Students’ Council (USC) planned to turn the 40-year-old newspaper office into a multi-faith space. The usc cited concerns about spiritual cleansing stations, noise reduction, and privacy in Western’s current multi-faith space, established in 2010.

Usc’s concerns were not shared by the Muslim Students’ Association, Western Hillel, or Chabad House at Western, all faith-based groups who reported they were satisfied with the current multi-faith space.

In an editorial published Wednesday, Gazette editor-in-chief Gloria Dickie speculated the usc’s decision resulted from long-simmering tensions between the Gazette and the usc. On Friday, The Gazette reported discussions between the usc and the paper about the office space were ongoing.

With files from The Gazette.