Students gather again, seeking resolution on broad agenda

Reforms sought by opposition greeted with dampened public enthusiasm

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) convenes tomorrow for its replacement general meeting, where hundreds of students are expected to vote on more than 20 items on a newly expanded agenda. The high-profile meeting will end a months-long process of consultation and organization that began last November, when the original Annual General Meeting (AGM) scheduled by the union ended prematurely, as those present rejected an agenda some believed to be unfairly closed to student input.

Since then, UTSU executives have solicited many new motions, and met with prominent opposition leaders, in an attempt to avoid another costly shut-down of a meeting. The membership’s decision to reject November’s agenda is estimated to have cost the union up to $3,000. Union leaders have also worked to improve the logistics of the Special General Meeting (sgm), hoping to avoid registration delays similar to those at the November meeting — where wait times of up to two hours were a source of frustration for many — by opening early and increasing staff presence.

“We are happy that there are so many different kinds of motions on the agenda and such extensive student engagement,” said Corey Scott, UTSU vice-president, internal. “Our hope is to have a respectful, engaging dialogue. Many students are commuting for more than an hour to make the meeting, while others have scheduled work and studying off.

“It is important to recognize that there is a lot of interest in this meeting and that it is everyone’s responsibility to create safe and respectful spaces.”

“We deliberately designed the [submission procedure] to give us lots of time to process the amendments,” said  UTSU president Shaun Shepherd, who has previously spoken with The Varsity about his desire to ensure the sgm goes smoothly.

Scott, who chairs the union’s Policy & Procedures Committee and who, with the union’s Board of Directors, was responsible for vetting many of the items ultimately included on the agenda, said he was personally looking forward to debate over a motion to endorse the Idle No More movement. The meeting will also debate and vote upon a bevy of other motions including opposing unpaid internships, investigating additional multi-faith space, allowing international students to seek election to the university’s Governing Council, among others.

Some motions, if approved, will immediately alter the union’s governing by-laws. Others are “directive-based motions” that carry symbolic weight, and if approved, will guide the union’s stance on a number of hot-button campus issues.

The list of items up for debate is so extensive that the union has said it will be necessary to allocate a time limit for each discussion. Those items that cannot be addressed in the three-hour session will either be punted to the next general meeting, or delegated to the appropriate commission. Tomorrow’s meeting also includes consideration of old business: those matters that should have been addressed at November’s meeting, had it not been for its abrupt ending.

Also appearing on tomorrow’s agenda are several priorities of the campus opposition movement, proposed by some of the same students who led the charge in shutting down November’s meeting. These include discussion of the Non-Partisan Declaration on Electoral Reform, a document backed by college councils and the St. George Round Table, and a reduction of the number of signatures required to run for UTSU executive office.

In spite of these inclusions, Tuesday’s general meeting and its comprehensive agenda has not inspired the same “unprecedented” degree of interest from the student body at large as November’s meeting appeared to.

UTSU executives said approximately 200 proxy forms had been returned for processing. By that estimate, just over half the number of proxy forms that were in circulation in advance of the last general meeting will be in play for tomorrow. Proxy forms can help gauge the degree of student interest in the meeting’s proceedings: in November, 300 students carried nearly 2,000 proxy votes into the meeting.

“My sense is that there is a lot less buzz about this meeting than about the fall AGM,” said Maharaj. In the fall, Maharaj led an effort that delivered hundreds of opposition votes through proxies and in-person attendees, a decisive factor in the ultimate rejection of that meeting’s agenda. This time, said Maharaj, the engineers had made no effort to collect proxies or to organize participation.

“In the fall, we were concerned as a student society that our members did not have a reasonable opportunity to engage in the AGM process by submitting agenda items,” explains Maharaj. “We wanted to get people out to force UTSU to either amend the agenda or call another meeting that would have an open agenda.”

This goal, says Maharaj, has been achieved. “I’m happy to see that students are going to have the opportunity to debate a huge range of issues that would otherwise have been ignored by the UTSU.”

Not everything sought by the union’s opponents will come up for a vote tomorrow. Several items, including proposed reforms to the UTSU Board of Directors, did not survive the approval process required of all motions put before the AGM. Engineering Society president Rishi Maharaj called the handful of excluded motions “disappointing.”

“The discussions lasted for several hours with the Board of Directors, where we were able to deconstruct the amendments and determine that the motions were not in the best interest of the students’ union and its members,” said Scott earlier this month.

“I think that the general membership of the UTSU should be able to consider the merit of those proposals for themselves,” countered Maharaj.

Behind the scenes, UTSU president Shepherd has worked to engage with college leaders whose constituencies have been most vocal in opposing the union’s activities, including Trinity, St. Michael’s, and University College. These meetings, which were open to any student who wished to attend in addition to leaders who were expressly invited, were held in late December and early January.

Join the debate on Twitter by using #UTSUSGM and follow @TheVarsity for live updates. 

For complete coverage, check out our next issue and visit our website at after the meeting ends. 

Architecture faculty finds new studios for “homeless” students

Spurred by petition, administrators newly responsible for undergrad student services solve first public challenge: finding enough space

Architecture faculty finds new studios for “homeless” students

Upon returning from winter vacation, more than 300 students studying for their Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies found themselves “homeless,” having lost prized studio space at 1 Spadina Crescent while the building undergoes a dramatic renovation. Students in the program had grown accustomed to the studio space, since moving into the historic building nearly three years ago.

Tiffany Dang, a third-year student in the program, began an online petition on in late January, asking senior administrators at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design to make “major changes” in their treatment of undergraduates, starting with finding “an appropriate studio space with 24-hour access and storage space to do our work.” This year, the Daniels faculty has assumed expanded responsibilities in overseeing undergraduate students in the program, many of whom had previously fallen under the jurisdiction of the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Last Thursday, the faculty convened to announce a fix: beginning next week, undergraduates will have access to temporary studio space at 665–667 Spadina Ave. The role played by Dang’s petition in reaching this resolution remains the subject of discussion within the close-knit faculty.

Dean Richard Sommer has taken a hands-on approach to resolving studio space woes. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Dang’s strongly-worded petition sought to highlight the importance of studio culture to architecture students and called the loss of designated space “unacceptable” and “unreasonable.” The petition quickly found traction, gathering 221 signatories in a few short weeks.

“When we all came back in January, we thought we’d have oise as a space, but it turned out we didn’t [have] access outside class time,” said Dang in an interview with The Varsity. Dang says she brought her concerns to the dean of the faculty, Richard Sommer, who assured her that he was aware of the situation and was working to resolve it.

A few weeks went by without any news. On a late night before an impending deadline, Dang and her friends found themselves with no place to work — libraries having closed at 9 pm — and so she went home and started the petition that evening.

Dang says she knew at the time that space remains at a premium on campus, and that the faculty administration was already doing its best to work around the crunch. Still, says Dang, the faculty had known about the renovation plans for 1 Spadina for over a year. Her petition was an attempt to “expedite the process.”

Sommer, for his part, has taken a hands-on approach to resolving the situation since it came to light. He held a town hall meeting on January 17, before the petition was started, to discuss plans for the renovation. According to Sommer, at this meeting undergraduate studio space scarcely figured to be a priority for students. In a widely circulated email sent after the petition was created, Sommer wrote he was “very surprised” given the previous lack of interest in the subject.

Sommer has since pointed out that “24-hour-access space outside of class time has never been promised or guaranteed” for undergraduates. The fact that such a space had existed at 1 Spadina was simply good luck; the building had been under-utilized for years.

Administrators within the Daniels faculty credited Dang’s petition with clearly demonstrating popular demand for undergraduate studio space, and suggested it may have helped make a case to the powers-that-be for replacement space. Yet they also expressed some reservations about the approach, pointing out that some of the signatories did not appear to attend the University of Toronto, and that the issue had already been on their radar before they were broad-sided by the strongly-worded statement.

“We are small enough that student concerns about this particular issue could have been easily communicated without an internet-based petition,” said Sommer.

Sally Kassar, president of the course union for architecture students, said she was also sceptical about the efficacy of an online petition. “Although the petition might have helped speed up the process, I do not believe the approach and wording was appropriate,” said Kassar, pointing to the accusation that the faculty was treating its students like “parasites” as an example of the hyperbolic language used in the petition’s text.

Kassar says she believes the petition unfairly attacked the faculty, which was already working to resolve the issue. Kassar described speaking to a number of signatories who “mentioned that they signed the petition before fully reading it and realizing the tone in which it was addressing the topic.”

Dang defended her approach, saying she never meant the petition to be construed as an attack. “I did not intend for the petition to be an attack on the faculty,” says Dang. “It was meant as a forum for students to show that they care about their education.”

Kassar also credited the Daniels faculty administration with making significant strides in accommodating the needs of hundreds of undergraduates, who had previously fallen under the authority of the broader Faculty of Arts & Science, and just this past September been transitioned to the substantially smaller Daniels faculty. The faculty has already granted undergraduates lounge-like space in their College Street offices. The student society is active in fostering social life among students as well. Led by Kassar, they are in the process of upgrading the union constitution, planning a March formal and selling branded hoodies.

“Studio culture is essential to undergrads, and the faculty has been cognizant of their needs for a while,” said Sommer, in announcing a resolution to the problem. Sommer also recognizes the importance of providing a 24-hour space for student life: “It acts as a community hub for our students, and a place where they can not only complete their studio and design projects, but collaborate on the creative processes some of their coursework requires.

“And, of course, the opportunity to socialize is essential to building the community of Daniels‘ students.”

Ultimately, Dang is happy that the situation “got sorted out so quickly,” adding that the new space was “perfect for architects” and superior to their former lodgings. She attributes this success to the petition: “At the rate that the faculty was trying to acquire space for us, it is extremely unlikely that we would have obtained any space at all this semester. The petition simply gave the faculty just enough pressure to help us acquire space — a final push, if you will.”

With the studio problem now resolved, students and faculty alike look forward to the day when their new home at 1 Spadina is complete. “Whatever it takes, my colleagues and I want nothing more than for our students, especially our new undergraduate students, to be engaged in their program of study, and to provide the right circumstances for them to excel,” says Sommer. Early plans for the new building will integrate the original heritage structure with a state-of-the-art complex that will significantly expand the space and resources available.

Administrators seek student input on co-curricular record

Concept embraced, costs questioned at town hall meetings

Administrators seek student input on co-curricular record

The University of Toronto’s Office of Student Life began a series of town hall meetings late last week to discuss a new administration initiative called the co-curricular record (CCR). The record is intended to help students find and engage in relevant extracurricular activities, and validate these out-of-class experiences on an official record maintained by university staff.

The record has been under development for some time, and has already been previewed by Governing Council committees. The initiative is scheduled to launch in fall 2013 for all students, and will only catalogue involvement that begins after the launch date.

“It is a way for students to be able to easily access all the many opportunities at U of T,” said Lucy Fromowitz, assistant vice-president for student life. “U of T is a very large institution with an incredible number of such opportunities, and not all of them are easy to find. We would like to make them accessible to students right from the beginning.”

Kimberly Elias, program coordinator responsible for the CCR, said the record brings a new sense of “intentionality” to a student’s activities on campus. Elias says students will be able to search for clubs and workshops that highlight specific skills. The record can be tailored, and students will have the option to either hide or highlight specific clubs and involvement on their record.

Administrators hope the record will supplement academic transcripts, helping students paint a fuller picture of their undergraduate careers for prospective employers, with the credibility of official university documentation. “The CCR is a way for you to tell your story about what you’ve been involved in and the learning that was involved in that experience,” says Elias.

With hundreds of clubs recognized by the Office of Student Life across all three campuses, and thousands of volunteer hours already undertaken by students at U of T, many say the record represents a promising new way of recognizing and rewarding involvement outside the classroom.

Students are enthused about the record’s promise — but less so about the price tag attached to the initiative. Administrators say there will be a 50-cent fee increase, beginning next year, required to implement the record.

“The 50-cent fee will afford us one staff person,” says Fromowitz. This staff person will oversee the launch of the CCR, and subsequently be tasked with improving the record through tri-campus consultation. “To do this properly, we need at least one person dedicated to this job,” Fromowitz insists.

Munib Sajjad, vice-president university affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said he disagrees with the surcharge. “I feel that extracurriculars are very vital to student experience,” said Sajjad.  “But we already pay student fees to participate in student life and academic endeavours.” Sajjad says an extra fee to formalize this pre-existing dimension of campus life“shouldn’t come out of the student’s pocket.”

At the town hall meeting for St. George campus, Kevin Sousa, president of the Physical and Health Education Undergraduate Association (PHEUA), raised concerns about the record’s validation process. Sousa questioned why only staff members would be able to verify extracurricular activities, and wondered how student-led initiatives could ensure their legitimacy.

Elias responded that the validation process is restricted to staff administrators because the record will have the status of an official institutional document, akin to an academic transcript. “It has more credibility if it has that staff or faculty member,” says Elias, who added that in focus groups and previous discussions with staff and students, there was little desire on the part of students to handle the validation process.

The Office of Student Life will continue to hold town hall meetings about the record, with visits to the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses to come. “The reason for the town hall is — we consult, we consult, we consult. We want to give each campus an opportunity for students to ask and inquire about the CCR,” says Elias.

Previous articles in The Varsity describing the co-curricular record have referred to the document as a “transcript.” The record is in fact distinct from a transcript. The Varsity regrets this phrasing and apologies for any confusion. 

CUPE, Simcoe Hall reach deal

Months-long negotiation yields agreement that streamlines hiring process

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 announced last Thursday that members of Unit 3 had voted to ratify a new labour agreement with the University of Toronto administration, ending six months of negotiations made all the more difficult by troubles at Queen’s Park.

The contract provides improved benefits for academic staff (not including current students) with contracts of less than a year, a group that includes some lecturers, tutors, markers, lab assistants, and sessional instructors. These benefits include increased wages, as well as administrative streamlining of the hiring process, including standardized deadlines for posting positions. The agreement also increases the number of postings available across campuses, and establishes a commission to create an electronic job posting board by January 2014.

“We’re satisfied that in this climate this is a good contract,” said Dr. Ronda Ward, liaison officer at CUPE 3902. “Our members haven’t lost anything from before, and have made incremental improvements in recognizing their work and recognizing their expertise.”

The union emphasized their efforts to reward the experience of their members, who Ward noted are in many cases “coming from abroad or decades of teaching in other cities.”

Negotiations were affected by a request last summer from the McGuinty government, that public sector employees voluntarily agree to freeze their wages as part of a bid to rein in the province’s estimated $14.8 billion deficit; the provincial government threatened legislation compelling such action if they did not comply. It was under this cloud that negotiations between CUPE and Simcoe Hall began in August 2012.

Jesse Payne, a staff representative at CUPE 3902 said that provincial politics “made it difficult to negotiate.”

“It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the government involved itself in our negotiations,” he said. “The government sort of bullied employers into imposing these wage freezes and benefit freezes.” Ward agreed, saying that “because of the political situation at Queens Park, [the negotiation process was] less fluid than it had been in the past.”

Nonetheless, although talks took longer than usual, negotiations ran smoothly over the prolonged period and did not break down significantly at any point. “The goal was to have a more fair process for people to apply for work or to be given work,” said Payne. “We largely achieved at least gains in priority areas. Every contract brings some improvements.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees was founded in 1963 as a trade union serving the public sector. With 615,000 members, it is the largest union in Canada. Local 3902 division has represented contract academic staff at the University of Toronto since 1975. Unit 2 of CUPE 3902, representing non-student academic staff employed by Victoria University under contracts of less than one year, remains in negotiations with the university.

“CUPE 3902 Unit 3 represents highly-valued members of the University and we are very pleased that we have reached a comprehensive agreement,” said a statement released by Angela Hildyard, vice-president of human resources and equity at the University of Toronto.

Payne noted that “health benefits and job security” remain issues that will be important going forward in the relationship between the CUPE 3902 and the University.

The new agreement expires August 31, 2014.

Reel life on campus

Student producers announce plans for U of T reality television program

Reel life on campus

In the midst of looming midterms, essays due dates and long study sessions at Robarts, signing up to be trapped in a house with seven strangers might not be the first thing on everyone’s agenda. One group on campus, however, thinks otherwise.

Next Friday, inside their offices on the fourth floor of the clubs house at 21 Sussex Ave., the student-run University of Toronto Television (UTTV) will host auditions for their latest reality TV show, set at U of T and expected to air on the group’s YouTube channel.

Contestants will be locked in a house together. The winner will receive $500. MINHEE BAE/THE VARSITY

The show, which has yet to be named, has been described a cross between Survivor and Big Brother. According to producers, the show will feature eight students locked in a Mississauga house for 12 hours. Every hour, the students will face a mix of physical and mental challenges. The winner of each challenge will receive immunity from being voted out of the house in the next round.

Because they will be isolated from all technology — no phones, no computers, no internet — producers say they hope competitors will be spurred to form alliances and rivalries leading up to challenges. The final winner will receive a prize of $500.

One aim of the show is to get students out of their comfort zone, says director Ana Sani. The show, she adds, is aimed at debunking the myth that U of T students spend all their time at the library.

“There’s this perception that U of T is all studying and no fun. We wanted to show that we’re not like that,” says Sani.

Auditions are still ongoing and Sani says that turnout has been good, with about 50 students trying out so far. Sani says the show’s team wants to get as many auditions as possible and stresses that anyone affiliated to
U of T can try out. The UTTV crew is looking for a diverse mix of students with unique personalities who will show off the multiple talents of students at U of T.

“We have such a large student body with such an eclectic mix of individuals. This is something we want to showcase,” she says

The idea for the show was planted two years ago, when Nathan Martinak, the show’s producer, launched a similar program called Sudden Death Lockdown. Challenges included assembling puzzles and playing games akin to beer pong.

Sani says they are sticking to the original show’s premise and general rules. With a higher budget this time around, the production quality will be amped up, prize money has increased, and competitions will be more difficult.

“UTTV has expanded greatly over the past two years and this will definitely be our biggest challenge of the year,” says Sani. The club, which bills itself as the university’s only dedicated television station, attracts wide student involvement. In addition to filmmakers and would-be silver screen producers, the club’s active membership includes writers, actors, cinematographers, reporters, and graphic designers. The group has emerged as an exciting new arrival in a thriving eco-system of campus media that already includes several newspapers and magazines, a radio station — and now, a television network.

The idea of the reality show has spread rapidly. UTTV has been featured in the Toronto Star and Metro News, provoking campus-wide interest and discussion about the upcoming show. Expectations have been heightened by the added exposure, Sani admits, but she’s not too worried. “It is a bit nerve-racking,” says Sani of the media attention. “But all we can do is try our best and see what happens. This is such a great opportunity for UTTV and U of T students, we’re excited to get started.”

Once the show’s eight contestants are chosen, the UTTV crew will launch into the pre-production, which includes filming player bios and picking the location. After filming in mid-March (or after exams), Sani says they are hoping to launch the show early September during next year’s Frosh Week.

U of T alumni invent world’s most efficient light bulb

Three U of T grads have invented the world’s most energy-efficient light bulb. The NanoLight, which they call a breakthrough in LED lighting technology, uses only 12 watts of electricity yet generates over 1,600 Lumens (the equivalent output of a 100-watt incandescent bulb). The inventors say that if you burn the bulb for an average of three hours a day, it would last for up to 20 years.

Launched on January 7, the team has gained about 2,500 backers and raised $125,000 so far. The first batch of bulbs is schedules to ship out in May.

The three inventors first became acquainted at the University of Toronto, where they worked together on the university’s solar racing car team. Gimmy Chu, who received his Bachelor of Science degree from the university, is co-founder of the company that invented the bulb. His two colleagues, Christian Yan and Tom Rodinger, studied science and engineering during their time at U of T.

With files from the Toronto Star.

Judge gives lawsuit against U of T second chance

A pair of former students will be allowed to sue the University of Toronto, again, for issuing them failing grades, a judge ruled Thursday.

Houman Mortazavi and Mojgan Yousef, who were economics doctoral students in 2007, received failing grades in several classes over the year as they repeatedly returned to Iran to care for Mortazavi’s father, and then to make his funeral arrangements.

Though Mortazavi and Yousefi, who are married, filed three internal appeals, all were rejected. In May of last year, the couple took their case before the courts.

The couple’s statement of claim, an “unusually long” document a judge found was “replete with evidence being repeated over and over again,” sought damages of approximately $80 million.

Further court documents showed Mortazavi and Yousefi were neither trying to improve their grades nor even seeking re-admission to their program.

While a judge initially threw out their claim, citing a legal procedure that covers “frivolous or vexatious” lawsuits, Court of Appeal Justic John Laskin took a more forgiving tone, saying some of their allegations are not “bound to fail.”

Mortazavi and Yousefi have 30 days to “perfect their appeal,” the judge said.

With files from the National Post.

U of T and Columbia University libraries launch Tibetan studies partnership

University of Toronto and Columbia University’s research libraries have announced the launch of their Tibetan Studies partnership, which will increase the availability of Tibetan resources to a wider community of scholars.

The collaboration will benefit faculties and students of both institutions by providing jointly sponsored acquisitions trips to enhance the Tibetan collections at both universities. It will also provide a shared point of service for research consultations.

“The agreement with Columbia University to further develop our research and teaching in this important region of the world positions the University of Toronto Libraries as Canada’s principal resource for knowledge about the Tibetan and wider Himalayan area,” said Dr. Frances Garrett, associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies and associate chair of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.

Tibetan Studies scholars have collectively been awarded over $1 million in competitive research funding since 2003.

“We are delighted to be given this opportunity to strengthen our Tibetan Studies collection in order to support our rapidly growing Tibetan Studies community at the University of Toronto and also serve scholars across Canada and throughout North America,” said Hana Kim, acting director of the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library.

—Ameya Charnalia