Flat fees sparks student movement

The Faculty of Arts and Science seems desperate to pass the flat fees proposal this summer, and the issue may very well accomplish that elusive goal of angering students enough to do something about it. Faced with what’s been condemned by almost everyone as a bad idea, our famously apathetic population appears to be waking up and demanding an end to this ill-conceived venture. The recent movement among students to get this proposal voted down before it reaches the Governing Council on May 20 has had an energy and single-mindedness long absent on this campus. And for the proponents of this proposal, it’s completely of their doing.

There has long been a struggle between students who advocate for direct action, which is the norm on campuses around the world, and those who would rather engage within the structures provided. As intelligent young people, it’s easy to see the value of engaging in a constructive debate with U of T’s administration about the future of the institution. But the way in which administrators have conducted themselves throughout the process to approve flat fees has shown their unwillingness to allow students a real say in the affairs of our school.

What’s even more shocking is the administration’s apparent refusal to heed the warnings of its own faculty. Lost in the recent debates around lawsuits and protests is the fact that the committee charged with investigating the implementation of this proposal recommended it not be introduced right now. This recommendation was ignored, and committee chair Scott Mayberry, who pushed for flat fees, got a promotion. He was appointed Vice Dean the day after the Faculty Council vote went through.

Regardless of whether this proposal will be good for the U of T’s finances (and the jury is still out on this), no one is denying the proposal is bad for students. What we are left with is an administration pushing through a plan that no one wants and in a way that will almost certainly antagonize students and faculty. If there’s one redeeming virtue of this proposal, it’s that by its existence it will force students to take stock of their place in this university.

Flat fees one vote away

On April 27, a sparsely-attended meeting of U of T’s Business Board approved a highly controversial measure to make all future Arts and Science undergrads pay for five courses even if they take as few as three. The measure must now pass a vote at Governing Council, and survive a lawsuit by students trying to block its implementation.

Anna Okorokov is the sole undergraduate representative among the Business Board’s 23 voting members. She ran for student governor on a promise to represent students in fee-hike votes. Okorokov told The Varsity she regretted not being at the April 27 vote, but that it conflicted with a final exam, which she believed she could not defer because she would be out of the country over the summer.

Okorokov voiced moderate support of the university’s stance on flat fees, repeating administrative arguments about the proposal’s upsides to students. “Program fees have the potential to be beneficial,” she said. “Those that are able to take on five or more credits will find it in their favour.”

Approximately six per cent of undergraduates take more than five courses, according to data compiled by U of T.

David Ford, the graduate student representative on the Business Board, was also absent from the April 27 vote and did not respond to multiple inquiries from The Varsity sent to his Governing Council and U of T email addresses.

The Faculty of Arts and Science Council approved flat fees in a questionable vote that has students and FASC members suing to have it declared illegitimate.

The university’s VP and Provost Cheryl Misak has defended the right of Business Board to overrule any objections that may emerge from the Arts & Science council.

“Faculty councils do not, in fact, engage in the business of setting tuition hikes,” Misak said.

The university’s official position is that flat fees are not a fee hike, but an adjustment in the way fees are calculated. According to data from the university, were the proposal be applied to current U of T students, this change would force half of all full-time students to either change their course load or pay up to 66 per cent more tuition than they currently do.

Opponents of flat fees have also said approving the proposal would be detrimental to the school’s grim financial status.

“I fail to see how the proposal will help,” said George Luste, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association.

“What the proposal clearly does promise is a rather naked, unseemly, and undignified cash grab from a population who should hardly be expected to shoulder the responsibility of bailing us out of our financial troubles,” he added.

U of T’s endowment fund has lost $1.3 billion in the current recession.

Calling the proposal “unethical,” Luste also objected to what he sees as the proposal’s inadequacy in addressing the increased class sizes and teaching workload that would result from the proposal’s projected “intensification” of undergraduate course loads. U of T has forecast a moderate drop in full-time student enrolment and a large increase in the number of course-spots the Faculty of Arts and Science teaches. Luste had argued that this intensification would swell class sizes and faculty workloads.

“The additional enrolment is projected to be in the range of 854 to 1,683 full-time equivalent students,” Luste said. “Student-faculty and student-librarian ratios will continue to rise.”

Misak criticized Luste’s objection, telling the meeting she did not see how it “hangs together.”

She replied that the flat fee proposal aims to hire slightly more faculty to teach fewer students. She did not address the university’s own estimates indicating that the remaining students will fill up to 5,000 more actual classroom spots.

Neither Luste nor White-Grove were permitted to respond.

If the university expects enrolment to drop so steeply that higher course loads and lower enrolment will balance out class sizes, that would require roughly 2,300 to 4,200 students to drop out of full-time studies, leaving the university no added revenue from flat fees. Instead, U of T is projecting $8 million to $14 million more revenue per year.

UTSU VP university affairs Adam Awad remarked on the “astounding lack of detail as to where resources will be allocated.” He was among a group of students who made the case that flat fees will drain university finances through course intensification, rather than improving them.

Awad pointed to Brock University, which implemented flat fees two years ago but is now being forced to slash its budget.

Course intensification will strain not only finances, but quality of education, student representatives warned. “Seventeen faculty members is not going to mitigate a 10 per cent increase in course sizes,” said last year’s ASSU president Colum Grove-White. The university has stated that it will hire up to 34 new faculty to cope with course intensification.

“There’s no research looking at the academic implications intensification will have on students’ lives,” Grove-White added. He cited the widespread practice in Computer Science and Commerce—the two U of T programs that currently charge flat fees—of “course-shopping”: enrolling in six courses and dropping the weakest one before marks are noted on a student’s transcript. Such a “six-to-five special,” governors agreed, would make it even more difficult for students to get a spot in overcrowded courses.

Okorokov noted that the matter is still due to come before Governing Council, where she also has a vote and is scheduled to attend. That meeting, set for May 20, will take place at at UTM.

Meanwhile, roughly a hundred students protested outside the meeting chamber at Simcoe Hall. “We lobbied to get the proposal voted down in FASC. The end result was a meeting which is currently being challenged in the courts due to its undemocratic and potentially illegal nature,” said ASSU president Gavin Nowlan. “We did everything right in terms of convincing staff and the administration that this plan needed to be examined more carefully, yet the administration still conspired to get this plan voted through.

“I don’t hold any reservations that the Governing Council will add its rubber stamp to this flawed proposal. The fact that such a detrimental proposal can be passed speaks to the flawed nature of the Governing Council itself.”

Grant Gonzalez, member of GC and FASC, says he intends to vote against the proposal as he did on Faculty Council. But with only eight students among 50 GC members, flat fees is expected to pass.


Some like it hot

Best Worst Movie

Michael Stephenson was 12 years old when he starred in the inept low-budget horror movie Troll 2. After years of crossing the film off his resume, he was astonished when Troll 2 saw its fortunes rise, becoming a cult anti-classic through midnight screenings and word-of-mouth. Coming to terms with his undignified debut, Stephenson has gathered together most of the film’s cast and crew for interviews in this entertaining documentary that’s less about the “making of” a classic than the impact its notoriety has had on its participants and society at large.

The most amusing interviewee is Claudio Fragasso, the no-nonsense director of Troll 2 who slams the “actor dogs” who disrespect his work. But the real protagonist is George Hardy, an Alabama dentist whose early acting ambitions are rekindled when he finds himself the subject of cheers and adoration at screenings. We only gradually realize that Hardy’s apparent bemusement hides a burning desire for fame and recognition. Best Worst Movie starts as a zippy tribute to a minor cult movie and becomes something deeper: an examination of how one copes with having participated in “the worst movie ever made.”

—Will Sloan

Rating: VVVV


Clubland doesn’t really require 44 minutes to get its main points across about Toronto’s Entertainment District: yes, 905ers and Peter Gatien just want to have a good time during their weekend parties. No, Adam Vaughn and condo residents don’t like drunken street brawls or excessive noise. Each faction waxes on and on about the irredeemability of their opposition, and local director Eric Geringas does little to encourage his subjects to consider alternate viewpoints or even a bit of compromise.

Cinematographer Andrew MacDonald, however, gets past Clubland’s divisiveness by skillfully showing us what truly goes down behind the windowless walls at Peter and John or on the penthouse patios at King and Spadina. Some of these moments play to stereotypes a little too well: one clubgoer notes that his counterparts always seem to be either “rich, or ‘fuck you’ rich.” Overall, though, Clubland provides an engaging picture of the Entertainment District that you won’t see in Tourism Toronto brochures.

—Shoshana Wasser

Rating: VVV

Invisible City

In Invisible City, Toronto-born director Hubert Davis portrays the lives of two teens from Regent Park, Mikey and Kendell. The story follows the young men from grade 10 through grade 12, illustrating what life is like in one of Toronto’s most notorious ghettos. Despite each boy’s drive to make something of himself, the efforts of their two encouraging mothers, and committed local community worker Ainsworth Morgan, both boys run into trouble with the police, the legal system, and in school.

The film provides a well-told, voyeuristic narrative about how difficult it is to better oneself when sequestered in such a community. However, for those who haven’t grown up in Toronto and thus aren’t familiar with the Regent Park area, the film will lack context. Without establishing a frame of reference, many of the film’s nuances and themes (including the immigrant experience, ghettoization, and Regent Park’s new mixed-income development project) can easily go unappreciated.

—Alixandra Gould

Rating: VVV

Rembrandt’s J’Accuse

Words not often used when describing the films of British provocateur and misanthrope Peter Greenaway: fun, accessible, and entertaining. A companion piece to Greenaway’s 2007 Rembrandt biography Nightwatching, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse explores 31 “secrets” of Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch. Greenaway postulates that the work contains hidden elements of satire, social commentary, and, most importantly, suggestion of a murder conspiracy among the pictured militia-men.

Far from a dry academic exercise, Greenaway’s film is a lively and passionate work of art analysis, and makes a strong case for the importance of visual literacy when deciphering paintings. As a companion piece to Nightwatching, it deepens and enriches the previous film while also surpassing it with its own playful charm. Plus, this is one of your few chances to see Greenaway decked out in 17th-century garb, so savour it.


Rating: VVVV

The Reporter

Though it begins with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s investigation into the Second Congo War, The Reporter is less about Kristof’s celebrated career than his personal reporting philosophy—Director Eric Daniel Metzgar positions Kristof’s concerns in terms of the dichotomies that face many modern-day journalists. It’s heartening to see that even Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters struggle to find a balance between focusing on issues or individuals, writing objectively or compassionately, and simply stating the facts of a story or trying to make a difference with it.

Metzgar also includes commentary from the American adolescents that accompanied Kristof on his most recent trip to the Congo, but their characters feel largely extraneous to the film. After all, even medical student and Rhodes Scholar Leana Wen becomes hapless and uninteresting when placed in Kristof’s shadow. Reflective documentaries such as The Reporter do require experienced subjects in order to be authoritative. Kristof’s opinions, however, would look no less valid in the absence of his younger foils. —SW

Rating: VVVV

Those Who Remain

Those Who Remain provides a glimpse into the lives of Mexican families affected by immigration to the United States. As fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands decide to leave for the States in search of a better life, their loved ones remain in Mexico and must somehow cope with their absence.

Directors Carlos Hagerman and Juan Carlos Rulfo focus on a handful of families connected to someone who already has or is about to make the life-threatening journey to America. Through emotionally wrenching stories of loss, absence, and worry, one gains poignant insight into the lives of the people who are often forgotten amid the politics of immigration: a wife and mother of three is pained at the thought of saying goodbye to her husband for the third time. Another mother has watched her hair turn gray as her son lives in another land. Finally, a daughter tries to repair her broken relationship with her father after his seven-year sojourn. Those Who Remain is far from lightweight, but braving the subtitles is well worth it.—AG

Rating: VVVV


In James Toback’s Tyson, Mike Tyson is frustratingly difficult to pin down. Is he an intellectual? A narcissist? An animal, disciplinarian, poet, criminal, or fool? For 90 minutes, Mike Tyson addresses the camera in a stream-of-consciousness monologue about his life and career that shifts abruptly from sympathetic to appalling, and then back again. The result is a deeply engrossing self-portrait, one of the few documentary profiles that really gets in its subject’s head.

Toback, another showbiz survivor, is the right man for the material. He displays a deep understanding of his subject and allows Tyson to speak for himself without making any apologies, trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions. My own verdict: Tyson is easier to identify with than we may care to admit. Who among us doesn’t have the capacity for both self-reflection and hubris in equal measure? After years of hype as “the world heavyweight champion,” and even more of scorn as an earlobe-chewing has-been, the real revelation of Tyson is simple: warts and all, Mike Tyson is merely human.—WS

Rating: : VVVVV

U of T gets three new vice-provost offices

Cheryl Regehr looks south from her sixth-floor Factor-Inwentash building window. University College tower aligns with the CN Tower in Regehr’s view overlooking the entire St. George campus.

“It’ll be a shame to give this up,” sighs Regehr. Currently the dean of the Faculty of Social Work, she is one of three top profs getting a new role in the provost’s office for five years as of its July 1 restructuring.

Regehr and professor Scott Mabury will receive newly created vice-provost roles, while professor Edith Hillan will begin a second term as vice-provost in a redesigned role.

Cheryl Misak, U of T VP and provost, describes all three as “absolutely stellar, deep-thinkers who really care about this place and want to make it even better.”

Regehr will become vice-provost academic programs, dealing with quality assurance and accountability. The role involves reviewing programs and faculties as well as aligning multiple external review processes as formerly done by the Ontario government. Overseeing interdisciplinary initiatives and academic integrity are also part of the job.

Hillan will leave her role as vice-provost academic to become vice-provost faculty and academic life. Misak said Hillan’s former role was “becoming too much” and that transferring academic program responsibilities to Regher’s portfolio will allow Hillan to focus on matters involving faculty, librarians, researchers, lecturers, and postdoctoral fellows.

Mabury, current chair of the Department of Chemistry, will become vice-provost academic operations. Misak said this will replace Safwat Zaky’s role as vice-provost planning and budget, and covers budgets, information-technology, and space and planning.

Mabury was the architect of the controversial flat fee structure proposal to be put to a Governing Council vote on May 20. Misak said his appointment had nothing to do with his involvement in that project and that she “approached him well before” the matter.

Misak said there has been no change in budget, adding that her office took a base cut of $943,000 and a one-time cut of $522,000 for the 2009-2010 academic year.

“In these troubled economic times, I would never take money out of the student experience to put it into administration,” said Misak, describing U of T’s administration as “lean” and comparable to smaller, less complex universities with identical structures.

The changes were ratified in January after an advisory committee’s review, which was voted on by the executive committee of Governing Council.

Professor Brian Corman will take over the roles of vice-provost of graduate education, previously held by Susan Pfeiffer, and dean of the School of Graduate Studies, previously held by Jonathan Freedman.

Joel Plaskett: Working out fine

Joel Plaskett loves his life as a famous musician, but he’s planning to never show up in the tabloids. The veteran Halifax rocker believes that massive celebrity would be a nightmare for him.

“Fame for fame’s sake feels like a curse,” he says. “It’s of no interest to me—it seems like misery. I love meeting my fans, but I really have no interest in having people who don’t know my music [recognize me].”

As he takes time out from setting up for a recent show in Moncton, New Brunswick, Plaskett seems far too earnest and genuine to become the kind of star who demands the spotlight. But while he’s certainly no diva, Plaskett ought to get used to fame. In an industry that spits out old stars as fast as it can embrace new ones, his career continues to grow with each critically acclaimed record he completes. He seems to play bigger venues every time he comes to Toronto, and his May 23 show at the legendary Massey Hall is a new high.

“There’s something about a theatre. If I’m aspiring to [reach a certain] place, to have a collective energy speaking to 3,000 people, that’s the best,” says Plaskett, his excitement palpable. He’s pulling out all the stops for his upcoming show by bringing along a large cast of family and friends, including backup singers Rose Cousins and Ana Egge, his guitarist father Bill Plaskett, and familiar backing band and old friends The Emergency.

“The Emergency are going to come up and join us, so it’s going to be an acoustic show followed by an electric one. We’ll build it up and get to some of the songs on the record. I’m excited about it—I’m nervous, but I’m getting really geared up.”

Plaskett’s new album, Three, is an ambitious triple-disc set that finds his songwriting skills in top form. The sprawling, 27-track collection features material ranging from old time rock and roll to wistful Maritime ballads and slow-burning anthems. Three is also a solo album in the truest sense of the word: Plaskett not only wrote the album alone, but also produced it, engineered it, and played all the instruments himself.

“This was a hell of a lot of work,” Plaskett deadpans. “It was fun to do, but it took a lot of focus for an extended period of time.”

As he started writing, Plaskett began to notice phrases appearing in threes, and thus picked up the emerging theme for the whole project:

“I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll make a record with every song in threes…but there are all these other songs too…and I want to make a record with my dad too.’ So I had three albums in my mind, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it will be a triple album!’”

The three discs follow the trials of a touring musician as Plaskett sings about departure, loneliness on the road, and the slow return home. It’s an extension of the lyrical territory he began to mine on his 2005 solo album La De Da, and he’s conscious of picking up on familiar themes.

“People who follow my back catalogue will hear phrases they’ve heard before. I recycle language a lot—there are phrases you rest on when you speak. As a writer, I sometimes slip back into describing things a certain way. And I’ve always really liked that in [the work of] Springsteen or Chuck Berry. It becomes an iconic part of their catalogue, like the way Springsteen writes about Jersey.”

The comparison is significant: just as Bruce Springsteen has long been regarded as the poet of the Jersey shore, Plaskett has built a reputation for himself as the voice of the Maritimes, the local rock star who didn’t abandon home for greener pastures. As he continues to take on challenging projects, Plaskett is cementing himself as one of Canada’s most prolific artists. But does he ever think about his legacy?

“Not really,” he says. “I work with my head down most of the time, and I’m always surprised when people want to talk to me about it. The only thing I think about in terms of a legacy is creating a body of work that’s changed and that’s interesting from a distance. I don’t want to take [my audience] for granted, so I continue to try to change up the shows, play different venues, and create a catalogue of records that people can look back on and see consistency, but not the same record, over and over again.”

Plaskett sounds like a grizzled veteran at the young age of 33, but he also has eight full-length albums and a slew of EPs to his credit. As he modestly describes where he’d like to end up, it seems that Plaskett would definitely be content to settle into his place as a Canadian music icon. Just not, hopefully, with his face plastered all over US Weekly.

Engineer strike ends

After a seven-day strike, the Canadian Autoworkers local 2003, representing the University of Toronto’s 90 operating engineers, returned to work yesterday.

The small union was looking for a pay increase after its three-year contract expired on August 30. Negotiations between the university and the CAW hit a roadblock the next day.

“All we’re asking for is a fair agreement, nothing more,” said John Venetas, a CAW member.

Picketing took place on all three campuses. But the strike was most evident at UTSC, where buses had to cancel their routine stops through the campus.

So as to not disrupt the university’s daily functions, U of T passed the task of running the university’s air conditioning and ventilation systems onto the operations and service staff.

The university and the CAW returned to the bargaining table on Friday. After several hours, the university agreed to the union’s demand of a one-year agreement to a 1.5 per cent pay increase.

Comic relief

The Toronto Reference Library played host to sequential art stars foreign and domestic this weekend, with the fourth installment of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Aiming to promote “the literary and artistic merits of comic books and graphic novels,” the previously annual festival is now held every two years. Organizers expected this year to at least match the numbers of the 250 artists and 6,000 visitors who attended 2007’s TCAF, held at Victoria College.

As a prelude to the following weekend’s events, May 2 was Free Comic Book Day. Comic shops across the city, including The Beguiling, co-presenter of many TCAF events, offered select comics—including a compilation by TCAF artists featuring local talents Kate Beaton, Kean Soo, Ryan North, and Willow Dawson—for free.

Comic artist and turntablist Kid Koala kicked off the festival with a dance party at Lee’s Palace on Thursday. The following day, Harbourfront saw an exhibit of comic arts tools and installations, as well as a discussion with artists Seth, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and Adrian Tomine, all of Montreal comics mag Drawn & Quarterly fame, on how each artist goes about creating cartoons.

The main event, however, was the weekend’s happenings at the Toronto Reference Library–among them, Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide, presenting on the history of Japanese comics in North America. The roster also featured Emmanuel Guibert, TCAF’sA French guest of honour, discussing his graphic novel The Photographer. Guibert’s harrowing story centres on the work of photojournalist Didier Lefevre, who covered a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

An off-site event called “Comic Books Are Totally Gay!” featured conversations with queer comic artists on everything from Batman and Robin to Alison Bechdel’s classic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Rounding out the festival were seminars on how to get involved in the industry, from a panel discussion on going to school for comic arts to a DIY comics workshop by Willow Dawson.

Overall, the event proved that the wide world of comics isn’t just about saving the world in tight spandex. Then again, that stuff’s pretty important, too.

The Varsity caught up with guest of the fest and local funnyman Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics and author of Dinosaur Comics: Your Whole Family Is Made Out Of Meat.

The Varsity: How did you get started creating comics?

Ryan North: My comic started in my last year of undergrad, where we got this class assignment to do something interesting with the Internet…I’d recently wanted to do this comic, but I can’t really draw at all. I had this idea for a comic where it was always the same story and was told with different pictures all the time. Then, [I realized] that’s the exact wrong comic for me to be doing, so I sort of flipped it around:“What if it was the same pictures and I just change the words?” That’s where the comic comes from.

TV: What was it about dinosaurs?

RN: [laughs] I wish I had a better answer for that. When I started the comic I had no art [computer] programs at all, except for this very old program called Warbird that had all this clip art of WWII planes, and also some dinosaur clip art. It had dinosaur parts like a dinosaur lower jaw, a T-Rex upper jaw, arms, legs, bodies…and the dinosaurs had facial expressions, so I went with them. Yeah, I always feel bad because people are like, “Wow, so you don’t draw it, and you use clip art.” But it shows that you don’t need to draw to do a comic!

TV: Were you inspired by other comics that use repeated imagery, such as David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World?

RN: No, I didn’t know about any of that, I thought I was being super original. [laughs] But then a year in, I found the comic, and it was funny because I’d seen only one Angriest Dog In The World comic before—and they’re all kind of the same structure, right? There’s a very angry dog and there’s a one liner in the last panel…I actually worked it into the comic when I discovered it. There’s an early comic where T-Rex adopted the Angriest Dog in the World as his pet, so I sort of capture all of his continuity and folded it all in to my own comic, without even talking to David Lynch. I just assumed it was fine.

TV: Had you done humour projects before Dinosaur Comics?

RN: In university, in undergraduate, I used to have this website where I just posted robot erotica. [laughs] I found [a picture] of these guys in robot suits holding hands, [and] I made this page saying, “This is robot porn. Here, you can come look at it and it’s very erotic.” I was making it up thinking that there wasn’t, there could be no such thing as a robot fetish,which shows how naïve I was at the time. I remember the day I [found] there was an actual robot fetish.

Arts & Science council election thrown out

The spring election results for the Faculty of Arts & Science Council have been thrown out following objections from a candidate. Fanxum Peter Zeng, an international student from Beijing, pointed out that nominations for the elections had been opened for only six business days between April 12 and 20—less than the 10 required by election procedures.

Colum Grove-White, out-going president of ASSU, said that Zeng made the complaint after being disqualified from the election for an unrelated matter. Zeng claims that he spoke to some students who were unaware of the election, so he requested the CRO and Faculty Registrar Glenn Loney “give other students the opportunity to run for the election […] in the interest of fairness.” When Loney denied his request, he took it to the office of the dean, following which the Executive/Agenda Committee decided to set the entire election aside.

“Because it’s quite clear in the constitution that there needs to be ten business days for nominations, we threw out the election results,” said Grove-White

With the spring election results scrapped, all the positions on the Arts & Science council and its committees have been reopened. A new nomination period and election are scheduled for early October 2009 when the council usually elects first-year student representatives.