College councils form new association

Last Thursday, the heads of nine undergraduate societies at St. George campus ratified the constitution for the St. George Roundtable. The SGRT is currently composed of all seven college council presidents, as well as the heads of the Engineering Society and the undergraduate association for the faculty of physical health and education.

The constitution outlines two key roles for the council: to act as a forum for collaboration and “to take the lead in coordinating directives and policy on mutual issues of concern.” The body started as the President’s Roundtable, an informal group for dialogue.

“We aren’t trying to take over the role of the U of T Students’ Union, but complement them in providing the best services for students,” said Catherine Brown, president of the Victoria University Student Administrative Council.

When the constitution was debated at VUSAC, there was concern that the SGRT has not defined its role with UTSU. The council has not outlined what policy matters it will be moving forward with, or what services they aimed to provide. Its most recent action in this area is a letter sent in May concerning flat fees.

UTSU president Sandy Hudson and VP campus life Danielle Sandhu did not respond to calls and emails for comment.

“The SGRT, on behalf of all the college councils, sent a joint letter for the faculty of arts and science,” said Brown . “We all know that had little impact on the final decision, but I think this is one example of policy which colleges with the help of faculties can take a lead on in future.”

College council presidents and UTSU execs have blamed each other for a lack of cooperation. For homecoming events, for example, council reps said VP campus life Danielle Sandhu excluded them, while Sandhu said that most college councils did not respond to her invitations.

Winterfest, a week of events in January, will be the next collaboration. Conflict erupted over last year’s event after UTSU snatched a club that St. Mike’s had already booked. St. Mike’s then organized separate events under “Chill Week.”

Steve Masse, president of the Woodsworth College Students’ Association, said the SGRT is coordinating the planning meetings for this year’s event, something previously organized by the UTSU. “It’s going to be out of the hands of UTSU controlling the event and more of a collaborative effort,” said Francesca Imbrogno, president of the St. Michael’s College Student Union. “Everybody is giving the same amount of money, everyone is putting in the same amount of work, and everyone gets the same amount of say rather than the colleges being dictated to.”

The SGRT has decided to extend membership invitations to several other undergraduate student councils at St. George, including student councils for music, medicine, and law.

The St. George Roundtable’s constitution and minutes are available at sgrt.ca.

How the West was won

It was almost a full house at the Betty Oliphant Theatre last Thursday for the opening night of the St. Michael’s College presentation of West Side Story, directed, choreographed, and designed by Shakir Haq. The much-anticipated production started slow with a lukewarm group dance number and powerless fight scene. I began to dread what would come next, but to my relief, the jitters wore off and the cast pulled through to make for a successful opening night.

The opening choreography was messily performed by both the Jet and the Shark boys, as steps were off-time and unclean, but they improved as the play went on. In “Jet Song,” Bruce Scavuzzo, who played gang leader Riff, showed great vocal and acting ability while staying true to his character (he even had to bleach his hair blond for the part). Alex Morrow, who played Tony, co-founder of the Jets, sometimes failed to reach those hard-to-hit high notes, but his talent and charm always prevailed, winning over not only the heart of his enemy’s sister, but of the audience as well. The voice of Amanda Indovina as the young Maria was often overpowered in Act I, but a simple microphone adjustment during intermission allowed for her to steal the show in Act II; her incredible vocal range and multi-dimensional personality was impossible to miss. Sharing the stage with Arianna Benincasa, who played Anita, in “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” the duo shared great chemistry. Both Maria and Anita eventually dropped their guards and conveyed real emotion, which continued on in the powerful “Taunting Scence” and “Finale.”

alt text

The set design throughout the show was very student-budget (read: minimal), but still managed to create an effect. The crate-box stacks were simple yet creatively incorporated in choreography, and I heard an “aww” from every female in the audience when the rack of dresses was lowered down to the stage.

Even though the Romeo and Juliet–inspired musical focuses on social problems and deals heavily with the themes of violence, death, and the hardships of love, the cast was able to explore West Side Story’s lighter side. The timing and personality behind comedic dialogue and lyrics were especially evident in the scenes “America,” “Officer Krukpe,” and “I Feel Pretty.” These scenes gave the supporting roles a chance to shine: Action (Colin Asunction), Rosalia (Carry Quigley), and Consuela (Hannah Rogal) definitely stood out among their gangs. Furthermore, the segregation between the gangs was shown convincingly through use of costumes, hair, and make-up along with consistent and realistic accents.

For such a long performance, I was impressed at the cast’s level of memorization: there were a few minor slips here and there, but no catastrophic mind-blanks. The only real problems were technical, ranging from mic’s cutting in and out to mic packs flying off of the characters. These setbacks were distracting at the time, but corrected as quickly and professionally as possible.

High praise belongs to music director Anastasia Tchernikova. Her live orchestra brought the show to life, producing a fun and sophisticated adaption of the original Broadway musical. All in all, the night was filled with music, dance, action, laughter, and tears. Having only had a few months to put the show together, and overcoming technical glitches on opening night, it’s a thumbs up for West Side.

Christmas in January

The French Club, known as EFUT, has cancelled its annual halal Christmas dinner, after finding out its funding from the U of T Students’ Union will be delayed until next year.

EFUT will not find out until January at the earliest whether they will receive funding from UTSU. At a Nov. 20 meeting, EFUT president Sitelle Cheskey was told that the UTSU campus clubs committee could not approve funds for EFUT because the club had not provided a membership list with its application. The club had held back the list due to privacy concerns, but Cheskey sent in the membership list immediately when the funding issue arose.

Approximately 150 of the 300 campus clubs submitted funding requests for the 2009-2010 academic year in October. Clubs with complete applications will be considered for funding at a board of directors meeting this Thursday. EFUT’s request for $17,020.64 will not be considered until the next board of directors meeting in January.

EFUT is already $1,000 in the hole because its executives have been paying for its activities themselves all year. At the halal Christmas dinner, attendees pay $10 for a meal, non-alcoholic drinks, and a chance to win prizes. Fifty people attended last year. As of Sunday, 82 members had replied on EFUT’s Facebook event page that they would attend this year. Cheskey said in an email to The Varsity that the club intends to now hold the event in January.

UTSU’s clubs committee accepts funding requests for campus clubs beginning in late October. This year, the committee required all clubs to submit a list of their active members, including names, student numbers, enrolment status, and email addresses. EFUT, however, maintains that providing this list would entail releasing its members’ private information, and would violate the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

When EFUT tried to set up an online portal for its members in September, the club was told by the student life office that it could not disclose the personal information of anyone who joins their online community.

“In lieu of an actual printed list EFUT invited any member of the Clubs Committee to the office to examine the membership rolls, at any time. The UTSU ignored the offer,” wrote Antonin Mongeau, EFUT alumni chair and last year’s president, in a release entitled “UTSU Cancels Christmas.” Mongeau said that many EFUT members do not trust UTSU with personal information.

Danielle Sandhu, who heads the clubs committee, said member lists were required to make sure clubs met UTSU requirements. Clubs must have at least 30 members, of which 51 per cent must be full-time undergraduates.

Sandhu added that EFUT only told UTSU about its privacy concerns last Friday, three weeks after submitting the application and after the committee had already determined that the application was incomplete.

Mongeau said that UTSU had political motives for denying EFUT’s funding. Mongeau sat on the clubs committee last year, until he was voted out by secret ballot in January. While then-VP campus life Athmika Punja called him “disruptive,” Mongeau said he was ejected because he had put in a request for UTSU’s bylaws, election procedures, and minutes.

“From where I’m standing this is purely political payback and frankly of the lowest kind,” he said.

Sandhu said the issue was purely procedural. “There’s nothing political about this,” she said. “The French Club is not the only club that had an incomplete application. It’s mainly just following the rule that I have in front of me.”

Mongeau also singled out UTSU’s budgeting calendar for criticism, saying that clubs operate from September through January without money from the union.

“I do think that it ends up being later than when clubs need it most,” said Sandhu. “Whether you’re a big club or a small club, there are a lot of expenses that members unfortunately have to bear on their own.” She said she was working with the policy and procedures committee to get a quicker timeline for club funding in place. The policy committee will meet in January.

In the meantime, EFUT and UTSU are in discussions to get EFUT’s funding in order.

Former UTSU employees allege proxy misconduct

Two former employees of the U of T Students’ Union have told The Varsity that they were given proxy votes for last year’s annual general meeting, even though they did not sign out the forms or collect student votes themselves. Both Steve Masse and Alyssa James are executives on the Woodsworth College Students’ Association. Last year, Masse was associate to UTSU president Sandy Hudson, who is now in her second term. James was associate to former VP equity Koat Aleer. James and Masse said they were given filled-out proxy forms where the name of the representative who was supposed to collect them was left blank.

Adnan Najmi, last year’s VP internal, is also serving his second term this year. Najmi wrote in an email to The Varsity, “If somebody claimed to be a Masse and James and collected the forms and submitted with the right information then no one have a control on it. This in one of the issue that we face with our services like isic card which are only available for U.T.S.U. members at our office because university does not gives us our membership list and we are not able to verify our members to better serve them. [sic]” Najmi did not respond to requests for a phone interview.

Students can collect up to 10 votes from other students who cannot attend a meeting by signing out proxy forms. Once the proxies are collected, the form is numbered by an executive or staff member and returned to the UTSU office at 12 Hart House Circle, where it is verified.

“I showed up to the AGM, registered with my name and T-Card, and was just handed a form, which had proxies on it,” said Masse, who is now president of WCSA. He also sits on the newly formed St. George Roundtable, an association of college councils. “I know I did not have any proxies myself. They [the staff at the registration table] said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just take it.’” Masse said he was then handed a voting card with 11 votes on it, representing 10 proxy votes plus his own. “No one ever explicitly told me how to vote. I felt inclined to vote a certain way, to vote with the executive,” he said.

In a recent Varsity article, Masse criticized UTSU’s connection to the Canadian Federation of Students, and said he scaled back his involvement after the drop fees campaign last year.

James, who is WCSA’s VP of assembly affairs, gave a similar account. She said she was handed a proxy form with 10 students registered when she arrived at the UTSU office before last year’s AGM.

“I have no idea how they collected the student names and numbers,” James said. “I was just told that if I signed out the form I would receive proxy votes.” She also had a total of 11 votes.

James said that while she was not directly pressured into voting with the executive, she added, “it is generally expected that as an ‘employee of UTSU,’ you act in solidarity with the association.”

Associates assist executives in their work. According to Masse, an associate gets an honorarium of about $353 per month. “You do a lot organizing for campaigns like Drop Fees and also class-speaks,” Masse said.

The UTSU website does not list associates under staff members. According to Hudson, only full-time staffers are listed. “If positions are open, a job listing is posted on our website and the U of T Career Centre’s job listings website. We also send out emails to our listeners and Facebook groups encouraging members to apply,” wrote Hudson in an email. She added that last year, associate positions were posted on the UTSU website and the U of T careers site.

James said associate positions are not usually listed on the UTSU website, and that she was recommended for the VP equity associate position by Athmika Punja, last year’s VP campus life. “People don’t know about the positions unless they know someone on the UTSU executive,” she said. Masse said he became interested in the associate position because he was friends with Hudson and Punja, who was also last year’s WCSA president. After an interview, Masse became an associate under Hudson.

Blame Canada

Until he came to U of T for a talk on climate change Saturday afternoon, George Monbiot hadn’t flown in two years. Monbiot, who has written about climate change for a decade, had decided against flying when he reflected on the carbon footprint of air travel. A Guardian columnist and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, Monbiot broke his self-imposed ban to speak in Canada in the lead-up to the international climate change summit in Copenhagen next week.

“So many people have pressed me to come to Canada to help to kick up a fuss about how the government isn’t doing anything at all to advance the [international climate change negotiation] process, and doing everything in its power to obstruct the process,” said Monbiot.

Canada is facing severe criticism for refusing to release ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. A prominent coalition of campaigners, politicians, and scientists called for the suspension of Canada from the Commonwealth last week. Even UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has rebuked Canada.

“Many countries, developed and developing countries, have come out with ambitious targets,” said Moon. “Canada is going to soon chair the G8 and therefore it is only natural that Canada should come out with ambitious mid-term targets.”

“We have seen now a story of systematic sabotage,” said Monbiot on Saturday. “At the moment, Canada is earning a pretty bad name for itself.”

Last week, a major survey of Canadians found that three quarters of the population finds Canada’s lack of leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions embarrassing.

“The distance between the sensibilities of ordinary Canadians and those who come to define Canada’s image abroad seems to be an immense and unbreachable gulf,” said Monbiot. “I’ve never seen such a stark gap, such an enormous gulf, as I see in Canada.”

Speaking on a panel with Richard Littlemore, editor of the DeSmog Blog, and Dave Martin of Greenpeace Canada, Monbiot called on Canadians to demand action from their government. Audience members included U of T and Toronto activists, as well as people from across southern Ontario.

“As we approach the biggest and most significant meeting there has ever been on environmental issues […] this is a time for statesmanship,” said Monbiot. “It is not a time to have your policy determined for you by the economic interests, particularly of a very destructive and rapacious industry. This is a time to stand back and see what the wider interests of humanity are.”

On Dec. 1, Monbiot will take part in a Munk Debate with Elizabeth May, Bjorn Lomberg, and Lord Nigel Lawson on how the world should respond to climate change. The debate will take place from 6:45 to 9 p.m. at the Royal Conservatory, 273 Bloor St. W. For more details, see munkdebates.com.

York launches degree verification website

York University has launched “YU Verify,” an online service that will verify whether a person received a degree from York. To use the site, employers, immigration officials, and others need either a student number or basic information, such as a first and last name.

Results are instantaneous. A test run using actress Rachel McAdams’ name confirmed that she did, in fact, receive a BFA in 2001. Email inquiries can be made if the graduate has a common name and the searcher can’t provide more details.

“We’ve taken appropriate steps to detect bogus transcripts and any person caught will be prevented from continuing with the application,” said Alex Bilyk, spokesman for the university.

The website’s launch follows a Toronto Star investigation last December, which uncovered a former York student’s fraudulent degree service.

Peng Sun was creating near-perfect copies of York degrees for $3,000. He also sold copies of transcripts that were indistinguishable from the real thing, on watermarked paper and with the university’s logo.

Sun boasted to the undercover reporter that he had made hundreds of fake degrees for York and U of T in the four years he had been operating.

Sun claimed his clients were mostly students studying on a visa, who had skipped or failed school. They wanted to return home with a degree that could get them good jobs, he said.

“I have friends in China who spent three years here, didn’t want to go to school but got York and U of T degrees (from me), then got a job,” Sun said.

Prices for a BA, MBA, and PhD were all the same because, to Sun, it was all “paper and ink.”

Sun, whose own degree from York is real, was never charged for a crime. He refunded the undercover reporter’s money and has since not been bothered by York or the police.

The investigation also revealed how Quami Frederick, a 28-year-old from Grenada, got into Osgoode Hall Law School with a degree she had purchased from a diploma mill on the Internet. Frederick was in her third year at Osgoode when the investigation revealed that her degree in business from St. George’s University in Grenada was a fake.

Not only did Frederick use the fake degree to get into Osgoode, but she then forged her transcripts for the three years she was at school. Osgoode Hall has since toughened its admission procedures.

The then-dean at Osgoode, Patrick Monahan, said the integrity of the admissions process was of paramount importance at a law school.

Calling aspiring moguls

John Eckert, the former president of the Canadian Venture Capitalist Association, surveyed the 100 or so students at the Medical Science Building’s MacLeod Auditorium last Wednesday. “How many of you want to own your own business?” he asked. All the hands shot up.

Eckert was among the speakers lined up for the opening ceremony of the adVenture Business Plan Competition, organized by Rotman Commerce Students in Free Enterprise. Speakers included two seasoned venture capitalists and the CEO of DreamCube Inc., a technology start-up company.

“What you [students] must realize is that whatever company, it was all started by one person, one dollar, one concept, and one good idea,” said Tina Kalogeropoulos, marketing manager for Pizza Pizza.

The business plan competition is open to undergraduate and grad students from any faculty. It will take place in March, after a four-month program that includes mentorship and workshops on law, accounting, strategy, and marketing.

“The idea is to bridge the gap [for students] between good ideas and business know-how,” said Jacob Lobaszewski, senior project manager for RCSIFE.

Workshops and events are open to all, but to enter the competition and the mentorship program, students must register for a fee of $10-15 per head (organizers have not yet decided on the amount).

On competition day, top teams will have the chance to pitch their finalized business plans to a panel of judges. Top prize is $2,000, with second and third-place finishers receiving $1,000 and $500 respectively.

Then again, there’s more than one way to come out ahead. As Lobaszewski put it, “It’s not about the prize money, but the people you meet.”

“At the end of all this, if we were able to inspire even just one student, then I would judge this competition to be a success,” he said.

The registration deadline for the adVenture Business Plan Competition is Jan. 8, 2010. For more information, go to rotmancommerce.utoronto.ca/rcsife

Skule’s in for the holidays

Knox College Chapel was filled to the brim last Friday as five ensembles offered songs to satisfy every musical taste. The evening was presented by the Skule Music Program, which is associated with the faculty of engineering but not restricted to engineering students. The program began with a stage band, founded in 1983, and that now includes a whole assortment of student-run groups including the Orchestra, Brass Ring, Jazz Combo, and Stage Band Blue.

The concert started off with the Orchestra’s skilful rendition of the first movement of Franz Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 8 in B. Minor. The group did an excellent job of handling the piece’s dramatic contrasts between gentle interludes and dark, sometimes frightening moments. They followed this sublime piece with a medley of light pop numbers by American composer Leroy Anderson, whose “Sleigh Ride” made many audience members smile.

The holiday theme continued with the seven-member Brass Ring, which includes two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and two tubas. This lively group donned Santa Claus hats and shared a number of holiday favourites, including a former group member’s arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” and a rendition of “The Huron Carol,” Canada’s oldest Christmas song. The group overcame a few rough patches in the first part of their performance to include a moving rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and “I Saw Three Ships.”

Up next was Stage Band Blue, which was created in 2007 to accommodate the growing interest in the Skule Stage Band. Consisting almost entirely of freshmen and new members, this group offered big-band style jazz tunes including a lively Latin piece called “Sandunga,” which featured excellent trumpet, piano, and saxophone solos.

The jazz theme continued with the versatile six-member Jazz Combo, whose first piece, “Then There Was One” by Torontonian Chris Terry, had an expansive, almost New Age feel to it. The group then took a funkier turn with Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” and Hoagy Carmichael’s classic, “Georgia On My Mind.” These pieces included sustained piano and drums in the background with various solo instruments in the foreground, allowing the musicians to show off their impressive improvisational skills.

The concert concluded with the Skule Stage Band, whose tunes such as “The Chicken” by Alfred James Ellis and “Tank!” by Yoko Kanno had many of us tapping our feet. Perhaps the most refined of the ensembles, the Stage Band offered a flawless conclusion to a most excellent concert.

Looking for more Skule tunes this month? Upcoming events include the Skule Choir Concert and Sing-Along on Dec. 3, the Jazz Combo at Suds on Dec. 4, and the Engineering Science 75th Anniversary Concert on Dec. 17 with Isabel Bayrakdarian and Julian Kuerti. For more information, visit skulemusic.ca.