Voting hours extended at UTM due to weather closure

In-person voting will be open at UTM for 5 extra hours on Friday

Students at the Mississauga campus will be allowed to vote in-person in the UTSU spring elections from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm tomorrow, March 14.

Voting was originally scheduled to close at 6:30 pm on March 13. However, UTM students were allowed more time because the campus closed at 1:00 pm on March 12 due to inclement weatherThe Elections and Referenda Committee [ERC] has ruled that since UTM students lost the ability to vote on campus for 5 hours, accommodations needed to be made,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU and chair of the ERC. 

St. George students will not receive any additional voting time because the UTSG campus did not close. The online voting service at utsu.simplyvoting.com will also close at 6:30 PM today as scheduled.

Election results will accordingly be announced after all votes, including those from UTM’s additional voting hours, are counted.

 

UTMSU exits Student Societies Summit

Argues UTM students treated as "second-class students" in letter to summit

UTMSU exits Student Societies Summit

On February 10, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) sent a letter to participants in the Student Societies Summit stating that it would not be attending future meetings, citing both petitions from its members objecting to its participation, as well as concerns of its own. The letter was written by the UTMSU’s vice-president, external, Melissa Theodore.

“We believe further participation and implicit consent of the Summit will have a negative impact on our membership, and the student body as a whole,” reads the letter, “As a result, we also encourage other student groups to cease participation in the summit.” The union named a number of its objections to the summit: The summit represents a breach of the autonomy of students’ unions, fails to include a number of student groups who ought to have a part in the proceedings, has never had its scope or terms of reference clearly defined, and has encouraged the UTMSU and UTSU University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to violate contract law. UTMSU also argues that the Summit is undemocratic, seeks to negotiate from an unequal footing, and has not addressed issue of bullying and intimidation tactics.

Additionally, the letter stated that representatives of other divisional student groups at the summit have treated UTM students as “second-class students.” “We have been referred to as though we are not made up of individual, responsible, intelligent adults and as though we are not to have the same rights conferred to us as members of the UTSU as other students,” says Theodore.

“We have to question why this perception exists,” she continued, “On the face of it, the only things that are apparently different about our society and the others that exist at the Student Society Summit are that we are located farther away from the UTSU than most other societies and that we have a much higher proportion of racialized students on our campus and so tend to be represented by racialized members.” The letter notes that extremely few representatives at summit meetings have been women, mature students, people of colour, people with disabilities, international students, or trans students.

Theodore also notes that revealing the contract that delineates the UTMSU’s relationship with the UTSU would constitute a violation of contract law, as divulging the contents of the contract is against the provisions of the contract. Participants at summit meetings have nonetheless repeatedly requested that the contract be revealed. The UTMSU contends that doing so would open it up to litigation.

The reaction of other Summit participants to UTMSU’s withdrawal has been mixed. “It is disappointing that the UTMSU will not participate in future Summit meetings,” said Nishi Kumar, president of the University College Literary and Athletic Society,  “I am also confused about their allegations of racism and sexism during meetings. I personally have not encountered any of the “aggression” from summit attendees that their statement describes, nor have my three female colleagues from SGRT. We are a diverse group, representing students from all backgrounds and experiences, and the Summit has encouraged active participation from all of us.”

Mauricio Curbelo, president of the Engineering Society, argued that the UTMSU’s decision to exit the Summit was motivated by a desire not to disclose their financial arrangement with the UTSU. “Their non-participation is proof that they are unable to defend the fee transfer in a public forum. The administration should ignore the UTMSU’s baseless grandstanding and continue with the Summit process,” he said.

The UTSU has not yet decided on a course of action in response to the UTMSU’s decision. “We have not yet had time to digest this ourselves, but it certainly gives us quite a bit to consider,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU.

Also on February 10, the leaders of a number of divisional student societies sent their own letter to faculty representatives at the summit. The letter states that the outcome of the summit must be a recommendation to change university policy, that the fee arrangement between the UTSU and UTMSU must be terminated or offered to every other divisional student society that requests it, and that constituencies must be allowed to cease their affiliation with campus- or university-wide student societies if they wish.

These divisional leaders further contend that the university’s Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees ought to be changed. Their recommended changes include allowing every student society to have mechanisms by which it may change its constitutions, bylaws, and policies without Executive or Board consideration of their proposals, based solely on the decisions of its membership. They recommend also that non-U of T students must be banned from formally or informally participating as campaign volunteers in U of T student society elections.

The divisional leaders who signed this letter include Curbelo; Kumar; Jelena Savic, president of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council; Ben Crase and Maha Naqi, heads of Trinity College; Mary Stefanidis, president of the Innis College Student Society; Ashkan Azimi, president of New College Student Council; Alex Zappone, president of the St. Michael’s College Student Union; and Anthony O’Brien, president of the Kinesiology and Physical Education Undergraduate Association.

U of T St. George defends two-day fall break

Policy maintained in spite of increasing number of Ontario schools implementing week-long breaks

U of T St. George defends two-day fall break

This year marks the first year that Carleton University, Brock University, MacMaster University, and Western University will be providing their students with a fall break. The trend of introducing a second break in the school year comes in part from student leaders demanding an additional period of mental rest, similar to the reading week that already exists in the winter term for undergraduate students.

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

These four universities contribute to a total of 11 out of Ontario’s 20 publicly funded universities that now have the second break. Within the city of Toronto, York University provides three days, and Ryerson University provides a full week . While an increasing number of schools seem to be adopting the concept, the lengths of the breaks vary between universities, and even within U of T’s own three campuses. U of T Mississauga (UTM) has no designated break at all, whereas U of T St. George (UTSG) has a two-day break, and U of T Scarborough (UTSC) receives a four-day break following Thanksgiving Monday.

According to both the University of Toronto administration and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), many studies have shown that a fall reading week boosts the morale of students and offers relief from the “pressure cooker” environment of university. For this reason, an increasing number of universities are implementing a fall break. But why not five days instead of just two?

Ali says that the two-day break was created to enhance the student experience, and that two days is enough to achieve a boost in student morale. The two-day fall break originated in 2009, when the university’s administration reformed its previous five-day policy. Dominic Ali, a media representative for the university, stated: “The changes that took place in 2009 allowed students to better prepare for their exams by having more time to meet with professors, review material, or hold study groups. These changes also allowed the summer session to have the same number of instruction weeks as the fall and winter session.” In essence, the university’s argument is that the two-day break is a compromise to allow for mental reprieve and time to catch up on work while aligning the summer, fall, and winter sessions to the same time frame.

The UTSU disagrees with this position, saying that if some schools can reasonably have five-day breaks, so too should the St. George campus. UTSU president Munib Sajjad noted that the university used to have a five-day fall break, but this was changed to a two-day break in 2009, around the same time that many other schools instituted the break in the first place. Sajjad explained that the UTSU believes that: “Part of the reason for this trend is that institutions are realizing how important it is to address mental health issues proactively.”

The UTSU also cites studies that show that a five-day fall reading week would be particularly effective in improving students’ mental health and general happiness. It was, however, unable to provide the specific studies in question.

When asked why UTSG does not have a five-day, Ali did not give a reason, but cited the changes that occurred over the years, saying: “In 2009, a two-day fall break and a two-day December study period were introduced that parallel the breaks in second term, plus a commitment to end the fall/winter session by April 30. Consequently, the April study week has been reduced to a two-day study break.” By implementing a two-day fall break, the administration has therefore cut down the amount of study time available for students in the winter term between the end of classes and the beginning of exams. Ali did not comment on why it was deemed necessary to have a full week break in the winter, but not one for the fall term.

Ali further stated that the Scarborough campus has a longer break because “Academic schedules [sessional dates] are set independently by division, since different departments have different needs and conditions. A few years ago, few schools had fall breaks at all. Schools with longer breaks tend to start earlier or have more compressed exam schedules.”

Representatives of the UTSU find this response inadequate, and feel that it is not unreasonable to expect a five-day reading week for all three campuses at U of T. The union has met with the university this year about the issue, but did not receive a positive response. “The university administrators seem reluctant to consider this option,” stated Sajjad. “If the administration can see how important this is for students on one campus, we are confident we can show them that it is equally important for the other two.”

 

Streeters

Question: How do you feel about the length of U of T’s mid-term break this year?

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Jaskaran | First-year, University College

“We only have two days! I mean, that’s horrible.”

 

IMG_4323

Albert | First-year, St. Michael’s College

“That’s horrible! I have two mid terms right after”

 

IMG_4322

Jo Anne | Grad Student, OISE

 

“I think it should be at least a week (because) we have a week in the spring.”

 

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Chris | First-year, University College

“I’m satisfied with a two-day break, maybe three days.”

Build new structures, or renovate?

Maintenance on existing infrastructure neglected as donors choose to contribute to new projects

Build new structures, or renovate?

The parking lot on St. George Street behind Convocation Hall will soon be covered in scaffolding, with work on the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Engineering’s Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CEIE) scheduled to be completed in late 2016.

U of T’s $2 billion Boundless campaign aims to fund a large number of new buildings and capital projects, including building the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the expansion and renovation of the Faculty of Law, and the renovation of the north building at UTM. Some university figures, however, have suggested that the way the university tries to attract donor contributions and provincial funding structures for capital projects incentivize building new over maintaining the infrastructure the university already has. This could be problematic, as buildings in need of repair go ignored while funds are diverted to new construction.

The Engineering Society (EngSoc) has contributed $1 million towards the costs of the building. Rishi Maharaj, former president of EngSoc, says the money came from the Skule Endowment Fund, set up in 2010 to establish a permanent endowment for the society, with the aim of eventually replacing the society’s annual fee and the student contribution to the faculty’s operating maintenance budget. Engineering students contribute $100 a year to the fund. “One of the provisions was that the capital could potentially be spent for something major like a new building,” he explained.

Infra Graphs

Maharaj said that initial plans for the CEIE did not include any student space, and that EngSoc’s donation to the project, an initiative begun last year, is partly an attempt to remedy that situation. “What eventually emerged during my time, was that we would be much more likely to be able to get not all the things we wanted, but a substantial number of them, if we were willing to come up with some money. That was the genesis of the idea to give the university some money.”

Direct student contributions to capital projects like new buildings show a sense of ownership and an acknowledgement that students benefit from these projects, said David Palmer, U of T’s vice-president, advancement and the person behind Boundless. Palmer said that voluntary one-time donations — as opposed to the referendum-supported levy, used to partly fund the Goldring Student Centre at Victoria University, for example — are also a great motivating tool for donors. “That type of student giving is one of the most powerful incentives for donors and alumni to give,” he explained.

 

Build new or renovate?

Tamer El-Diraby, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Civil Engineering, says that the university’s focus on new building is partly pragmatic. “There is no politician that I am aware of that wants to cut the ribbon for the renovation of a building instead of placing the foundation stone for a new building,” he said.

Many of the capital projects currently underway at the university include significant renovation or maintenance components, including the north building and 1 Spadina projects. Palmer says that donors do not express a preference for new buildings at the expense of renovating the university’s existing infrastructure. “I’ve never had a donor express to me a preference for new versus renovated [buildings],” he said. “In fact many of the biggest capital projects that we’ve had donors give money to are a combination of both.’

The provincial government has provided $417 million in capital funding to U of T since 2003, according to figures provided by the ministry of training, colleges, and universities (TCU) (see graph above). New buildings and construction accounted for $224 million of those funds. Universities need to consider the maintenance costs associated with new buildings when they apply for funding said Brad Duguid, minister of TCU. “[When] we invest in a new capital project for a university or college, the expectation is that the maintenance of that facility will be covered under the operating budgets of the institution,” he explained. “If an institution doesn’t have the capability of maintaining a facility, they ought to not be applying for funding for us to build it.”

Palmer admitted that donors often have a similar attitude. “Deferred maintenance is often seen by people as the responsibility of the system, of the university, to maintain things correctly,” he explained. “I have never had much success in going to a donor with a pitch to have their funds allocated towards deferred maintenance.” Last week, in responding to questions about deferred maintenance, the university administration indicated that it believes provincial funding levels are currently insufficient, and that it is lobbying the Ontario government on the matter.

 

Why are we expanding?

Duguid says new infrastructure is key to maintaining the reputation and ranking of Ontario’s universities. “There’s no question that the deferred maintenance issue is a pressure,” he admitted. “At the same time, we also have the pressure of ensuring that we’re continuing to provide a globally-competitive education experience to our students.”

Infra Graphs2

Enrollment at the university has increased significantly in recent decades, with the total number of full-time students at U of T growing from 55,127 in 2000–2001 to 80,899 in 2012–2013. Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president of strategic communications and marketing, said in an email that “demand for PSE has increased due to population increases combined with increasing participation rates,” leading to a growth in enrollment.

These new students need new space, faculty and infrastructure. “U of T cannot say to students, ‘We will not have classrooms for you.’ We cannot say to a chair of a department, ‘We cannot have a secretary for you.’ We cannot tell students, ‘We will not have professors to teach you,’” said El-Diraby. The result, he said, is that maintenance gets deferred because it is the only cost that can be delayed.

Palmer emphasized that the Boundless campaign reflects the priorities set by academic units within the university. “All the priorities for the campaigns begin with academic priorities, that are approved in academic plans by the divisions, and they have to be approved by the provost.”

The ability of a project to attract funding does play a significant role in the planning process, however. Maharaj said that during the initial planning stage for the CEIE, the faculty created a document detailing how the building’s space would be used, broken up into four or five blocks. “Each one of those blocks was based on some type of concept of some type of donor that they would be able to reach with the idea for that space.”

The university has repeatedly emphasized that donors do not try to interfere with the academic priorities or planning of faculties or departments. Brad Evoy, external commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), however, says that donor participation affects what the university is able to fund. “It’s much more about building a new program, building a new thing — something that seems cutting-edge,” he argued. “But it’s not so much about the bread-and-butter basics of the university.”

Palmer said attracting and retaining donors is dependent on their willingness to give to specific areas of the university’s need. “It is almost impossible to steer a donor to an area of interest where they have no interest,” he said. “It essentially is not sensible to even try, because donors — it’s their money, they can give it to whatever worthy charitable cause they wish, and there’s plenty of competition out there.”

 

What are the implications of this system?

The current system of donor contributions and government funding could lead to unforeseen problems in the future, according to Maharaj. “Over the long term you won’t have a master-planned university, you won’t have a university that evolves according to academic or educational goals — you’ll have a university that evolves towards what people are willing to pay for.”

The university’s Governing Council and Business Board approves capital projects, including new buildings and renovations. The Business Board meeting on Monday, November 4, will include the university advancement division’s quarterly report on gifts and pledges above $250,000.

$484 million needed in building repairs

Maintenance deferral could cost U of T much more in long term

$484 million needed in building repairs

Brad Evoy stepped out of the office to get lunch on August 1, 2012. When he got back, he found that part of the ceiling in the main lobby of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) building on Bancroft Avenue had fallen in.

“We weren’t expecting it — no one had noticed there was an issue with the ceiling at the time, from our side or the university’s,” explained Evoy, the internal commissioner for the GSU.

There are over a hundred buildings on U of T’s three campuses, and many are in need of significant maintenance and renovation work. The 2012 Deferred Maintenance report estimated the university’s total deferred maintenance liability at $484 million. The report also estimated that U of T must spend $19 million a year to maintain the current conditions of its buildings. Last year, the Ontario government provided $3.2 million through its Facilities Renewal Program (FRP).

1Graph

Deferring maintenance is simply not a good idea, said Tamer El-Diraby, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Civil Engineering. “This is maintenance that is needed. If you do it early, that means it’s going to be a small job. If you do it late, it’s going to be a bigger job and it will cost more.”

Evoy said the university’s Facilities & Services responded to the problem swiftly. “They jumped on it quite quickly; they checked it for asbestos, sealed off the area, and dealt with it.”

Deferred maintenance involves postponing maintenance activities because of a shortage of funds, and several organizations in the post-secondary education sector believe that funding pressures on universities are causing that gap to grow. “There’s been an endless cat-and-mouse game about deferred maintenance; the cat-and-mouse game is universities and colleges trying to get across to the government that if we don’t pay to keep these buildings up, it costs more for the taxpayers and the students and families in the long run,” said U of T president David Naylor in a recent interview with The Varsity.

Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges, and universities, said that the province has funded universities at record levels since the Liberals took power in 2003. “Nobody can suggest for a second that this government hasn’t been there for the post-secondary education system when it comes to capital funding. I think we’ve got very significant results out of the investments that we’re making in post-secondary education.”

 

Why defer maintenance?

2Graph

Ron Swail, U of T’s assistant vice-president of facilities services, said that there are a number of factors that determine whether a maintenance job is performed immediately or put off until later. “Immediate repairs would routinely be conducted if there is a risk to occupant or staff members’ health and safety,” said Swail, citing building accessibility and usability for teaching as other important factors.

U of T’s total assessed deferred maintenance and score on the Facilities Condition Index, a measure of building condition, have both increased significantly over the last few years — from a recent low of $257 million and 8.5 per cent respectively in 2007 to 14.3 per cent in 2012 (see graph 2 above). Deferred maintenance calculations do not include the federated colleges — Victoria, Trinity and St. Michael’s Colleges — which conduct their own maintenance.

Graeme Stewart, communications manager at the Ontario Confederation of University Associations (OCUFA), said that underfunding is affecting the quality of education and research at Ontario universities. “I think the bottom line is as these buildings age, and as they are not renewed, essentially everything that goes on in those buildings comes under threat.”

OCUFA’s 2012 Ontario Budget Brief called on the provincial government to raise direct maintenance funding to Ontario universities via the FRP from the current level of $17 million a year to an annual $200 million by 2015–2016. It also cited estimates from the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) that suggest that maintaining facilities in their current condition would require $380 million in funding per year over the next decade.

Duguid said those demands are unrealistic. “I think it’s a little fanciful to suggest that somehow the province can just wave a magic wand and come up with hundreds of billions of more dollars every year.”

 

Is there a funding problem?

Michael Kennedy, a media officer for U of T, said that the university acknowledges the funding pressures on the government. However, “the low level of funding for maintenance is an ongoing issue for the University and one that is regularly raised with the provincial government.”

Naylor said that what matters is not necessarily the dollar value of deferred maintenance, but “do we have a lot of deferred maintenance that is reasonably pressing, and what are prudent and sensible responses to get it fixed to avoid a crisis that affects student, faculty, and staff, or avoids needless expenditure? The answer is, we have a lot, we know how big the level is, but for many years it has been almost impossible to get the province to engage in a serious discussion about putting in play the funds to fix those problems.”
3Graph
The university’s deferred maintenance reports suggest FRP funding has fallen, from a high of $4.7 million in 2010 (see graph 3 above). Jelena Damjanovic, a media relations assistant at the university, indicated that FRP funding fell because “the entire program was reduced by the province.  That is why the dollar share allocated to the University of Toronto fell.”

Duguid said that’s not necessarily the case. “The funding levels haven’t changed. Different institutions will get different amounts every year, based on their project submissions. So that’s a number that will fluctuate a little over time, but the Facilities Renewal Program, it fluctuates just based on projects that are submitted.”

The COU is an umbrella organization that links Ontario’s publicly funded universities and advocates on their behalf. COU president Bonnie Patterson is registered to lobby the provincial government on several subjects, including infrastructure, and the organization also retains Toronto firm Counsel Public Affairs Inc. The COU declined to make anyone available to comment for this story. Bob Lopinski, a principal at Counsel and a former senior official in the McGuinty government, said the firm does not discuss client matters publicly.

Duguid maintained that the government has shown its commitment to funding the province’s universities. “In all, since 2003, we’ve invested $3.1 billion in capital funding, and one-third of that, a billion dollars, was specifically targeted to renewal, repair, and modernization across the sector. U of T got a good share of the funding for much of that capital funding,” he said.

 

Can it be fixed?

4Graph
The province has announced $800 million in capital funding for the next three years, though the ministry could not provide an estimate of how much of that money would be put towards new projects, and how much to maintenance spending.

Duguid said there are currently no plans for more capital spending once that money runs out. “In the near future, as we’re working to balance our books in the province over the next number of years, there is no plan at this point for additional new capital dollars,” he said. However, he emphasized that the province has already made significant improvements in funding for Ontario’s post-secondary universities.

U of T’s administration stressed that while funding pressures are a problem, the situation is under control. “While we are advocating for more funding, we are managing the situation,” said Damjanovic.

Swail acknowledged that this year’s report is likely to see a further rise in total deferred maintenance, although he emphasized that the university has made significant progress in tackling the most urgent projects. According to Swail, the total amount of “priority one” deferred maintenance items have decreased steadily for the past seven years, from approximately $76 million to just over $18 million (see graph 5 below).
5Graph
With new construction projects underway on all three campuses, Evoy said the university needs to concentrate on fixing its existing structures. “It’s extremely worrying; I think that as a university we should be trying to not just build outwards and seem impressive, but maintain the structures and capacities that we have,” he said.

The next deferred maintenance report will be discussed at the Business Board meeting on January 27, 2014.

Saying goodbye to David Naylor

Outgoing U of T president discusses flat fees, fee diversion, favourite books, and his final thoughts as he says farewell

Saying goodbye to David Naylor

It has been eight years since David Naylor became president of U of T. He’s led the university in the midst of provincial funding cuts, a global recession, and seemingly endless battles with the students’ union. He will step down on October 31, and former Arts & Science dean Meric Gertler will take his place. I sat down with Naylor one more time for a 45-minute interview that lasted nearly an hour and a half, not counting the responses he emailed for the questions we didn’t have time to get to.

 

The Varsity: I know that provincial and federal funding is something that you’ve talked about for a long time, in terms of the university wanting more of it. If you could have any system you wanted right now, what would it look like?

David Naylor: We would be at the national average for student funding, at the minimum, and that alone would see probably on the order of $300 million of additional base funding; that’s how big the gap has become.

 

TV: And why are we below the average?

DN: This is a very challenging question to ever answer definitively. If you go back twenty years, you’ll find the province was already lagging in terms of post-secondary funding and, despite some positive steps in the early days of the Reaching Higher program the province adopted, there has been no real progress. It’s particularly puzzling because we are the national average on spending K-12 education, and the national average in terms of spending on health care. Yet we seem to have decided, somehow, that it’s okay to have a situation in which universities and colleges receive relatively less per student from other provinces. Indeed, so much less that if I were to move the University of Toronto’s operations to Edmonton or Calgary tomorrow, we would double our funding from the province, even after they’ve had their cuts.

 

TV: The province is considering amending the flat-fees structure, the proposal is, as of next year students taking 3.5 courses will be considered full-time, and as of 2015 students taking four courses or 80 per cent will be considered full-time. Do you think that these changes are positive? If so, why, and if not, what would be a better system?

DN: I think the changes are not evidence-based…what has not been established is that there are any ill effects from this approach, and by established I mean good strong evidence rather than the usual anecdote that carries the day in newspapers. When you look at the studies that were done by the Faculty of Arts & Science, with student representatives on those committees, we see quantitative evidence that shows the following:

We see faster times to completion, which is good for everybody. We see the funds that have been generated from the program fee approach have been redirected to improve student aid, which is also a good thing net and net no one ends up paying more as a result, when you consider both intensification and the additional student aid.

You see that extracurricular participation has not fallen one bit. You see that grade distribution, so far from going in the wrong direction, is actually showing positive changes. When you put all the evidence together, there’s really not a lot to say that program fees have had an adverse effect.


TV:
Would you advocate for the status quo? Do you think that there should be any change at the provincial level?

DN: Do I think the threshold should be four? No, I do not think that threshold is appropriate. Do I think the threshold could be 3 or 3.5? You can argue it either way, but to me if you’re going to do it, what I really would want to see from the standpoint of fairness is get the evidence as you proceed, step by step, to show that adverse effects are not occurring.

 

TV: U of T consistently ranks poorly on Maclean’s and other surveys that rank student life on campus. Do you think U of T has as strong a student life or sense of identity as Queen’s or Western? If so, why? If not, why not? 

DN: I take some consolation on these surveys from the reality that we have a more critically minded, and I think very smart, audience that may be more inclined to take a skeptical view than those who are happier to paint themselves purple or participate in rowdy Homecoming institutions.

 

AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

AARON TAN/THE VARSITY

TV: Can it all be attributed to that?

DN: No, of course not. I just wanted to get in that preliminary caveat before I answered your question. The surveys that I look at that give me some sense of encouragement are the NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] surveys. On NSSE, we’re up meaningfully over the last few years on five of the seven big domains, and stable on two others. So there’s no question that student life and student engagement are improving. The reality is that this is a major urban centre. We have a lot of students who commute and we know in all these surveys that commuting poses challenges in terms of spirit and solidarity. I do think that the continued improvement in athletics helps. I think that having a Student Commons will help.

I do think that U of T students are simply more academic and have a stronger orientation to a life of the mind than students at some other campuses. And we get accordingly a group who may be less inclined to go out and whoop it up at an athletic event or hang out at a local bar and have fun and who may be a little more likely to be hitting the books in a pretty demanding school and tending to focus on their academics a little more heavily — and I frankly get that and I admire it.

 

TV: Yes. Now you said the words ‘‘student commons,’’ so I have to ask: On the one hand you have Trinity, Engineering, and Victoria who want to leave. On the other hand you have the students’ union who doesn’t want them to leave. What is a potential compromise?

DN: I think that one has to ask what are some of the services that are sufficiently common across the campus that they might be provided by an umbrella entity and which are division specific to the extent that one might want to see them devolved and that thinking around functionality is one starting point. Another starting point for a compromise is to think about how good governance occurs and that means there has to be some sense that there is an umbrella body like UTSU, that it is responsive to the component divisions in a way that gives them a real sense of full participation in decisions that are made, and both those principles become a starting point for some intelligent compromises. Where this will end up is going to depend upon whether people are willing to find compromises in both directions.


TV:
It is the formal position at Victoria, Engineering, and Trinity that they feel there is no room to compromise and they want out. And a few weeks ago the St. George Round Table passed a motion endorsing the principle that if students have voted to leave in a fair referendum then they should be allowed to leave. And, as you know, the union is not responsive to these things. Online voting only got implemented in this election because Cheryl Misak basically threatened to cut off funding. How do you work with the union under these circumstances?

DN: I think it is fair to say that the administration is very unlikely to be comfortable with anything that doesn’t involve some sensible compromises on all sides and if there is no appetite for compromise then there will have to be some decision made by governance on the advice of the administration as to what a sensible and fair dispensation would be. There is no question we have heard very quickly the unhappiness of at least three major student groups on this campus. There is also no question, that we have watched years of challenges to electoral results and have had more than one student group through the years have similar concerns to those that have crystallized and been voted on now. All that is to say that no one should underestimate the resolve of the administration to see a fair resolution.

So I think you will find that we will be moderately patient, perhaps frustratingly so for those that want a fast resolution, and we are going to try and keep the conversation going and if at some juncture there is no resolution, we will act.

 

TV: The Varsity recently wrote a story about interest fees the university charges. U of T collects about $1.76 million dollars in interest fees from the St. George campus undergraduate students. I don’t think that’s much money for the administration, but I do think that’s a lot of money for your average student. Students get osap money twice during the year, but they have to pay their fees once during the year. So bearing in mind the different OSAP timelines and the pressure from the students’ union, do you think the current model needs to be altered, and if not, why? 

DN: First off, whatever the number is, any money in base that recurs is important to the institution. This is not a one-time amount of money, it’s a recurring amount of money, but much more important than the actual amount brought in on interest charges is the fact that if fees are not paid on a timely basis, there is a loss on the part of the institution. Like any other enterprise we have to continue to make payroll, deal with our expenses, and manage cash flow.

 

TV: Are there ways to do that without charging interest?

DN: Well it’s pretty hard not to charge interest because if the money isn’t in our hands we can’t put whatever money has been banked out to collect interest out from the banks. Remember that our money comes in in a couple of tranches, just like the money comes in from OSAP in a couple of tranches. We have to manage cash flow for the year. If we don’t invest the money that comes in we’re guilty of dereliction of the appropriate use of capital in our hands and that would be inappropriate and wasteful. One of the reasons interest is charged on these accounts is not some desire to gouge or to make a lot of money out of the interest per se, but rather to make sure we actually have people paying on a timely basis.

 

TV: Could U of T operate on a model where students pay once per semester? Other universities do.

DN: You have to look at each institution’s model to look at what works. As I see it, most institutions have some interest charges simply to ensure fees are paid on a timely basis. As I see it when a newspaper reports that this amounts to 19 per cent they are misrepresenting the reality and that no one is going to go a full year without paying their fees. When we have claims that these fees are a great burden when in fact they’re OSAP-eligible expenses, we also have some misperception.

 

TV: If I may though, the data does show that most people are sitting with it between OSAP disbursement periods.  

DN: So in that period they will see this as an expense and they will wait to be paid back, and I understand that that is something that rankles, I get it. It also rankles when anyone else gets a bill with an interest charge on it, which is why we pay them. I would love to see some sensible compromise that found everyone happy our fees are paid on a timely basis and students feeling as though they are also incentivized to do their share to pay.

 

TV: What is next?

DN: I will go back to the ranks and I will try to be helpful to the institution in any way I can. I will do some private sector work and I will do some non profit and charitable work and try to stay out of the way.

 

TV: Will you teach?

DN: I hope so. I love teaching, and I really enjoyed research. I would like to live that life again, but I will have to take a little time to see how feasible that is. I mean, I’ve been at it 14 years as a full-time academic administrator as dean of Medicine and president and the jury is out as to whether I can retool and be effective as a researcher again. I’d like to give that a try, but it may be too late — the neurons may have gone to sleep permanently.

 

TV: What is your favourite book?

DN: Mr Bumbletoes of Bimbleton… That’s a sentimental choice.  My grandparents on both sides were immigrants with limited education.  My mother was a gifted student, but neither she nor her three brothers attended university. My father was determined to be a medical researcher, and was the only one of six children in his family to attend university.  He arrived here at University College during the Depression without any family financial backing, and worked more or less full-time to support himself.  There was no student aid.  He made it as far as first-year Medicine, but couldn’t manage and dropped out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my parents gave their four children a house full of books and a strong sense that we should all pursue higher education as far as it would take us. Among those books, Mr Bumbletoes was my childhood favourite. I am sorry that my father did not live to see his old oak desk in the office of the dean of Medicine at U of T.

 

TV: Let me ask you one last question. If you came back to U of T 10 years from now, what would you hope the campus would look like?

DN: I would hope they were still amazingly diverse, with the fabulous mix of students we have here from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. I think one of the things that I feel best about is that we’ve had huge numbers of people over the last number of years work hard to promote a uniquely Canadian brand of accessible excellence here at U of T. I think it distinguishes us hugely from some of the Ivy League institutions with which we compete otherwise on the academic level, and I also think in the quality of our graduates — so I would want to see that same wonderful level of diversity. I would hope that we might on this campus have finally figured out a way to close down some of the traffic around King’s College Circle, so that this can be even more of a pedestrian space.

I’d love to see some of the new buildings that are planned up and thriving and full of terrific students and faculty and staff, and I’ll be watching all of those developments with great interest. East and West, I would be really excited to see more of a sense of research buildings that enable more graduate students and graduate studies to thrive as per the 2030 plan as well as the outworking of some of the great plans they have underway. For example, in Scarborough the development of the North campus with the remediated land around the Pan Am Centre is going to be incredibly exciting, and I think they will have made big progress a decade from now.

To the West, there’s infinite potential at the Mississauga campus and I can see any number of new programs emerging there that would again represent a change. They have an academcy of Medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Missisauga and Scarborough with academies of engineering or similar professional programs that are tied to St. George at some later date. I think the sense of a blend of all the historic architecture and all the facilities and greenspace is something that I hope will remain forever. It will always be a place I come back to with a sense of coming home.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Overwhelming support for colleges at Hart House Debate

Judges, audience, UTSU praise college system

Overwhelming support for colleges at Hart House Debate

The Opposition claimed victory at the Hart House Intercollegiate Debate on Wednesday.

The motion “This House would abolish the college system at the University of Toronto” was defeated after the Opposition (the negating side in the British Parliamentary format of debate) impressed all five judges and the audience voted in a 2:1 ratio for them over the Government (the affirming side). The event attracted around 40 people.

Louis Tsilivis, the Hart House Debates Committee (HHDC) secretary said that: “The issue of colleges resorting to secession in the face of obstinacy from the student government definitely played into” the choice of motion for the debate, referencing the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) fee diversion conflict. An article written in The Newspaper by last year’s UTSU president Shaun Shepherd, which questioned the value of the college system, also prompted Tsilvis to organize the debate.

Debate-3rdchoice-byShijieZhou

The UTSU declined the HHDC’s invitation to send a debater and a judge. UTSU vice-president, internal, Cameron Wathey, who declined on behalf of the union, explained that he is a strong supporter of the college system and that “no member of the executive committee thinks that abolishing the college system is a good idea.” In an email to Tsilivlis he said: “I’m sorry but we don’t feel as though engaging in this debate will help our efforts on collaboration and work with colleges on campus.”

The Government’s arguments centred around equal funding, interactions with student government, provision of adequate services, and the adversarial relationship between the different colleges. In a comment on college pride set against university spirit, debater Veenu Goswani said: “The University of Toronto (U of T) consistently generates some of the lowest numbers in terms of how attached people feel towards their university.” On intercollegiate rivalry, Goswani said “All colleges build their sense of being special, or different from the others, on the sense that they are the best college.”

Kathleen Elhatton-Lake, also debating for the Government, spoke about the issues faced by non-resident students. “They feel like they’re missing out on the normal college experience and they feel financially pressured to actually live in residence,” she argued. Elhatton-Lake went on to mention the value of negotiating power in one unified student body, and used the example of transportation costs included in tuition fees as something that individual colleges will not be able to negotiate.

The Opposition spoke to the benefits of U of T’s unique college system: academic dons, registrar’s offices, writing centres, and interaction with a diverse body of students across every faculty. Kaleem Hawa of the Opposition pointed out that “A lot of students seek guidance [at their college] instead of going to counselling and psychological services, or the UTSU.” Deirdre Casey from the Opposition challenged the idea that commuters are excluded under the collegiate structure. “The reason why commuters would feel isolated without a college is because they would not be tied to a specific residence building,” she claimed.

None of the debaters were actually of the opinion that the colleges should be abolished. Goswani stated afterwards: “I personally think that the college system is a great idea and the real take-away is how colleges can best try and move away from some the problems that we just discussed, like being too adversarial to each other.”

Tsilivis was pleased with the discussion generated by the debate and said that it “made the college issue a very live one.” Although Tsilivis himself supports the college system, he believes that “thinking about college abolition can help get you in the headspace where you can think about those other issues.”

The Ontario government’s plan for PSE is here, and working

A response to The Varsity's editorial "Where is the Liberals' PSE plan?"

The Ontario government’s plan for PSE is here, and working

The Varsity’s recent editorial [“Where is the Liberals’ PSE plan?,” published October 7] presents a skewed account of the progress made on post-secondary education in Ontario. While in many ways, The Varsity‘s article was a fair representation of the student perspective, the Wynne government has persistently stood up for Ontario’s students and its educational institutions. The Liberal government has repeatedly expressed its commitment to make PSE accessible on the basis of ability to learn, not the ability to pay, and despite The Varsity’s contentions, this commitment has manifested itself in a number of concrete actions.

Kathleen Wynne's provincial government has been hard at work developing a comprehensive plan for post-secondary education. PAUL SCHRIEBER/FLICKR

Kathleen Wynne’s provincial government has been hard at work developing a comprehensive plan for post-secondary education. PAUL SCHRIEBER/FLICKR

Since 2003, the Liberal government has increased funding to post-secondary institutions by 80 per cent. This elevated level of funding allows for better quality programs in our schools and more dollars going toward the education of each post-secondary student. The Liberal government is also responsible for the recent legislation capping OSAP debt at $7,300 per year, significantly reducing the weight of student loans.

More recently, the government instituted a 30 per cent off-tuition grant, a program which over 230,000 Ontario students benefit from.

The Varsity’s assertion that the Wynne government has taken no action to support Ontario’s students is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of the facts. Not only has the provincial government instituted the above reforms, but Minister Duguid has committed to tackling deferral and flat fees this fall.

Despite The Varsity’s intentions to illuminate the ostensible lag in PSE progress, their article instead stifles this conversation, and misrepresents the progress made by the Liberal government in the area.

Rather than broadening the divide between student and government interests, I hope that in the following weeks and months The Varsity will take advantage of this opportunity to work with legislators to provide productive ideas for policy development.

Of course, there is more work to be done, but what The Varsity, and the students of Ontario have to understand, is that the government is engaged in an in-depth consultation process, and this process takes time to execute properly.  It is also a process that predominantly includes the consideration of student opinions, like those expressed in The Varsity.

I encourage everyone to join in the conversation online, by submitting a policy idea to the Ontario Liberal Party’s policy-development site. I also encourage students on all sides of the debate to help foster an enriched discourse on student issues and reach out to Minister Duguid; his door will always be open to concerned students. As students, it is our responsibility to work together with legislators to make Ontario a better environment for students; I just hope that we’re up to the task.
Scott Dallen is policy director for the U of T Liberals.