The University of Toronto is not a democracy—and there’s a reasonable argument, examined elsewhere, for why democracy is not the best form of government for an institution of higher learning to take.
U of T is not a democracy, but it does exist within one. It is not unreasonable that the over 70,000 who live, work, and study here—whether it’s for four years or for 40— expect to have some degree of control over their lives, or that the ideals of a democratic society still stand on campus. A university has extra responsibilities to uphold certain freedoms—of speech, conscience, assembly, and information—essential to its very existence.
U of T’s statement of purpose elaborates on the university’s special relationship to democratic society: “It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.”
Those elected in good faith to represent a group should be respected for being elected. The value of elected representation is diminished when representatives are not allowed to be representative.
Here we examine U of T’s highest governing body, the Governing Council, in light of these beliefs.
Students are the bosses of the president?
The overstatement of the year came when media and observers were barred from a meeting that by law should have been public. University spokesperson Rob Steiner, responded to frustrated student leaders’ claims of not being heard by the school’s highest governing body by telling The Varsity there were appropriate channels for students to express dissent, and that “students are in effect, the bosses of the president.”
With not nearly enough votes to have a veto, the eight seats held by students on a 50-strong Governing Council is a far cry from what students in the ’60s meant by representation. It certainly doesn’t give students any authority over Dr. David Naylor.
On the cusp of the revolutionary latter years for which the 1960s became known, U of T President Claude Bissell wrote in his diary, “there is an undercurrent, deep and irrational.” Written in the spring of 1965, his sentiments were indicative of a new era of student consciousness.
Change was already underway. The divide long separating students and faculty was rapidly closing, even to the point of eliminating separate staff washrooms. Along with reforms in curriculum, teacher evaluations, and disciplinary methods, the board of governors no longer held supervisionary powers over the Students’ Administrative Council, now known as the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
The story of why less than one-fifth of U of T governors are students comes from a long history of bickering between students and faculty.
Two years before Bissel’s diary entry, the Duff-Berdahl Commission report analyzed university governance, an issue that would frustrate the student movements for decades to come. While the commissioners recommended that faculty members be part of the board of governors, students were not part of the equation.
President Bissell went one a step further, suggesting the amalgamation of the senate and the board of governors into one body concerned with both financial and academic issues. To discuss the idea of unicameralism, Bissell formed the Commission on University Government.
Tellingly, long before it could decide how many students and faculty members would sit on the proposed Governing Council, the composition of the CUG endured multiple revisions. Reluctantly, the board of governors accepted university demands for parity between student and staff representation.
After over 145 meetings, the commission published its report in 1970. At its core was the development of “a sole governing authority with final control over all financial and academic matters within the University of Toronto, to be named Governing Council.”
The proposed composition of the GC contained 66 members: 20 elected faculty, 20 elected students, 20 lay members, and six ex-officio members. Reflective of the prior struggle over influence in the commission, the faculty representatives were not quick to approve parity, says D’Arcy Martin, an undergraduate student on the commission in 1970.
“Initially, they were opposed to it but in the course of the sessions…they ran out of arguments…it was a clear principle in the report and it was, I would say, the major compromise that the faculty representatives made. They made it in good spirits, they weren’t bullied into it. They were convinced.”
In the ensuing debate that became known as simply “parity,” student representation slowly eroded as it passed through the bureaucratic mire.
Conservative faculty and members of the board of governors were having none of it. In part to appease them, yet another assembly was formed, the University Wide Committee, set to consider the ideas proposed by the CUG, as well as make the final recommendations to the president. As the 160 members (40 faculty, 40 students, 40 academic and non-academic administrators, and 40 others) met over a three-day period in June 1970, there was wide support for unicameralism (111 for and 15 against in the final vote). Inevitably, the proposed parity between faculty and students on the GC lost narrowly by a vote of 60 to 56.
Having begun with 10 models of composition, the Governing Council proposed by the UWC would have included 72 members, including 24 lay persons, 21 faculty members, 14 students, and a number of academic administrators and support staff.
In talks between board members, the President and the Minister of University Affairs, the number of representatives from each constituency changed, but the proportion of student representation relative to faculty remained roughly the same, at two-thirds.
In Martin’s view, students largely supported parity, but they “went back to leading their lives without fighting for it.”
Few amendments regarding GC have been made to the University of Toronto Act since 1971, fossilizing the governance structure at U of T. This story takes us to where we are today.
Police have been present at University of Toronto Governing Council meetings ever since a sit-in of around 30 participants took place March 20.
Chemistry professor emeritus John Valleau, who was in favour of a unicameral structure with student parity during the 1960s talks, admits that the final result was a “disaster.”
“I’ve only been to a few governing council meetings. At one or two of them a student member has spoken up about issues. And I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel that they were treated with proper respect by the council. That’s a very sad thing to have to say.”
“My experience with student politics is that they might be upset about things, but they’re not violent. There was the occupation over daycare for days. The administration just refused to take any drastic action, and it was fine. Why are they so threatened, I don’t know. They seem to be paranoid.”
Though she’s been at U of T for less time than Valleau, former student governor Oriel Varga has noticed a change as well.
“Generally, I feel that GC has become less democratic over the years. It used to be that the major unions could put up their hands, and the chair would recognize them, and they could speak. Now they have to put in notice in advance and are often denied,” she says.
“Now we have police at the door; that never used to happen. Especially not metro police. At one of our Governing Council meetings, we had 20 police officers: ten metro and ten campus police.”
Varga believes this is because governors are serving their own interest. “If you have only eight out of fifty, it is a token situation. In effect, it promotes people who are just opportunists, who want to further their own interests.”
Despite the high tension at the April 10 meeting, only one student governor out of eight voted against the fee increase. Alex Kenjeev, a student representative in favor of the tuition raise, says his hands were tied by the university’s finances. “When you look at tuition within the Governing Council, you have this fiduciary duty to think about the best interests of the university as a whole. You look at the reports that they give you and start to realize that the situation that the university is in. It’s expensive to run a world-class university, and then you have these sources of funding, one of which is tuition.”
It doesn’t help that student governors are told to be governors first, students second. Every year governors are given an orientation package that emphasizes their duty not as representatives of their constituency, but as stewards of the entire institution. “While each Governor may be informed by concerns of his/her individual constituency, it is the absolute duty of a Governor to do what he/she can to ensure that all the constituencies in the future will also be well-served by the decisions that are taken today,” the document reads.
“Sometimes I feel its intention is to stifle real engagement and discussion,” says Varga. “It benefits the institution as a whole if we consider student rights. After all, the university is here for the students.
Despite being unable to form a substantial voting block, students have used their spots on GC to speak and be heard, by raising questions and making motions, even if only to be ignored.
In 2004, when Bob Rae was appointed to review Ontario’s post-secondary education structure, he invited public universities to suggest how they felt their institutions should be improved. Pre-empting the university’s calls for increased or even deregulated fees and corporate funding, Varga proposed a motion at the executive committee meeting two months before U of T could make its submission.
The motion proposed that the university strike a committee of faculty, staff, students, and organizers from the outside community to lobby the government and garner support for corporate-free provincial funding for the university, including a need-based national grant system that would support equity-seeking groups.
The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, the Sociology and Equity Studies in Education Student Caucus at OISE, and others sent the governors letters supporting the motion. The motion never made it to GC. Varga claims she was given only one minute to address the issue before the executive committee voted the motion off the agenda.
“The executive committee has become more and more powerful over the years, and have been controlling the agenda. If not them, then the agenda committee. Between the two of them, it has become very much like the Senate in the past, “ said Varga. The sole student on the executive committee, Varga worries that Towards 2030, which GC will vote to adopt as a guiding policy this semester, will make the executive committee even stronger.
Varga recalls when a multi-million dollar project for a centre that would do research with a northern aboriginal community was brought up, she had three simple questions that were never answered during that meeting. She wanted to know which communities these were, the university’s research protocols, and whether these communities were aware of the study.
“I was just about to say at the meeting, that I hope that in the way that we discuss this, we realize that we are on aboriginal land, and that we are respectful when we engage in this discussion. I did not get that sentence done. I got ruled out of order on that sentence,” she says.
If the number of votes makes representation tokenistic for the student body at large, systemic barriers to GC make it veritably impossible for marginalized communities or those with disabilities.
“Meetings, for instance, are always on weekdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m. That precludes the possibility of having students who work full-time,” says APUS director Joeita Gupta. “[Simcoe Hall] is not even an accessible location. When I went up there, we had to go in what I think was a freight elevator. It was disgusting.”
In 2006, U of T’s office of space management gave the building that houses Con Hall and Simcoe Hall (like most other buildings on campus at the time) an accessibility score of zero on a scale of five. The scale measured physical accessibility for students and access to resources.
Jeff Peters, one of the two part-time student governors for the coming year, is no stranger to GC or its lack of accommodation. Peters, who needs a translator due to a speaking disability, is rarely given more than five minutes to address GC meetings, and is frequently interrupted by the chair. At the April 10 meeting this year, chair John Petch instructed Peters to consider handing out a pre-written statement that could be distributed to the governors so that he wouldn’t need a translator, a practice that Varga condemns as discriminatory.
“Hopefully with Jeff on as a governor, the university is going to have to grapple with its processes,” says Varga.
Peters, also VP Internal of APUS, was one of several student leaders barred by police from entering a University Affairs Board meeting on March 25. While they were waiting outside in the rain, the board voted to increase New College residence fees by 20 per cent. Peters claimed that he had informed the chair that he wished to address the meeting, and that police had been informed an hour earlier to expect an APUS representative.
A Youtube video filmed by Varga, who was with him as a translator, depicts Peters squeezing past the police line, trying to tell an officer at the door that he was expected to address the meeting. When an administrator told the police to allow him in without his translator, Varga and Peters claim that it took nearly two hours before they were eventually both allowed in to address the meeting. Inside, they discovered 30 empty seats.
After the meeting, Peters is shown telling U of T president Naylor that he had to wait two hours before being allowed to enter the building. Naylor patted Peters on the shoulder.
“I will look at the process and see what happened, but other people were kept waiting as well,” he said, before turning away to speak with someone else.
Jim Delaney, Director of the Office of the Vice-Provost, denied any knowledge of Jeff’s speaking request.
“I wish the attitude was abnormal,” says Peters. “Unfortunately the university is part of society, and society, [like] the university, is a place where there is much ableism. “I would not have run for Governing Council if I did not believe I could make a difference.” Peters aims to speak with governors to build a coalition. He does not believe that there is a critical mass of potential dissenters, “but I am a very optimistic person, and I’d like to try.”—Liem Vu and Naushad Ali Husein
Two heads better than one
If two heads are better than one, then U of T’s Governing Council may not measure up. GC is a unicameral body, meaning it has only one chamber to decide on all academic, administrative and financial matters at U of T. Out of all universities in Ontario, it’s the only one of its kind.
While the University of Toronto is not a political body, like many political bodies, democracy is GC’s objective. Its mandate states, “the word ‘democracy’ perturbs some, but it seems to us the best word to represent our goal: a university community that guarantees the rights of its members.” But does unicameralism foster such a community, or does the centralization of power lead to a democratic deficit?
Let’s first examine alternative systems. Queen’s University for example, developed their bicameral structure in 1841. The upper chamber is the Senate, responsible for all academic issues. The lower chamber is the Board of Trustees, presiding over all financial and administrative matters. There’s overlap in academic and financial matters, says Queen’s University Secretary Georgina Moore, but each chamber can develop and pass policy without the other’s approval.
The same goes for McMaster. The school’s student union president, Azim Kasmani, comments, “In my experience, the bicameral structure seems to be a positive governance model for McMaster, as it allows for better specialization.” Bicameralism’s objective at Queen’s and McMaster is not necessarily to ensure checks and balances, but the creation of a system of specific responsibility, expediency, and efficiency—also seen at Guelph, Ryerson, Western, and McGill.
As U of T has only one chamber, other mechanisms have developed to divide responsibilities. GC utilizes three sub-boards to deal with specific issues. The Academic Board functions much like a Senate in that it handles academic policy. The University Affairs Board concerns legislation of a non-academic nature. Financial interests are entrusted to the Business Board. Below these structures exist a number of committees with specific duties, such as the Program Committee.
All decisions must go through GC to become part of U of T’s legislative framework. Yet, according to GC Secretary Louis R. Charpentier, the system allows for many checks and balances. “By the time it gets to GC,” he said, “a bill has had public discussion at three levels. GC refers back to the original board when wanting to change something, rather than just changing it themselves.” The idea, in theory, is that all issues must pass through a body where all stakeholders are equitably represented.
Some claim it’s unequitable. U of T political science professor Clifford Orwin thinks unicameralism has a tendency to ignore certain interests. “In the case of the university,” he says, “[those interests] are the faculty’s, which are under-represented in the current arrangement.” He argues for faculty to have a chamber of their own, much like they did prior to the creation of the University of Toronto Act in 1971.
Ryerson’s bicameral system is closer to this suggested model. The academic chamber isn’t solely comprised of faculty—it has other internal members, such as students, staff, and administration. However, all external members such as government appointees, alumni, business people, and members of the wider community are restricted to the Board of Governors, and thus kept out of academic affairs. The idea is that external interests have no business in the academic affairs of a post-secondary institution.
Ryan Campbell, a U of T governor elected by the full-time student constituency, opposes this model. “While I don’t necessarily agree with the relative weighting of each constituency in GC, I do think that at the end of the day it’s a fundamentally sound idea that any major decision the University makes should be scrutinized by (and ultimately passed or failed by) representatives in each of these groups,” he says.
Charpentier adds, “Governance brings with it a certain sense of legal responsibilities. Once the members are at the table they have a legal obligation to represent U of T as a whole, rather than their constituency.”
Is this all a matter of semantics? It seems as if the structure of different universities are more similar than these terms may suggest. Don’t the academic board, business board, and the university affairs board create bicameralism, even tricameralism, by the back door? If governors are asked to consider the good of the university as a whole rather than their constituency, doesn’t that put limits on what a governor can do?
It can be argued that GC as a single body is less powerful in defining university policy than both the Senate and the Board at Queen’s. In practice, unicameralism doesn’t concentrate power. We may think the grass is greener on the other side, but although we call them by different names, most Ontario universities have similar mechanisms of governance. There will always be critics of every system, but in regards to democracy, two heads aren’t necessarily better than one.—ALI GOULD
Freedom of Information
Rafael Eskenazi is not someone who speaks without thinking. It’s what you might expect of the director of U of T’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Office. A career civil servant, he is meticulous and dedicated, in his office well into the evening. Eskenazi is passionate, in his own way, about something called information management. While he might not be at the top of the administrative food chain, his policies say more about U of T’s attitude towards transparency and public access than any of President Naylor’s prepared speeches.
Take FIPPO’s latest opus, a lengthy document released this August. A list of non-binding practices, many are not novel to the average official. But to those outside the administration, its guidelines may seem extreme, even paranoid.
One section, on recording meetings, directs the reader to “ask other participants not to create ‘alternative’ meeting records,” such as personal notes. Any “parallel” record kept outside the officially approved minutes can “confuse or dilute meeting outcomes and even impede operations, wasting effort and decreasing efficiency.” Participants are reminded that their records are subject to freedom of information “when meeting processes/records are defined and again when records are created.”
Universities fought long and hard to remain exempt from freedom of information legislation, which allows almost any document related to a public institution to be released on request. When the Act was finally changed in 2006, Eskenazi’s office was created. The most recent report is in part a reaction to this new law.
“Universities know that they’re under freedom of information,” says Mark Rosenfeld, Associate Executive Director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, a group instrumental in extending FOI. “[This report] is an indication that they’re concerned, they don’t want information to go out that might be potentially misleading, incorrect or embarrassing to them.” Rosenfeld is well acquainted with information management.
“It’s basically managing what information is made public. And it’s changed quite substantially the way in which institutions interact within the institutions as well as with each other,” he says. “You’ve seen a real paring down of information flow.”
Governing Council has long followed Eskenazi’s general recommendation, “limiting record creation to what is necessary to support business.” Minutes typically outline the case in favour of a motion and the motion itself. Votes are not recorded in detail. Tapes and notes that contribute to the official record are destroyed, leading to controversy. Recently UTSU has challenged the accuracy of minutes from a GC meeting last spring. With few alternative records to consult, the conflict is nearly impossible to resolve.
For Eskenazi, maintaining a singular official record is simply about efficiency. “Information management helps people to do their work better,” he says. It is a matter of whether “the meeting ended up speaking with one voice, and coming to one conclusion, which I reckon is [its] purpose.” Rosenfeld calls this “a very narrow definition of what a meeting is, and what decisions are.”
“Looking ahead, I would say that if [record keeping] is once again pared down to the degree that you only have the bare bones of a decision, then that is a very narrow interpretation of transparency.”