Reorienting the university towards “social justice, equity, anti-oppression, accessibility, and anti-corporatization” was the goal of a meeting held in a crammed upstairs room of the Multi-Faith Centre last Wednesday. Over 200 students, faculty, staff, and U of T community members were present at the event, which saw the launching of a new, independent advocacy group called the University of Toronto General Assembly.
Along with the typical grievances of a large university, organizers focused on precarious working conditions and concerns over academic freedom.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ flat fees implementation and academic planning exercise were prominent in the meeting’s discussion, as were recent campus space proposals and donor influence surrounding the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Multiple people chaired the meeting, including CUPE 3902 Chair Leslie Jermyn. The first half consisted of ratifying four main points, each of which passed with wide support: that UTGA employ a one person, one vote decision-making model; that a two-thirds majority will rule when consensus cannot be reached; that UTGA be only accountable to itself and not administration or student unions; and that UTGA be open to U of T community members, “this includes, but is not limited to, students, workers, faculty, alumni, and neighbours.”
One student, wearing a Student Political Action Committee button, criticized the inclusion of “neighbours,” stating that the assembly should only consist of those who are “paying to go here.” Her comment was met with an impassioned reply from Megan Kinch, a former student who said she dropped out due to financial constraints and still actively participates in campus organizations.
While many attending the meeting were members of union and labour groups, the assembly stressed that it is an independent group that is not tied to any organization, including UTSU. Two years ago, UTSU organized a similar town hall, titled “I F*ing Hate This School.”
After ratifying its four main goals, chairs invited attendees to propose working groups. A variety of ideas were introduced, including labour rights, anti-corporatization, and international solidarity. Proposals were merged and then narrowed down to nine working groups, who dispersed to discuss proposals for 45 minutes. The assembly then regrouped and each working group presented its key points.
“I think that we started off on the right foot and we can hopefully maintain the momentum,” said undergraduate student and co-chair Johanna Lewis. “In a year from now I hope that we’ll have accomplished a lot of productive organizing and that those working groups will be meeting and communicating via email between meetings so that we’re able to have substantive work done.”
The assembly is now compiling a steering committee and invites people to follow the UTGA blog for updates. The committee will meet to form a mandate and constitution, to be ratified following the February 21–25 reading week.
The meeting was financially supported by the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the Arts and Science Student Union, CUPE 3902, the Graduate Students’ Union, the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, the United Steelworkers local 1998, and the University of Toronto Faculty Association. UTSU also helped promote the meeting but did not provide financial support. Expenses included food and drinks, sign-language interpreters, poster printing, and childcare.
Asked what makes UTGA different from all its sponsoring groups, Lewis replied that the assembly brings together a diversity of voices.
“We have everybody coming together to do some serious organizing. I think that what’s really special about it is that we’re able to bring different circles together,” said Lewis.
“We’re all able to come together and do more work in a more sustainable way and in a more long-term manner.”
“Radical politics” vs. “ordinary students”?
Many members of the Student Political Action Committee, a group advocating increased “accountability, efficiency, and realism” within UTSU, attended the event. The group ran a table outside the venue, distributing buttons and flyers that advocated for changes including a homecoming event.
SPAC members applauded one another each time one of their members spoke, sparking criticisms from other meeting attendees.
“Some members of that committee were being a bit antagonistic at the meeting, unnecessarily,” said Lewis.
“It wasn’t disruptive. […] There was a large presence of people from various backgrounds of various opinions and we were able to have some constructive debate.”
Andrew Agnew-Iler, part-time undergraduate representative on the Arts and Science Council tweeted a photo of the table with the caption noting that “the rich white men are out in force.”
When SPAC member Aidan Fishman proposed a “political neutrality” working group, he was booed by some attendees. Fellow SPAC member Brent Schmidt replied by scolding the “childish” attendees, describing their behaviour as “a crying shame.”
In a press release issued after the meeting, the group expressed disappointment that most attendees “attempted to discuss issues concerning ordinary students” and were instead overshadowed by those pursuing a “radical political agenda.”