After extensive discussions, the Graduate Student’s Union (GSU) voted against defunding the Ontario Public Interest Group (OPIRG) last November 25.
OPIRG, a volunteer-based group that facilitates research, education, and action about issues of social and environmental justice, receives an annual portion of student tuition — $5 for graduates and $1 for undergraduates — which constitute a significant portion of its operating budget.
OPIRG’s support for controversial groups such as the Communist Student Research Group and Students Against Israeli Apartheid, to name a few, has led some students to question whether they want to continue allotting tuition dollars in support of the group’s initiatives.
“I believe that students’ interests are not being served by continuing the relationship with this problematic organization,” said fourth-year history specialist Esther Mendelsohn.
In order to give students alternative options, OPIRG placed an advertisement in The Varsity that cited information on how to opt-out of funding them.
According to the GSU executive committee, however, OPIRG did not properly advertise the opt-out option. They proposed that an online form should be available to make the process more accessible for students. As a result of the ad, the GSU contemplated defunding the group themselves.
“In case there are beliefs that an organization does not represent student interests anymore, a referendum may be initiated by a student petition or the GSU council to determine if such a relationship should be continued,” said Nikita Reznick, GSU’s academic commissioner.
In response, OPIRG published an updated advertisement and informed members of GSU’s possible termination of their funding.
“We were shocked to learn that certain executive members were advocating termination of our shared relationship,” said OPIRG representative Johanna Lewis in an email. “During this OPIRG/GSU meeting, GSU executive members were hostile toward OPIRG board and staff, and disclosed that they would be deliberating about terminating our relationship that same day.”
The GSU acknowledged OPIRG for fixing the ad but concluded that by informing their members of the situation, the group set off a “public attack against the executive that served to unnecessarily mislead our members,” as stated in their official statement.
GSU external commissioner Daniel Vandervoort said that the union’s statement should have been “more apologetic.”
“[The GSU] should have recognized the importance of OPIRG and the value of working closely with the organization to promote space on campus for different student perspectives.”
As both sides continue to move on from the incident, the GSU executive statement expressed hope that this is only a small detour from what has otherwise been a positive relationship between the organizations.
“The role of the GSU is to represent the best interests of the students,” said Reznick. “As a result, we believe that a positive relationship, one that serves in the interests of the graduate students, is important with an organization the students provide funding for.”
In its official statement, OPIRG said that it values its long-standing relationship with the GSU and that it looks forward to many more years of mutual support.
“In the future, the GSU executive should remember that their organization was central in establishing OPIRG-Toronto in 1982 through student referendum … and that our ongoing collaboration is in the best interest of all graduate students, even those who might not support all the work that OPIRG volunteers undertake,” concluded Lewis.