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Whose frosh week is it anyway?

Students’ union, divisions clash over frosh kits and orientation planning
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SHAQUILLA SINGH/THE VARSITY
SHAQUILLA SINGH/THE VARSITY

Disputes between the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and divisional student councils have affected the planning of U of T’s orientation weeks for years. This year, the conflicts over frosh week are in part a continuation of disputes from throughout last year, which culminated in the Engineering Society (EngSoc) and Trinity College voting to divert all fees from the student union. Victoria College held a similar vote, in which students supported diverting fees, but the vote fell short of the required voter turnout.

Frosh weeks at U of T are organized by each individual division however, traditionally divisions will cooperate to buy in bulk for items like frosh kits. In the past, the UTSU has often provided frosh kits to all divisions.

This year, four colleges — Trinity, St. Michael’s, Woodsworth, and New — join the EngSoc in refusing to purchase their frosh kits from the union; all other divisions are getting their frosh kits through the union.

 

Three years of disputes over kits

This is not the first year in which colleges decided to opt out of UTSU kits. Two years ago, the EngSoc was joined by St. Michael’s, Trinity, Innis, Woodsworth and University Colleges in opting out of the kits. Last year, even with a full subsidy, most college councils opted out of union kits.

In past years, orientation coordinators have cited politically motivated material in kits as a reason not to purchase them. Two years ago, material that seemed to pit the union against U of T —  most notably, that which negatively portrayed U of T President David Naylor — was of particular concern to orientation leaders who opted out of the kits. Multiple leaders also cited complaints from previous freshmen that the frosh kits did not promote unified school spirit. In Trinity’s “Advisory Report on the Proposed UTSU Referendum,” published in March of last year, it was explained that past frosh executives had not purchased kits in part because of a number of requirements imposed on colleges by the union. Requirements included that colleges guarantee their programming would not overlap with union programming and commit not to remove any items the union placed in the kits. Jonathan Warda, an orientation coordinator from Woodsworth, summed up the concerns of many colleges about the way information is presented in the kits: “We find it to be more beneficial to include Woodsworth College branded items rather than UTSU or CFS branded items as frosh week is meant to orient students first and foremost with their home college.”

 

Divisions make different plans

This year, Mauricio Curbelo, president of EngSoc, told The Varsity that the decision to opt out this year reflects the society’s wider issues with the union. The core of the dispute, he said, is that EngSoc can provide better services for its students without the involvement of the union. Vivek Kesarwani, orientation chair for EngSoc echoed the sentiment, saying simply: “We wanted to see if we could run frosh week without the UTSU.”

Trinity College and St. Michael’s college would not say whether their decision to opt out of union kits was politically motivated. Both colleges expressed that, at this time, they have no intention of including union materials — such as the planner, water bottle, or flyers — in their kits.

Meanwhile, Ryan Lamers, orientation coordinator for Innis College, which is using some union materials, said that his team had come to an agreement with the union that their kits would not include any politically motivated material that Innis deems not beneficial to its student base.

Jenny Pazio, orientation coordinator for Victoria, denied that any of their decisions are politically motivated. “We’re not going to do anything for political reasons. We want students to form their own opinions; any issues we have with the student union are being put aside for the interest of our students,” she said.

Liz Wong, an orientation coordinator for University college, said that her team’s decision to purchase union kits has to do in large part with the fact that they are ethically produced.

Craig Maniscalco, orientation coordinator for New, asserted that New has a good working relationship with the Union. He said that the decision to opt out of using their kits was purely in the interest of finding the most cost effective option.

 

Some students will pay twice for kits

Innis, Victoria, University, and the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) are contributing to the cost of their kits, while the remainder of the divisions will receive fully subsidized kits.

UTSU president Munib Sajjad stated that this model is a way to accommodate each division according to its needs, since smaller divisions have fewer resources.

Lamers disagrees, arguing that some students end up paying for their kits twice — once through the UTSU levy, which each member pays with their tuition, and again directly to the union. He argues that while smaller divisions have a smaller number of students, everyone pays the same fees, so there should be no difference in how much each division contributes to the cost of their kits.

 

Several changes of plan during the summer

Originally, the union was not going to provide kits for any divisions this year, and was set to reallocate money saved on subsidizing kits towards getting a better artist for the concert. “Due to lack of demand, the UTSU [had] decided to invest more money into other areas of Orientation,” said Sajjad. In addition, early in the planning stages of frosh week, EngSoc offered to bulk-purchase frosh materials for interested divisions through an alternate provider.

Sajjad said that, to the union’s surprise, several smaller colleges and faculties expressed interest in their kits. Lamers was among the representatives who spoke up and argued that smaller divisions rely on union kits for financial reasons. Lamers added that he and a number of other representatives were concerned with where the money saved on kits would go if the union was not able to book a better artist, saying that they had failed to clarify where excess funds would be used. Sajjad claimed that $60,000 was spent on orientation kits last year, and approximately the same amount has been sent due to the “unforeseen interest.” In response to affordability concerns, the union made arrangements with Innis, Victoria, University, and the Faculties of Music, Architecture, Pharmacy, and Physical Education and Kinesiology, to subsidize and assemble their kits.

 

EngSoc booked parade permit before the UTSU

Orientation coordinators also cited the annual orientation parade as a source of controversy this year. Normally, the parade is entitled “UTSU Parade” and led by the union. This year, EngSoc attempted to book the permit for the parade before the union did.

The confusion with the parade permit resulted in the establishment of a parade committee. Olivia Birch, a trained mediator, and an orientation coordinator for New College, chairs the committee. It consists of a team of parade marshals — one from each college and faculty. The parade is now to be called the “U of T Parade.”

Birch said that the planning for the parade is now going smoothly, with all divisions working together cooperatively towards the goal of a spirited, inclusive event. Birch hopes future years will use the parade committee model. Curbelo believes the booking of the parade route has led to a more cooperative planning process for frosh week then in previous years. “I highly doubt the UTSU would have been willing to modify any of their programming or allow it to be run collaboratively without some sort of external coercion.”

Curbelo added that the way the union is managing Homecoming parallels his original concerns about the parade. “I attended the first homecoming planning meeting to find out that the UTSU has already decided on the date and the programming, and has already been approaching the university and making logistical arrangements. It does not appear there is a place for divisional student societies to meaningfully contribute, other than just to promote the event,” he said.

Earlier this summer, student representatives from Engineering, Trinity and Victoria held a seven-hour negotiation session with the UTSU, facilitated by law professor Brian Langille. No public change in bargaining position arose from the meeting, and outgoing provost Cheryl Misak is planning a follow up meeting in the late summer.

While most of the conflicts around frosh week are unlikely to be noticed by incoming students, some orientation coordinators are worried that the political turmoil will have practical effects for newcomers.  “We all just want a safe orientation, and politics can make things difficult,” said Liz Wong of University College.