Following months of silence, Provost Cheryl Regehr released a statement on Thursday outlining details of the upcoming Student Societies Summit. This is the latest mediation effort by the administration, meant to resolve ongoing issues between various student societies. The summit cannot effect policy change. Since the statement’s release, some student leaders have expressed reservations about the possibility that the summit will lead to a meaningful resolution.
The conflict revolves around referenda, considered illegitimate by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), that were conducted by the Trinity College Meeting (TCM), the Engineering Society (EngSoc), and the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC). The referenda approved the diversion of fees from the UTSU, in resistance to what societies claim are undemocratic and unrepresentative practices — although the VUSAC referendum fell short of the required voter turnout. The fee diversion issue prompted Governing Council to postpone the Student Commons, a project for U of T’s first student-run space, which is in its seventh year of negotiation.
Jelena Savic, president of VUSAC, expressed concern about the fact that the Summit cannot effect policy change. “I was under the impression that we were going to partake in a policy review process, not a continuation of the largely unsuccessful facilitated discussion that had occurred earlier this year,” she said. In response to Savic’s concerns, UTSU president Munib Sajjad cited the hundreds of student leaders not invited to the summit. “Any policy change must be the democratic will of the membership at large, and not imposed without them having the opportunity to add to the conversation.” Professor Joe Desloges, who will act as chair of the summit, stated that if the summit does not come to a resolution, and it therefore becomes necessary to undertake further analysis of the issues in question, the issues may be considered as part of a policy review. This echoes a part of the provost’s statement, which reinforces that only Governing Council can effect policy change.
Savic also cited concerns about the speed with which the administration is tackling the issues, stating that half of the students who had voted in the referenda will graduate at the end of this year. “I am deeply concerned for the momentum of this potentially revolutionary movement. It would break my heart if the hard work and dedication of last year’s executives and this year’s leaders fizzled into a perpetuation of this cyclical dissatisfaction with the state of student governance on campus.” She added that she intends to enter the discussion prepared to listen, and hopes that the summit results in meaningful change in student governance at U of T.
The summit is the second mediation attempt by the administration, following a seven-hour session led by law professor Brian Langille this June, which did not lead to a resolution. “Our mediation session with. Langille highlighted the futility of trying to construct a middle ground on a black and white issue. The UTSU either continues to take Trinity students’ money, or the money is remitted to the TCM to provide superior services to Trinity students,” said Benjamin Crase, co-head of Trinity College. “Frankly, we are currently in a position where compromise is not a tenable solution to the deep-seated mistrust and discontent felt by Trinity students.”
Crase also stated that, as far as the fee diversion issue, the numbers of students who voted to divert fees from the UTSU speak for themselves. “Over the course of this year, I predict a period of unprecedented change. Delaying the Student Commons decision clearly demonstrates that the university shares this understanding and agrees that fee diversion is a viable option that needs to be accounted for.” In response to this statement, Sajjad stated that “the university and the UTSU made the decision to delay the approval of the Commons together, to give the UTSU an opportunity to address concerns without giving rise to new ones.”
Sajjad expressed optimism that the Summit will lead to a resolution agreed upon and beneficial to the entire membership. He stressed that he is primarily interested in developing relationships of collaboration and respect between the UTSU and its peers at other unions. “The conversations we will have at the summit will be assuredly continued when we converse amongst ourselves,” he said.
Mauricio Curbelo, president of EngSoc, stressed that the institutional interests of both the UTSU and the EngSoc must take a backseat to what he views as the democratically-expressed will of students, as articulated in the referenda. “The ideal outcome [of the summit] would be one that permits students, through student societies, to self-determine via fee diversion — that is, to be able to have the more local organization provide services and representation.” He cited dissatisfaction with the representation and services provided by the UTSU to EngSoc, adding that attempts to resolve this issue through the UTSU’s own processes have proven to be unsuccessful.
Desloges stated that his prefered outcome is one that is democratically formulated by the student societies, with respect to their different interests. He hopes that expert advice on democratic structures, as well as input from the large group of student groups invited to attend the summit, will help to inform the outcome. Faculty members set to attend the summit include professors Donald Ainslie, Graham White, and Linda White, who will be joined by at least three representatives from the administration. At least 20 student societies and associations are invited to attend the summit, many of which are not directly involved in the fee diversion issue.
A number of other groups, including “student clubs, and other members of the University community” have been invited to submit written statements. The summit will centre on two discussion questions focused on the democratic structure of student governments. The first asks students to consider the current policy structure, with four representative student groups, supported by mandatory fee deductions from students, recognized by Governing Council. It asks, “how can the sometimes distinct interests of divisional societies be supported and respected in a democratic manner?” The second asks: “What are the implications of these answers on the evolution of the democratic structures of the student governments or on fee support for the activities of the divisional societies?” The administration originally asked each student society to submit the names of two representatives for this event by September 1, but extended the deadline to September 15. The process is expected to involve multiple meetings, with the scheduling of the first meeting set to take place next week.