Disputes between the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and dissatisfied constituent student groups have been chronic at this university for almost a decade. Back issues of this publication often make for depressing reading, as we see the same unresolved issues being brought up and, year after year, distracting from more pressing concerns that are recognized by students on all sides.
Struggles over electoral reform, salaries, the transparency and responsiveness of the union’s governance structure, and some of the union’s advocacy efforts and priorities, among other issues, are nothing new. These disputes continue to divert politically active students’ time and energy away from addressing problems such as the university’s lack of student housing and student space, the rising cost of education, the decreasing quality of education, unfair and illegal fees, equity, accessibility, mental health resources, and more.
With the ongoing controversy concerning fee diversion, these disputes have reached unprecedented levels of intensity and complexity. In the past, the administration has been satisfied to monitor the situation and let student leaders fight it out among themselves. That the university has now taken steps to force all student societies into negotiations shows that it recognizes that something has to change.
Dissatisfied divisional societies are tired of paying for a union they do not support, and must also be tired of fighting for fee diversion. The union must be frustrated by having its claim to represent all undergraduates weakened by internal disputes, and by the amount of time and energy union staff and executives spend managing these problems. Other student societies, including those divisions not pursing fee diversion, must be tired of having campus discourse dominated by these controversies, rather than focusing on the goals articulated by their members. Most importantly, we have to recognize the very large number of students who are turned off student politics altogether, and whose voices are rarely heard.
To top it all off, the university has delayed the multi-million dollar Student Commons project until the fee diversion issue is resolved, so every stakeholder will benefit from resolving this interminable controversy. The Student Societies Summit presents an ideal opportunity to work towards settling disputes. Yet, as meetings of the summit continue, it is becoming increasingly clear that the posturing of both the union and certain divisional societies is contributing to a frustrating lack of progress.
The Trinity College Meeting (TCM), Engineering Society (EngSoc), and Victoria College Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) are all maintaining their stances on fee diversion from the UTSU, while the union maintains that these divisions’ referenda on the subject were illegitimate.
Fee diversion need not prevent substantive discussion of governance structures, a topic that the summit seeks to address. No one should expect a quick resolution; these are complicated and long-standing issues. Yet, we cannot expect any resolution at all if neither side is willing to compromise.
Leaders of those divisions seeking fee diversion have said that the democratic will of their constituents, as expressed in the referenda, constrain them to pursue fee diversion and make it impossible for them to consider any other resolution. This seems logical, but if these leaders were truly open to compromise, there is a simple alternative. Any compromise resolution negotiated at the summit could be put to their membership in a new referendum and either ratified or rejected. Although former U of T president David Naylor said last year’s referenda have no expiration date, this does not mean that they bind the leaders of these divisions to pursue fee diversion indefinitely. This is an excuse and a roadblock, rather than a real obstacle.
Historically, these divisions have always said that they would prefer to see the UTSU reformed, and that they are now trying to leave the union because they do not believe reform is possible. Yet, through the summit, changes to the union’s structure and to student governance are possible. Although decisions aren’t binding, they will influence Governing Council. Statements made this week by student leaders at Victoria show an encouraging willingness to move forward and treat fee diversion as a last resort.
For its part, the UTSU must stop pretending that the grievances of dissatisfied students are something new. It is preposterous to feign surprise at complaints about elections and governance structure that have been well-known on campus for nearly a decade. The union must also show that it takes the summit seriously. UTSU president Munib Sajjad remains noticeably absent from these meetings. If the UTSU was taking the summit seriously, it would send its president — as every other participating division has.
On November 15, the Innis College Students’ Society (ICSS) submitted a letter to the summit, criticizing the UTSU’s involvement in the summit and calling on Sajjad to attend. It is telling that the ICSS has expressed this frustration, since it historically has not been involved in opposition movements, and has remained silent throughout the current governance debacle. Making an exception to the summit’s rules to allow Sajjad to attend will certainly further the summit’s overall goals.
The union must realize that its ability to represent and advocate for its membership as a whole is being eroded by this ongoing dispute. Important bodies — such as the university administration and the provincial government — no longer seem confident in the UTSU’s representation of the university’s students and have started to consult with divisional leaders directly.
This week, at the UTSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), another important issue may be sidetracked by these disputes. Last year’s meeting came to an abrupt end when members present voted against the agenda. Opposition leaders are not unreasonably frustrated by the union’s decison to not include “Approval of the Agenda” on the agenda for this year’s meeting. They are also keen to protest the absence of motions concerning fee-diversion submitted by UTSU board member and former EngSoc vice-president Pierre Harfouche.
There has been some suggestion that in order to protest the absence of agenda approval, students opposed to the union might vote down other motions. Such motions include one which will amend the union’s bylaws to comply with the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act — which, if it fails to pass, could lead to serious legal and financial ramifications for the UTSU. Student leaders who feel that they have a mandate from their divisions to pursue fee diversion are free to argue at the agm. However, a word of caution is warranted here: voting down the compliance motion would demonstrate a serious disregard for students in other divisions by imperiling the union’s ability to serve its members in all divisions, including those not pursing fee diversion.
This publication cannot prescribe the outcome of the summit; that is the responsibility of elected student leaders. There are, however, some areas that any solution must address. First, there must be an arrangement to share fees and responsibilities between the union and divisional societies. The university has rightly pointed out that there are many examples of federal funding and power-sharing arrangements that could be replicated. The university has also provided experts in the field to help craft a model that will both accommodate divisional interests and keep the benefits of a cohesive union. Second, the union must make changes to its governance and elections that will make the organization more responsive and accountable, as well as give students confidence that their union is fair, representative, and democratic.
The Student Societies Summit is an unprecedented opportunity to fix student governance at U of T and free our campus from the disputes that have poisoned student politics for far too long. Right now, this opportunity is being squandered by the lack of serious commitment from some student leaders; if the summit is to be more than a forum for institutionalized bickering, this must change.