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Summit recommendations fail to reflect diversity, autonomy of student societies

Op-ed: A letter from U of T’s Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) on their concerns with the recommendations of the student societies summit
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From transition headaches to laying plans for orientation, spring is a busy time for student representatives at U of T. This year’s debates about recommendations proposed by faculty members involved in the Student Societies Summit have made this traditional period intensely busy.

As many who have followed The Varsity’s coverage know, the summit was initiated by the provost’s office after a dispute between various college and faculty divisions and the UTSU [University of Toronto Students’ Union] over the collection of fees and electoral policies. The aim, as we understood it at the time, was to bring a resolution to the conflict by making appropriate policy recommendations to the university’s Governing Council. Convened in October, these meetings unfolded over the course of the semester with ASSU at the table.

Having participated in the process, we are immensely disappointed with the proposed recommendations.

The recommendations look to do a few things, but primarily they seek to delegate the power of choosing a CRO [chief returning officer] to the university and create a Student Societies Appeals Board that would serve as a final court of appeals on matters pertaining to student societies. These recommendations are troubling, not only for the risk they pose to student society autonomy, but also due to their questionable feasibility.

Our open letter to the provost, Cheryl Regehr, outlines in detail the concerns that we have with the implementation of these recommendations, but our executive would also like to explain our motivations for releasing this letter.

Regardless of whether the concerns that have been raised about the UTSU are valid or not, the recommendations of the Student Societies Summit go beyond regulating that union’s behaviour. Rather than strengthening student societies’ mandate of open, accessible, and democratic governance, new bodies have been proposed which will diminish the autonomy of organizations that have been operating without intense controversy or questions of democratic legitimacy. Why should organizations like ASSU lose some of their agency and independence, simply because some students have become disenchanted with the established processes for change within the UTSU?

The political environment on campus is highly charged and intensely polarized, and it’s not always easy to carve out a reasonable, middle position — but this is what the ASSU executive committee has tried to do with our letter.

It is very easy to see these recommendations as presenting some strong vehicles for change within the UTSU, but we urge other societies to consider the implications for their own organizations and their sister organizations. These recommendations will have an adverse impact on all student societies, so we urge everybody to carefully analyze these proposals. The prevailing attitude cannot be one of “approve it now, settle on the details later.” This method of approaching changes to policy does not make much sense, whether it is in the context of a university, or the government.

Student societies at U of T, much like the students that attend the university, are diverse — in mandate, practices, and bylaws. Any policy that may come about must respect this diversity and the autonomy of student organizations, which these recommendations do not. ASSU believes that any change to policies governing student societies must begin with consultations of all students, including part-time and graduate students and students at the Scarborough campus, whose voices were ignored during the summit process.

The ASSU executive is willing to work with the administration and students to move forward on this issue — however, we cannot accept these recommendations as they stand. As we have seen, students do not prematurely accept bylaw changes that haven’t been thoroughly investigated by their councils; likewise, we believe that students should not accept these recommendations without due scrutiny and consideration.

Abdullah Shihipar and Dylan Chauvin-Smith are the president and treasurer of the University of Toronto’s Arts and Science Student Union.