Four months after the release of the Student Societies Summit report, student groups continue to seek clarification on the report’s eight recommendations.
Over the summer, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) hosted a series of post- summit review meetings with student leaders from all three campuses, independent of university administration. Eight divisions were present at the most recent meeting hosted by SCSU, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS). Representatives from the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit), the Medical Student Society (MSS), and Students of Sociology UTSC were also in attendance.
Thus far, SCSU has hosted four meetings to discuss the final report of the Student Societies Summit, the structure of a new suite of summit sessions with increased participation from student groups, and proposals for changes to the layout of the UTSU.
Last year, university administration organized the Student Societies Summit, a series of meetings aimed at fostering conversation between different campus organizations and the university, after nearly a decade of disputes with various student societies and the UTSU. A number of long-standing issues, including fee diversion and the autonomy of student societies, were brought to the table.
Summer summit responses
Kriya Siewattan, president of the APUS, praised the SCSU-led summer meetings for including a variety of campus groups.
According to Siewattan, university administration has not attempted to consult APUS regarding the summit recommendations. “This lack of consultation emphasizes the need for the societies to work together to flesh out how to operate in an ‘open, democratic and accessible’ manner that is relevant to each society,” said Siewattan. APUS previously expressed its discontent with administrative interference in a letter that threatened legal action against the university.
Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), said that the meetings have been a positive step in reducing some of the longstanding distrust between student societies. He added that the ASSU has found itself acting as a mediator at post-summit meetings.
Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations, confirmed that the office of the vice-president and provost is analyzing the Student Societies Summit report and will provide a formal administrative response to Governing Council in the fall. All submissions and feedback received by the office will be considered in the response.
According to Blackburn-Evans, the administrative response to the report will emphasize the importance of democratic principles and good governance, and may recommend possible policy development to enshrine such principles. She added that any policy development will also require broad consultation before being brought forward to Governing Council for consideration.
The Student Societies Summit
Twenty student societies participated in the summit, which began on October 7, 2013. The summit took place after various divisions, including the Engineering Society (EngSoc), the Trinity College Meeting (TCM), and VUSAC passed referenda in favour of fee diversion in March 2013. The UTSU has yet to recognize the legitimacy of these referenda.
Many divisional leaders were pleased with the opportunity to consult each other in the company of the administration. “I am relieved that university administration has taken steps to recognize [that] transparency must be the top priority of any student organization collecting mandatory fees from its student members,” said Teresa Nguyen, EngSoc president.
However, not all were satisfied with the talks under the purview of the administration. Representatives from the UTSU and ASSU expressed concern that university administration, and not student participants, decided the agenda items and directed the discussions.
In February 2014, two months before the conclusion of the summit, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) left the talks, citing allegations of racism and poor treatment by other student leaders as a factor in their decision. The UTSU also withdrew from the summit less than a month later, a controversial move that members of the union’s Board of Directors and many divisions opposed. Despite the withdrawals, the summit continued.
“It was disappointing to see both the UTSU and the UTMSU walk out given how important their organizations are to the process,” said Rowan DeBues, VUSAC president.
“We think the Summit became limited in its ability to be effective and productive when the UTSU removed themselves from the table,” said Connor Anear, Tina Saban, and Kaleem Hawa, student leaders at Trinity College, in a joint statement.
“Walking away was done in bad faith and was highly counterproductive,” they added.
“Open, accessible, democratic, accountable”
Among the recommendations in the report are that the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) should be independent and certified by the university. Controversies arose during the most recent UTSU election that highlighted long-standing problems with UTSU’s electoral procedures, with the union admitting that its bylaws were broken, and raised questions about the rulings and affiliations of the CRO.
The report also proposes the establishment of a university-wide Student Society Appeals Board which, if created, would serve as a court for all complaints about the conduct of student societies, including elections complaints, which the Trinity College leaders support.
The report includes a clause stipulating that the Appeals Board should have the power to issue binding directives to student societies, in compliance with the “Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees”. Under the policy, only the provost has the power to withhold fees from student societies that do not operate in an “open, accessible, and democratic” fashion. Regehr has previously threatened to withold UTSU’s fees, a possibility that has divided opinions.
“We do not see the threat of withheld fees as a particularly controversial consequence,” said the Trinity College leaders, pointing to the consistent expressions of dissatisfaction with the UTSU’s elections and governance.
According to a report from the SCSU-hosted talks, dated July 30, 2014, there was an agreement that the terms “open, accessible, democratic,” and “accountable,” were too vague and required definition. The societies present supported the creation of a student society code of conduct. This code of conduct, if implemented, would enforce transparency, mandating the availability of any documentation that implicates students, including bylaws, policies, and minutes. Under the code, students’ rights to contribute to this documentation would be emphasized.
Bollo-Kamara remarked that the question of how societies can best represent their constituents can be answered through conversations about fee diversion, defederation, and board restructuring proposals — all concerned with shaping student societies into effective avenues for meeting student needs. While Bollo-Kamara considers more meetings and further conversation to be the next steps in answering these questions, many other student society leaders are uninterested in continuing with the status quo.
EngSoc and Trinity College remain skeptical of further negotiations. “Personally, I am not quite sure if there is any more meaningful discussion to be had,” said Ryan Gomes, vice president, academic, of the EngSoc, adding: “College-UTSU relations are at an all time low, and while I will continue to work towards repairing them, I am not optimistic.”
“At this point, it seems rather unlikely that there could be productive discourse between the colleges and the UTSU,” said the Trinity College leaders, adding: “The message they have sent is that if you disagree with them, they do not want to hear from you.”
Officers of the St. George Round Table, the meeting of elected student council presidents and heads of colleges and faculties at UTSG, will meet with provost Regehr later this month, where the report is likely to be addressed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) was not invited to participate in the summit. In fact, the ASSU was invited to participate in the summit.