For decades, student politics and governance have served as a petri dish to develop future leaders. Apart from providing services and representation, the key purpose of student politics has been to facilitate a space to harvest the youthful enthusiasm that comes with forming and challenging world views at this stage in life.
Indeed, former Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Kim Campbell both cut their teeth in politics as university students. By and large, student leaders are generally held in high regard for their service. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), of course, is a wild exception to this rule.
At the Engineering Society’s (EngSoc) first Board of Directors meeting this fall — as the first-year students were debriefed about the history of the relationship between the EngSoc and the UTSU, as well as the proposed new board structure — I witnessed how it shaped their image of student politics. This was the story of individuals so blinded by the desire for power and influence at the lowest levels that they went to great lengths, using dishonesty and cronyism, along with ideas fundamentally lacking common sense and a disregard for students’ opinions, to preserve their control. In hindsight, this House of Cards–like story was probably a terrible introduction to inspire any kind of positive interest in student governance.
In the midst of all the back-and-forth and bickering in the past few years, student organizations across the board seem to have lost sight of the big picture. While dissenting opinions are healthy for any democratic organization, the rhetoric, the finger pointing, and the dramatic exits from forums only encourage apathy and cynicism among students. Thus, instead of being a petri dish to inspire future leaders and encourage debate, student governance at this university has become a loud and obnoxious caricature of some of the most condemnable aspects of politics in the real world.
But as the provost is due to present the administration’s response to the Student Societies Summit Report to the Governing Council and the UTSU faces what is sure to be another chaotic Annual General Meeting, we have an opportunity to buck this trend, stop the level of debate from going any lower, and reform governance at this university. The damage that the UTSU defederation controversy has caused to the quality of political debate on campus and the opportunity to push important initiatives like the Student Commons is profound.
It is time for the UTSU and its leaders to look at the big picture. At a university the size of ours, students easily become mere numbers for administration and student governance, and advocacy plays a vital role in protecting their interests. It is up to student leaders to act if we want to serve students or simply cease to be caricatures of petty politics. It is time for the UTSU to rise above the rhetoric, realize the extent of the damage it has caused, and do what is in the best interest of the 50,000 undergraduate students that it claims to represent.
Anamjit Singh Sivia is a representative on the Engineering Society’s Board of Directors, as well as on the Governing Council’s University Administration Board. He currently serves as president of Engineers Without Borders at the University of Toronto.