At first glance, the platforms of the two candidates seeking the presidency of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) appear shockingly similar.
Cameron Wathey, heading up the Change UofT slate, is advocating for more mental health services and against tuition increases. So is Brighter UofT’s leader Ben Coleman. On paper, the two candidates agree on practically all the major issues — both want to change the rules blocking international students from sitting on Governing Council, and both want to overhaul the deplorable way U of T handles sexual violence.
This is the third UTSU election where Wathey and Coleman have been major players. Both candidates have served in senior leadership positions for the past two years — Wathey as VP internal for two terms, and Coleman as Arts & Science director-at-large last year and Governing Council representative this year — so both have a track record that a curious journalist can check.
When running for the position of VP internal last year, Wathey said he wanted to get international students covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), cap international student fees, and improve the relationship between the UTSU and the colleges and professional faculties.
The rules on OHIP have not changed. International tuition will rise an average of 6.2 per cent next year, and the relationship between the UTSU and the colleges and professional faculties has notably soured over the past year — with a letter accusing the UTSU of widespread misconduct in May 2014 having changed very little about how the union interacts with student societies.
When Coleman ran for Governing Council last year he said he would seek to increase study space, lobby for improved mental health support on campus, and push U of T to reduce its $500 million deferred maintenance backlog. Every governor I’ve spoken to this year has said that Coleman was a vocal advocate for ensuring sufficient study space in the planned renovations of the UTM North Building, the Robarts Commons, and the Faculty of Architecture’s new building. Coleman has helped set up a number of consultations for students to provide feedback on U of T’s mental health policy directly to the administration. On February 12, he co-organized a forum called Better UofT, where students had the chance to offer feedback on U of T’s newly released mental health report. He’s had less luck with deferred maintenance, which has increased to $515 million this year.
To be fair to both candidates, the problems they sought to tackle were ambitious, and failing to deliver on your campaign promises doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to come through next time around.
What is telling is the way the two candidates explain their failures. At the all-candidates debate on Thursday, March 19, both were asked what they would do to get international students the right to run for Governing Council. Wathey described how he had met repeatedly with senior administration and asked them to do something. He expressed frustration that although senior administrators were supportive in the abstract, they never committed to actually doing anything. And then he said that if he were elected, he’d meet with senior admin some more.
Coleman said he would call for a vote by Governing Council on the issue — that’s a very basic answer, and it might not work. Then again, who knows? Wathey has never been able to get a vote so we don’t know where Governing Council stands.
Wathey has had two full years to work on this issue (it was part of his platform when he first ran for VP internal) and the fact that not only has he made no progress, but his plan is to do the exact same thing, is quite concerning.
When discussing his own failures, Coleman mentioned his promise to regularly update his blog with information about Governing Council, and acknowledged that he has only posted three times this year. He admitted that he has made mistakes, explained them, and then offered a concrete plan for why things would be different next year.
Contrast that with Wathey, who not only cannot account for his lack of success, seems convinced that doing the same thing would yield a different result. For example, he still wants to get international students covered under OHIP, and his plan is still to lobby the province.
Both candidates are making big promises this election cycle. Coleman has a track record of accomplishing things. Wathey has a track record of saying he’ll accomplish things. As you head to the polls Monday, keep that in mind.
Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year history student who contributes to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. He was The Varsity’s news editor last year. His column appears bi-weekly.