Ben Coleman is running for president of the UTSU with the Brighter UofT slate. After spending the past year representing Arts & Science students on the Governing Council, Ben Coleman has his eye out for the Presidency of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). The fourth—year student from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology hopes to lead the UTSU with “realistic and strategic” policies.
Coleman sat down with The Varsity, fresh from the candidates’ forum on Thursday, to discuss polity, policy and politics.
The Varsity: The price of a university education keeps increasing. How can the UTSU work towards keeping this price affordable for students?
Ben Coleman: There are specific things that we’re worried about. The classic example: if you’re a law student and you end up with $100,000 of debt when you leave, if you’re lucky enough to find a job that’s paid, say you were going to choose between working for a legal aid society and working for a corporate law firm, if you have a $100,000 of debt, you may just go work for the corporate law firm…
I think it’s bad for society if people… say ‘Oh, well you know they can make more money so we might as well charge them for more tuition’, and end up driving people out of non-profit work and work that helps society at large.
There’s this justification that you can make a lot of money, in certain fields, after you graduate, therefore the debt is reasonable. But you really have to think about it and see whether it’s good for society…
If two [students] who are equally talented go into university, they both get the same degree, same marks, you want them to have an equal chance at life. And if one of them happens to be from a poorer family and they have debt, then it makes it harder for them to accumulate wealth. They may have to delay having children, buying a house… So we really should be cautious about justifying tuition as an investment, because the high debt perpetuates inequality.
…We need to twist the government’s arm instead of trying to persuade them to give more funding. No government in poor financial shape wants to be throwing money around. Telling the stories better, about why it’s bad for our society to have students with large debts, that’s not something that gets out.
TV: How do you plan to continue the consultation process on the restructuring of the Board of Directors?
BC: We have to engage with all the college and faculty student governments, engage with clubs. [Gomes] and [Petra] had that open meeting and I think we just need to have more of those… We want to encourage as many people who care about this to help, because honestly, once you get into the weeds of these issues, it’s very tricky.
…Ryan’s proposal is essentially a compromise. I’m quite excited for a UTSU that has equity even more structurally built into it. Culturally it’s been built into it for the last while, which is very good. But structurally built in I think is good progress.
I don’t consider myself qualified to lead the process of figuring out who those identity-based reps should be. That needs to be [Khan] or somebody else who really knows what they’re doing. Because that’s such a crucial process… and we need to get it right. There were some concerns about tokenization or forced outing if you have these positions… I don’t think I’m qualified to solve that problem and make that a really good proposal. For the identity-based directors specifically, not for the whole thing. I know some policy.
TV: Should the UTSU take a stand on political matters outside the purview of students or the university?
BC: Four years ago, I used to think like ‘Oh, the UTSU shouldn’t be political’. And I think if there’s anything I’ve learnt from the current executives that I would say has been quite valuable, sometimes the line between what is political and what would be apolitical is either not there or very complicated.
… I’m ok with the UTSU taking political stances in that I’m ok with students who are activists being supported by the UTSU. Let’s be optimistic, say we have 15 per cent voter turn out, and then [the UTSU] says we are now the moral authority on all issues and tries to do activism in that way, I think that’s where the lack of credibility comes in and that’s why [some] people get upset. I mean, there are some people who do legitimately believe that it be limited but I would disagree with them…
For some controversial issues that our team wanted to address, our approach has been: give the space for our members to educate other members and do it in a way so everyone has a say because I think people can participate in that a lot more rather than hoping that we represent everyone.
TV: Back in October 2014, the provostial advisory committee on student mental health published recommendations to improve mental health. They are now working on the implementation of the recommendations. What role should the UTSU play in this process?
BC: I’ve been to a meeting where I’ve seen an admin go from ‘You don’t need to tell us about these problems ‘cause we already know they exist,’ then hearing a bunch of students speak about CAPS, and [saying] ‘Oh, you know what? On second thought, we didn’t realise how bad this was.’ So… if we create safe spaces, sometimes we get the feedback that makes admin change their minds. Effectively, being able to listen to students, and as [Vere-Marie Khan] was saying, getting that from students in a safe space and taking that to admin in a way they understand…
We can encourage the admin to be brave. …Every university in Ontario is struggling with adequately providing services with mental health, and the fact that there were no CAPS wait times in the report says to me that the admin hasn’t mustered up the bravery to really look at what’s wrong…
The University of Ottawa did a very self-critical report and they found they hadn’t even set up a sexual assault office and they got good press because they were honest with themselves and they really looked at what’s wrong. So I would encourage [the admin] to be brave, they’ll do a lot better being brave and being honest…
TV: Why do you want to be the UTSU president?
BC: It’s very fulfilling to do this… When you do something, even the tiniest little change is so satisfying, because you know there are students out there that [change] might’ve helped…
As student leaders we always want to make space for those people who previously had to suffer in silence… and have their voices heard…
There are some really excellent people on this team. I’m so excited to win and work with these people. It’s going to be so much fun and it’s going to be so gratifying because they’re all so great and they all care.
I want to give students a choice… You can’t have half-assed opposition, we need to present an actual choice to students. Do you want these qualified student leaders or these qualified student leaders, pick between them. The best thing for the race is if people go… ‘let’s increase the standards of what we expect from student leaders, let’s expect that both candidates are always going to be really good people.’ So I’m really excited to offer students a choice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction (March 23, 2015, 9:18 am): A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Coleman as an incumbent candidate. In fact, he is a candidate with the opposition slate. The Varsity regrets the error.