For most students, summer represents a welcome breath of fresh air from the demands of the school year. However, for the students at the head of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), summer is a period of transition. In the coming months, seemingly countless meetings will be held and priorities will be set. Each new executive team and board of directors face different challenges and will promote different agendas for the coming year.
The UTSU represents the pressing interests of thousands of students on campus — and the beginning of the new board’s business is a perfect time to reflect on last year’s record. Below is an evaluation of UTSU’s performance in three main areas during 2015–2016: equity, accountability and transparency, and services and efficiency. In honour of the union’s favourite AGM snack, grades have been provided in samosas, rendering this analysis delicious as it is relevant.
This past International Women’s Day, the UTSU, in collaboration with other student organizations, organized a screening of the film The Hunting Ground, followed by a panel discussion on sexual violence on campus. Though this is a worthy cause, the choice of film is puzzling, given that The Hunting Ground has been widely criticized for its prioritization of advocacy over accuracy. Emily Yoffe of Slate has written a comprehensive refutation of the film’s narrative, including how it painted various university administrations as completely indifferent to allegations of sexual assault. Yoffe’s piece was later cited in an open letter written by a group of 19 Harvard Law School professors, in defence of student Brandon Winston, who was labelled a perpetrator of sexual violence by the film. The professors believe Winston was “subjected to a long, harmful ordeal for no good reason.”
It goes without saying that sexual violence remains an issue on university and college campuses. Though our student unions should continue to advocate on behalf of this issue, meaningful advocacy must be based on veracity; otherwise, the union may face charges of propagandizing.
Unfortunately, this event was merely symptomatic of a broader problem with equity initiatives championed by the UTSU. The final executive report of this year’s team reveals a variety of equity initiatives that have been largely inconsequential. These initiatives include a two-hour vigil and a night of performances titled Fuck Your Bigotry. Should equity campaigns not be comprised of more meaningful events than a handful of isolated incidents that boil down to some candles and spoken word poems?
Another event mentioned in the executive report was a screening of the movie Roadmap to Apartheid, which was in collaboration with Students Against Israeli Apartheid. The narrator of this film, Alice Walker, has previously praised the work of David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who spent two decades promoting the idea that the world is controlled by giant lizard aliens. Icke, a noted fan of the classic anti-Semitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, frequently rails about “Rothschild Zionists” and their clan of “satanic black magicians.” Former vice president, equity Sania Khan reported that as a result of the screening, “momentum has grown” for the BDS movement on campus.
An equity initiative cannot be haphazardly organized, nor can it be comprised of a singular event that is meant to tackle a larger issue of a problematic ‘-ism’ on campus. Events that are meant to raise awareness of discrimination should not include covers for disregard of due process or anti-Semitic conspiracies.
Grade: 2/5 samosas
Accountability and transparency
In the past, I have written about my desire to see UTSU make a commitment to defederate from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). In 2015, they paid the CFS $769,218, which came directly from student fees. I would welcome an explanation of how students benefit from this arrangement.
I will not attempt to delve into the CFS’ sundry crimes, but it was disappointing to see a lack of commitment to defederate from the slates during election season. The section of the final executive report dealing with the CFS is three sentences long and states: “There was a lot of engagement with the CFS and in future, we will continue to work with, and examine, the relationship the UTSU has with the CFS.” As The Varsity’s editorial board stated shortly after elections, “This bankruptcy of substance is a disappointing turn of events for the UTSU after a year that was shepherded in with high hopes.”
It is true that entanglement with the CFS is tricky — it has a history of bankrupting student unions that attempt to extricate themselves. The recent report released by last year’s board of directors demonstrates an official recognition by the union of the CFS’s malignancy, but it remains unclear how union members can continue this process. Students deserve more than lukewarm promises of examination and engagement — we want to know what can be done.
Grade: 3.5/5 samosas
Services and efficiency
Last year’s administration’s area of strength may well have been its provision of student services, as well as the progress made on already-existing projects. The recent announcement that construction on the much-anticipated Student Commons will begin this fall is welcome news — especially considering that the vote to collect student fees for this project took place in 2007.
The union’s health care plan has also thankfully been revamped, after the revelation of how previous administrations’ neglect led to losses of $1.6 million. Going forward, the plan will also include partial subsidy of psychological services.
This realistic initiative is a far cry from this past year’s ridiculous campaign promises — such as lobbying the provincial government to provide international students with coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) — and is the right direction for the union. UTSU’s recognition of how the University of Toronto is not obligated to provide psychological care to its tens of thousands of students is important. It acknowledges how responsibility must be divided amongst student organizations.
Grade: 4/5 samosas
Just the right amount of spice.
Grade: 5/5 samosas
Reut Cohen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying international relations.