Student organizations must be open, accessible, democratic

New policy provides avenue for accountability of student groups on fundamental values
Attendees leave the meeting amongst protests from students. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY
Attendees leave the meeting amongst protests from students. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

On June 23, 2016, Governing Council passed the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations. The Varsity has published numerous stories about the formation of the policy and the 2013-2014 Student Societies Summit that precipitated it. The Varsity is also a student society that is subject to the policy’s provisions.

The policy has two primary aims: to clarify and qualify the existing requirement that student organizations behave in an “open, accessible and democratic” manner (which can be invoked by the vice president & provost under the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees to withhold levies collected on behalf of student societies) and to set the parameters for the creation of a University Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS). The policy also affirms the university’s commitment to the autonomy of student organizations.

It is right that the university, following consultation with student groups, has implemented a clear avenue of recourse for students to utilize, should the standards of openness, accessibility, and democracy be violated by student groups. Regardless of whether disputes pertaining to these standards could be addressed in the legal system, it is fitting for the university to take responsibility for enforcing these matters when it comes to groups that represent and consist of its students and bear its name.

Equally, it is right that this policy is limited. No new power is granted to the vice president & provost under this policy, who will continue to have the authority to withhold fees for violations of the standards of openness, accessibility, and democracy. The CRCSS will consist of four students out of five members and will be tasked with recommending solutions to grievances directed at student groups that involve a violation of the standards or of the student group’s own constitution.

The establishment of this council means that oversight of student societies will rest primarily with students and not the administration. Use of the CRCSS for mediation will be limited to cases in which student societies’ own avenues of conflict resolution have been exhausted — this is also appropriate.

Further, it is imperative that this policy does not compromise the autonomy of student groups. As the largest student newspaper at the University of Toronto, The Varsity could not operate without autonomy from the administration; it is key to our mandate to report fairly on the university, which requires editorial independence.

With this policy, the university does not impose upon the autonomy of student groups, as every student group already has the responsibility to operate in an open, accessible, and democratic manner, and in accordance with its own constitution. This policy provides a clear avenue for students to hold organizations to these fundamental standards. At the same time, all lawful decisions by student groups that do not pertain to these standards, or to their constitutions, must remain separate from intervention by the university.

In consideration of this policy, it is important to remember its roots. The Student Societies Summit was launched by the administration following disputes about the legitimacy of referenda held by some divisional societies attempting to defederate from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) — the societies had alleged that the union was behaving undemocratically.

When grievances such as these arise, they should be taken seriously by student groups and addressed internally. In situations where this does not occur, the Policy on Open, Accessible, and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations provides a procedure for student groups to be held accountable to these fundamental standards.

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