Is the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) worth saving? I asked myself that question last week after students voted overwhelmingly against the creation of a new UTSU fee. To be clear, I don’t blame students for how they voted, and I’m not here to justify or explain away the referendum. In fact, it was, in many ways, my project, and I accept responsibility for its failure.

To be blunt, the UTSU is rotten and was mismanaged for years. None of the problems that have come to light in the last 18 months are new; they’ve just been deliberately concealed, even from the Board of Directors. For instance, last year, when I was on the board, we learned that the Health and Dental Plan — arguably the only UTSU service that matters to most students — had lost $1.6 million in a six year period. No one had even notified the board, let alone the organization’s members. The UTSU is often accused of being out of touch with students’ needs, and in many ways, it is.

When an organization like the UTSU runs into trouble, it has two options. The first option is to hide what’s going on and become progressively more authoritarian. This is what the UTSU did for more than a decade. The second option is to throw open the doors and let the members see the corruption. This is what needs to happen now, and why I’m being so blunt about the Student Commons project.

What the referendum taught me is that students don’t yet trust the UTSU with their money, and I don’t blame them. They haven’t been persuaded that the organization has changed, and it’s absolutely true that it hasn’t changed enough. We assumed that we could earn the trust of students by quietly reforming the UTSU. It’s now clear that we were wrong about that, and that a more radical, democratic restructuring is required. We can’t ask for more money even for clubs that need it until we’ve proven that we aren’t misspending the money that we currently have.

[pullquote-default]The UTSU is worth saving — but only if it’s saved for everyone.[/pullquote-default]

The UTSU could also learn to take itself somewhat more seriously. While advocacy on behalf of students is of fundamental and non-negotiable importance, it’s the height of arrogance to carry on like a foreign ministry while struggling to do anything useful. Empty words persuade no one; self-congratulatory statements are no substitute for effective action.

What gives me hope is the existence of students’ unions that are well run and, moreover, not so widely disliked. One good example is the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo. Another is the Alma Mater Society at the University of British Columbia. We need to look at what these unions and others are doing differently and learn from them.

The more important point is that student government is, in principle, a good thing. Like it or not, the UTSU is the student government that we have. People can do a lot of good when they govern themselves together — even as students, even at U of T.

I asked to write this piece because students are rightly angry at the UTSU, and I want them to know that they’ve been heard. We’re going to respond to this defeat by accelerating the process of reform. If you don’t like the UTSU, tell us. If we’re making a mess of something, let us know. The UTSU is worth saving — but only if it’s saved for everyone. A UTSU that exists only for the benefit of a small clique of student politicians isn’t worth anyone’s time.

Mathias Memmel is a third-year student at University College studying Computer Science and Political Science. He is the UTSU’s Vice-President Internal and Services.