Underneath the headline stories that have affected University of Toronto students over the last few months, a quieter predicament has been underway: the wavering accountability and transparency of elected student societies on campus.
This academic year has seen several stories regarding the misconduct of various student politicians and officials, from financial mismanagement at the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit) and the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) to alleged Islamophobia in videos captured at a party with St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) officials present.
Student societies have a duty to work toward improving campus life for their constituents. In order to achieve this, they are granted significant responsibilities, not the least of which is the management of large sums of money — collected automatically from the students they represent.
In order to be accountable, societies must consider both their internal financial procedures and the way in which they disclose information to the wider student body.
Last July, the administration of St. Michael’s College launched an investigation into SMCSU’s internal practices. Then-president Zachary Nixon declined to speak to The Varsity at that time. SMSCU had previously had its levy fees withheld by the administration until it agreed to comply with transparency procedures.
This month, The Varsity reported on an incident of mismanagement pertaining to University College’s 2016 orientation week. UC Lit, of which UC Orientation is an ancillary service, discovered that a $7,200 invoice for breakfasts had not been paid and that cheques had been prematurely issued to the event’s co-chairs.
More recently, approximately $500 in ticket sales for a Victoria College semi-formal was reported missing from the VUSAC office, an incident that prompted VUSAC to reevaluate its cash handling security procedures.
The fact that instances of financial mismanagement seem to be common within student societies is concerning in and of itself. It is also important to consider whether issues within these societies — financial in nature and otherwise — are resolved in a transparent manner.
Constituents have the right to be informed of matters that relate to the societies that are meant to represent them and that use their levy funds; it is unfortunate that this has not happened in some respects.
The SMCSU Snapchat scandal that took place in December — concerning videos deemed to be Islamophobic and involving both former and then-current council members — is one such example. Even before the videos emerged, the union, as well as the college administration, had advance knowledge that they existed.
The allegations were serious enough to result in the resignation of several members of the SMCSU executive, yet they were not disclosed to the public prior to the leak. The more transparent course of action would have been to disclose the existence of the videos and immediately apologize. This may have even led to a productive, forward-looking conversation, rather than the abrupt prorogation of SMCSU activities and resignations that occurred.
Evidence of misconduct will only provide justification for the university to encroach on the autonomy of student organizations. This should be a particular concern for SMCSU, because St Michael’s College president David Mulroney has publicly criticized the union’s “poorly accounted for” finances and announced his intent to restructure its relationship with the college.
Many student society representatives would agree that interference from the administration should remain a last resort and that student societies should be primarily accountable to those who elected them rather than the administration.
Student societies must treat their financial dealings with gravity, especially when it comes to the training and qualifications of the individuals elected or appointed to deal with funds. Scrutiny should be directed towards hiring processes for financial chairs, in addition to processes that allow anyone to handle student funds, be it in the form of ticket sales or levied fees.
Yet regulation of financial dealings is about more than simply the existence of bylaws and governing policies: it is about ensuring that rules are followed and that there are adequate measures in place to remedy transgressions. When mistakes do happen, student organizations must make it a priority to consider not only how they will be dealt with, but also how the information will be transmitted to the students at large.
When it comes to financial mismanagement especially, the solution to wrongdoing should never be to avoid its disclosure entirely. While it may or may not be true that the cover up is worse than the crime, the cover up is certainly never better.
As opposed to attempting to avoid questioning, student organizations must take advantage of media that allows them to communicate to their constituents. If the true concern of these organizations’ officials is to protect their own reputations from scrutiny at the expense of transparency, then this is a larger problem.
Students have a reasonable expectation that those elected to serve on various student societies will take their positions seriously. In turn, officials owe it to their fellow students to take the initiative in getting ahead of the news — and not avoiding it once it has been broken.