On Monday March 13, The Varsity hosted a presidential debate featuring presidential candidates for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) election.
The debate was moderated by The Varsity’s Editor-in-Chief Alex McKeen and News Editor Tom Yun, and featured Mathias Memmel of Demand Better, Andre Fast of We the Students, and John Sweeney of Whomst’d’ve UofT, and Micah Ryu, who announced at the debate that he was no longer affiliated with Reboot UofT.
Although The Varsity reached out to independent presidential candidate Joshua Hands inviting him to the debate, he did not attend.
Advocacy, Equity, and Free Speech
The presidential candidates were asked questions about what role the UTSU would play in the areas of advocating initiatives, ensuring equity, and promoting free speech. Each candidate agreed that the UTSU should be active in these areas, but differed either in the methods or priorities in dealing with the topics.
Memmel insisted that the UTSU should work on the “broad level issues” which are often “policy-related issues”, such as tuition. He also stated that the UTSU should deal with issues “that have to do with supporting and representing marginalized students on campus.”
In regards to free speech, Memmel said that the UTSU should not provide “a platform” for “bigoted ideas to be elevated.” He believes that some groups on campus have “now become magnets for hate speech” and that “they have nothing to do with free speech at all.”
Sweeney believed in a more input-based approach. Sweeney asserted that, if elected, he would “collect input” from students to learn “what they want and how they want us to carry out these advocacy efforts.”
When asked about the topic of free speech, Sweeney answered by saying “I agree that free speech is very important especially on university and that people should be willing to hear opinions that they don’t necessarily want to hear. But that being said, it is not acceptable to be in any way threatening or abusive towards any other groups of students.”
Fast specifically advocated for ensuring help and equality for marginalized students.
“The type of work that we feel that the union should be working on is the type of work that would support those students on campus that are most marginalized; that’s the big theme of our campaign,” said Fast.
Arguing for a different approach, Ryu stated that clubs, and not the UTSU, should handle issues regarding advocacy, equity, and free speech. Ryu stated that “the UTSU should step back from these issues and empower smaller groups to advocate for themselves through club’s funding”.
Management within the UTSU
A question that was submitted by email asked the candidates how they would intend to operate with less staff, a platform point for both Memmel and Ryu.
Memmel answered by saying that his experience at the UTSU has taught him that not all of the positions are “necessary and that we can still provide the same quality of service in a more resourceful and more efficient way”.
Memmel noted that the UTSU spends “almost 50 per cent of its budget on HR” which makes it difficult to “do anything else that’s meaningful.” The actual amount that the UTSU spends on human resources is closer to 40 per cent.
Ryu expressed skepticism over some of the current full-time positions, saying, “the question sort of falls apart on itself when you look at some of the positions that currently exist.”
Sweeney’s answer to the question was based off his experiences with the Engineering Society at U of T. He suggested that, like the Engineering Society, the UTSU “could utilize more volunteer work” in order to reduce costs and “increase the efficiency of the services” that the UTSU provides.
In contrast to the other candidates, Fast’s response was more supportive of the current jobs in the UTSU. He said that “it’s really important that we have people [at the UTSU] who do know how these services work and are able to implement them.”
Fast also stated that he believes in “the value of student jobs.” He continued by saying that “it’s really important that students are able to find employment in our student union to help pay for the costs of tuition and rent.”
A question submitted online by a student from the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus (UTM) sparked some heated discussion during the forum. The question referred to UTM students often feeling alienated from the UTSU elections.
“Frankly, UTM students should fuck off,” said Ryu in response to the question. “They have their own student union, they don’t belong in the UTSU. We’re two different campuses with two totally different campus cultures and it’s really a shame that the two organizations are linked together at all.”
Fast immediately repudiated Ryu’s statements: “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s acceptable that someone can sit up here and tell a huge part of our membership — and I think that it’s important that, as the moderators of this debate, you don’t allow this platform to be used to tell something like a quarter of our membership and disrespect them in that way.”
With regards to UTM, Sweeney said that his slate would pursue a process for UTM to leave the UTSU if UTM students agree.
Memmel stated that he had reached out to UTMSU vice-president Internal Jackie Zhao — who is currently running for vice-president Internal with We The Students U of T — twice this past year and both times “was met with hostility.” He followed-up saying the UTSU needs to “reevaluate how we’re supporting students at UTM.”
Future Relationship with Administration
The Varsity asked the presidential candidates about the balance between student union autonomy and administration-led accountability measures. This issue comes as the passing of the Policy on Open, Accessible, and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations last summer, which gave more oversight to administration. In addition, a new policy at St. Michael’s College now has an academic advisor — who is a member of the administration — designated to each of its three student organizations.
Sweeney answered the question first, highlighting Whomst’d’ve’s view on the matter. He said, “Long story short, we’re committed to a decentralized approach to letting smaller groups take governance of themselves.”
Fast argued for student-union independence saying that “there’s a lot of cases, as a student union, where what’s best for students isn’t necessarily being represented by the admin.” Fast mentioned U of T’s investment in fossil fuel companies and U of T funds contributing to the United States prison system.
Memmel stated that he was in support of the Policy on Open, Accessible, and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations. He added that autonomy in student organizations is “in principle, a core function of any student group.” However, Memmel added that administration should have the power to “withhold fees free these organizations when corruption is internalized…”
Ryu argued that the UTSU is not effective in influencing the administration because the “admin doesn’t see the UTSU as a proper representative of the student body any more than the students themselves do.”
Voting is open until March 16 at utsu.simplyvoting.com.