Students at St. Michael’s College (SMC) have been through their fair share of political turmoil in the past few years. A recently concluded financial investigation into the operations of the St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) revealed evidence of kickbacks, poor record-keeping, and unidentified expenditures and cash deposits. In December 2016, Snapchat videos depicting then-current and former members of SMCSU joking about Islam were leaked onto social media. Disagreements over the appropriate role of Catholicism at SMC have created hostility and mistrust between students, staff, and SMC President David Mulroney.
In light of everything that has happened, the elections for this year’s SMCSU representatives are currently taking place under the watchful eye of the SMC administration. We acknowledge that changes to SMCSU’s operations are necessary in light of past events, but the administration is treading a path to ‘reform’ that is deeply undemocratic — and its constituents will ultimately suffer the consequences.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that the SMC administration is slowly but surely assuming control of student government at the college. After SMCSU prorogued its activities late last year, the administration appointed a ‘re-imagining committee’ of six students to establish guidelines for SMCSU’s new directions. According to committee member Haseeb Hassaan, many of the suggestions made by these students, including the proposition to add a Vice-President Equity to the SMCSU executive, were not taken into account by the administration.
In exchange, the new Student Society Leadership Policy drafted by the committee now requires leaders to “accept their ethical obligation to act in accordance to USMC’s mission as a Catholic university.” All SMCSU expenses that exceed $500 will have to be co-signed by the SMC Administrative Advisor, who will also attend all scheduled meetings as an ex-officio member once the student union begins its term.
The administration’s attempts to ‘reform’ the college have been underway for some time. Mulroney has made his disapproval of SMCSU and SMC student culture clear throughout his tenure, and he has repeatedly expressed a desire to reconnect the college with its Catholic roots. After Mulroney condemned the financial mismanagement of SMCSU’s frequent club nights last fall, SMCSU opted for a trip to a pumpkin patch while other student societies hosted successful Halloween parties.
One of the most important functions of democratic student government is to meet students’ needs in ways that a university administration cannot. This sentiment is codified in the “Aims and Purposes” section of the most up-to-date and publicly available version of SMCSU’s constitution, which states “the Union shall effectively represent the interests of its members” at the college and within the U of T community. Hired by the university, and often insulated from the more minute realities of student life, university administrations are not always in the best position to gauge what students want, or they may be more concerned with other priorities. In step student representatives as liaisons and lobbyists.
In order for relationships between student governments and administrations to be truly successful, both parties must maintain independence and mutual respect. Student representatives cannot be dissolved into figureheads.
Of course, student societies should be subject to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power. Provisions within student society constitutions exist for this very purpose. Additionally, external mechanisms such as the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations, approved by Governing Council in June 2016, demonstrate that accountability mechanisms can be implemented while making efforts to respect the autonomy of student organizations. SMCSU and all other student societies should undoubtedly remain accountable to their constituents, but maneuvering on the part of the administration is not the way to achieve this goal.
In an editorial last year, we expressed concern that Mulroney’s attitude toward students at the college was infantilizing, and we continue to stand by that position. The actions of a few grossly reckless individuals are not representative of the vast majority of students and student leaders at SMC, who are capable of making responsible decisions — suggesting that the administration needs to babysit all SMC students is insulting.
In July, an open letter from SMC faculty and staff condemned Mulroney for criticizing SMC at the SIGNIS World Conference. Signatories expressed that Mulroney’s remarks about SMC students — which included concerns about objectification of women, excessive drinking, and a dearth of Catholic values — were disappointing and did not reflect the behaviour of all students at the college.
As conflicts persist and changes unfold, it is crucial that SMC students retain their right to freely select their own leaders. It is a mistake to assume that a heavier hand on the part of the administration will necessarily improve life at the college. Though issues of financial responsibility may be more effectively policed, if students are not respected, other problems may arise in their place. Not the least of these is the lingering resentment that undoubtedly comes from being treated like toddlers.
Also concerning is the quest to expand Catholic influence at SMC, which could have a marginalizing impact on students of other faiths. Keep in mind that many, if not most, SMC students are not Catholic, yet Hassaan was the only Muslim and non-Catholic member of the re-imagining committee. In a prior interview with The Varsity, Hassaan expressed concern that the administration was using him as a “showpiece,” and that he was selected for the committee due to the Snapchat incident that targeted his religion.
The issues that plagued the ‘old’ SMCSU were in serious need of redress, and it is understandable that the administration seeks to avoid future disasters. That does not, however, make it appropriate for university officials to set up shop in student government offices. And to non-SMC students who question the relevancy of these events to their own colleges and faculties, think of the precedent being set. Many student societies have had long and thorny relationships with administrations, which at times have led to struggles for independence. If it can happen to SMCSU, it can happen to you.
We’ll be following the SMCSU elections closely to see how the union will navigate its role within these newfound constraints. In the name of democracy and student autonomy, we suggest you do the same.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the administration’s Director of Student Life planned SMC’s orientation and that the orientation lip-sync contest was supervised to ensure the songs were appropriate. The article has been updated to reflect that neither of these instances occurred.