Mathias Memmel is the President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), a student society that represents 50,000 students and whose total assets tend to hover roughly around $7 million each year. Having previously served as the President of the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association and Vice-President Internal at the UTSU, Memmel is no stranger to student politics. The Varsity spoke to him about the job so far and the year ahead.
The Varsity: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Mathias Memmel: So, both my parents immigrated to Canada: my dad when he was a kid, my mother as an adult. I have parents who definitely supported me a lot. My time was very music focused. My high school had about 500 kids, and those are students who were bussed in from a geographical area of about half an hour in all directions, so not a large place. Rural southwestern Ontario. Near Goderich, north of London, which is a fantastic place to grow up.
Then I applied to university. I could not actually figure out what I was going to do so I applied for commerce here, political science at a bunch of places, also music schools — and then I got into U of T with a pretty generous scholarship. So my parents were like, ‘Oh yeah you should go to music school,’ which is the opposite thing of what every parent ever says, so that was fantastic.
The Faculty of Music was very small. My program was the voice performance stream. I actually missed doing math. So I started taking computer science classes as my electives, but I could never get enough priority in my enrollment category to actually progress and take upper year computer science classes. I eventually started another degree in computer science and political science and pursued them simultaneously, so I’ve since graduated from music and I still have like seven credits left for the other degree.
TV: When did you start at the UTSU?
MM: 2015. It was my third year. I was president that year at the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association. That year was the last year where the [CFS-backed slate] won at the UTSU. That year there was an attempt to do a restructuring of the board, which would’ve essentially eliminated the principle of proportional representation at the board level. The only reason why I picked up on it was because the UTSU at the time had said that they’d consulted the Faculty of Music undergrads about it and so that’s when I lost my temper. So, that’s why I got involved.
I came to the [Annual General Meeting]. I got up there and probably yelled, and probably looked ridiculous, and that was my first encounter with the UTSU. Then at that point I had decided I was running for the UTSU Director seat at Music. I wound up running on the Brighter slate.
TV: What did you do after that? How did you end up being President?
MM: I ran [for election]; I was actually uncontested, so I didn’t actually have to run in the election because no one at the Faculty of Music had interest in the UTSU, [at least] at the time. I was on the board for a year. Then I ran for VP Internal. I came onto the Hello slate. I was involved in the planning early on.
It was a very frustrating election in terms of the team dynamic, and that spilled over into the year, but I think we learned a lot about how to organize ourselves. It was a year where there was no agreement on core principles amongst the executives about how we would come to decisions. I had really no intention of running again. I basically fought the whole thing until about November.
TV: What changed your mind?
MM: Daman, [the current VP Internal], spent a lot of time convincing me. I think that’s what actually did it in the end. In part, it was the Student Commons, because that project is so indicative of people not making decisions for principled reasons. The idea of starting to build a student centre without having gone to survey the members to see if it’s something they actually want. It’s offensive that someone would conceive of a project like that at the time. I felt like I potentially had the skills and the energy to fix that building and that project and that’s what got me around.
TV: What are your top three priorities for this year?
MM: I think on a very high level, we have to fix the Commons project. We’ve got an operating business plan that is nearing completion. We’re going to do some student engagement. We started out last year but the piece that we’re missing right now is, what do students actually want from a student centre?
After fixing the Commons comes a 10 year strategy. So, we have to look at what the UTSU is on a 10-year timeline. What do our levy increases look like? Where are the points where potentially new services can be introduced?
We’re starting a service called the Help Desk, and the idea is that it acts like a U of T concierge. [If] you don’t know where to go, you talk to the help desk. It’s online, it’s got a chat function, it intersects with the social media, and there’s a physical version here. It’s basically a customer management system and I think the outcome is going to be really positive.
TV: Regarding the Student Commons, what do you believe are its main problems?
MM: The biggest problem with the Student Commons agreement is that essentially we’re billed for the utility cost, and we’re also billed for additional rent. If it had been me doing the negotiations, I would’ve wanted rent and utility costs to be covered by the capital cost levy as opposed to the operating cost levy.
TV: How are you planning on funding it?
MM: There’s quite a significant shortfall. We’re going to be pulling some money from the operating budget and the UTSU profit. We do need funding relief from the university itself. We’ve redesigned some of the plans to have greater rental [value] to external partners. We’re also looking at the university providing tutorial spaces and class spaces or potentially even having a university office or department within the building.
MM: Strictly as fiduciaries, our responsibility is to seek legal opinions when we don’t have enough information to guide our course of action and so, with our current [attorney] who is very good, I certainly didn’t feel — and the board obviously didn’t feel — that there was a lack of information that would require an additional legal perspective in order for them to make a decision about the case.
TV: Why did the motion to seek a second legal opinion pass initially?
MM: I think essentially members of the board were uninformed about the case, and rightfully so, because they had just become directors that day and weren’t given the opportunity to hear from the legal councils.
TV: Were they pressured by the Black Liberation Collective?
MM: I think that’s how the members of the board felt.
TV: In your opinion, what mistakes did the 2014–15 executives do that led to the Hudson lawsuit?
MM: We talked a lot about this in the campaign, about the importance of the student union being actually run by students, and that presents itself. The decision-making power, the authority, and the ability to become informed must rely on students, and I think that the thing with the 2014–15 executives was that at the time, the UTSU was really not run by the executives. The UTSU in its current state is very much run by the executives. I’m not saying that there aren’t avoidable mistakes that come with that, but I think that fundamentally the UTSU is no longer treated as anyone’s pet project who’s not a student. If you’re not in a position to question people who are older than you and have been around the institution for longer, and [if] the culture in which you can do that isn’t there, then that’s when mistakes like this happen because you’re disempowered.
TV: What do you think of the CFS?
MM: It’s terrible. It’s an organization that has no interest in partnerships or present policy alternatives, and all they want to do is stand outside of buildings and scream through megaphones without any dialogue or conversation. That’s been our experience with them. We know that they have interfered with the UTSU election; we have proof of it, and so, the sooner we can get out of there, the better.
TV: What steps have you taken toward discontinuing the UTSU’s membership?
TV: Is Daman Singh’s prior affiliation to YouDecide a conflict of interest at all?
MM: No, not in my opinion. I mean Daman was heavily involved with the campaign last year when he was a member and a non-executive, but he didn’t benefit financially from YouDecide, so there’s no conflict of interest.
MM: The Board approved a reduction in services based on a recommendation that the executives put forward related to the Student Commons and the UTSU’s financial position more broadly.
TV: How are you planning to replace the services provided by Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator who were laid off?
MM: The services aren’t going to be replaced. Students had five options before to contact someone about the health and dental plan. We have an online chat service, we have a call center, there’s an email service, they can stop by the front desk here, and then they could also email email@example.com. We just eliminated the firstname.lastname@example.org. So, there’s five ways people could previously interact with the plan and now there are four. Instead of contacting the VP Campus Life or the Coordinator, they can just contact the VP Campus Life now.
TV: What was the most enjoyable course you’ve taken at U of T?
MM: I took a course with Victor Falkenheim. It’s POL215, Politics and Transformations of the Asia-Pacific. He’s one of those professors who are so old school, but at the same time he’s so adoring of the fact that he’s teaching. I think that in the context of it being such a small lecture, I really enjoyed that course.
TV: What would you say to someone who wants to run for President of the UTSU?
MM: The one thing that I would like people running for UTSU to know is that, while it looks like you’re doing advocacy work all the time, the idea that everything you do is student-facing is a myth. The distance between the perception of what this is and what it actually is [is] quite far. Most of this is managerial, so if you’re going to run, or when people are voting, they should vote for someone who has managerial experience.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.