The Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) took place on October 30. What was made clear to attendees was that, understandably, the UTSU is focused on the future — which means reigning in the Student Commons and the financial deficit stemming from it.
However, if the UTSU wants to maintain students’ trust, it must accept that the impassioned population that actually attends UTSU meetings may not entirely agree with campaign promises. This is especially the case when efforts to preserve financial security come at additional costs to students.
The UTSU finds itself scrambling to cut costs to salvage the Student Commons, a project it has referred to as a “dumpster fire.” There is no question that the Student Commons is putting the UTSU in a difficult financial position. At the same time, according to a blog post on the UTSU site, if the Student Commons continues to run a deficit four years after opening, U of T will reclaim management of the building and possibly force the UTSU to vacate it. The UTSU is not forever bound to maintaining this building — and it will inevitably run a deficit, regardless of the services and executive positions it cuts.
The UTSU’s attitude toward this project amplifies students’ frustrations with the project itself, given the financial sacrifices students are forced to make to construct and maintain a building that apparently no one wants. At the end of the day, it is student money that continues to go toward this project, and the UTSU’s apparent cynicism is discouraging.
Really, the union has an attitude problem. If it continues to position the Student Commons as a burden, then why should the student body be willing to support it, especially at a cost to student services? Let’s remember that the Student Commons is not just a “dumpster fire.” There are benefits to a new student space that the current UTSU team is not clearly explaining to students. It is important for students to understand why exactly it is necessary to make budgetary cuts to accommodate the Student Commons.
This is all the more important given the UTSU’s apparent failure to consult with its constituents, which was a source of criticism at the AGM. One proposal was raised to merge two executive positions, Vice-President University Affairs and VP External, into a VP Advocacy position — largely to cut costs. There was concern among those opposing the proposal that combining these two positions would sacrifice student services to finance the Student Commons, a project that the current UTSU does not even seem to support. The UTSU had no contingency plan should the VP Advocacy proposal be voted down, but given the opposition from students, this proposal should not have been the only option.
Additionally, despite the UTSU also being responsible for representing UTM students, only four UTM students were in attendance at the AGM. University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union President Salma Fakhry pointedly reminded UTSU executives of the exclusionary nature of scheduling proxy sign-up during UTM’s reading week. UTSU President Mathias Memmel, in turn, explained that the online sign-up process was specifically meant to improve accessibility for all students. Fakhry reminded Memmel of the UTM community’s preference for face-to-face interaction, which the UTSU did not seem to consider.
But it is too early to say whether the new UTSU purposely excludes dissenting groups or if it is just having a difficult time connecting with them. However, it is evident that important voices are not being heard.
It is unacceptable to blame a lack of UTM student turnout on the UTMSU’s failure to organize; the AGM was a UTSU event, and it was necessary for the UTSU to adequately promote it on both campuses. The UTSU encompasses UTM students — they must be afforded the same level of access to UTSU meetings as UTSG students.
While the financial toll of the Student Commons greatly affects students, the UTSU needs to do a better job of communicating why it is such a significant issue to both UTSG and UTM students. Otherwise, the project will continue to be perceived as a mistake that we are forced to pay for.
Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.