The Student Commons is opening next year. If you don’t know what that means, you’re not alone — and even if you are not aware of what the Student Commons is, you’re paying for it.
Ten years ago, in the fall of 2007, students voted to let the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) build a student centre. They even voted to pay for it themselves, by way of a new UTSU fee that has now grown to $10.24 per semester. At the time, students were promised a 600-seat auditorium, three restaurants, and office space for campus groups. The building would be in a central location on Devonshire Place, and it would be under the complete control of students — or, rather, of the UTSU. Most of those goals were never realistic.
The university ultimately gave the Devonshire plot to the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, and the Student Commons was forced to relocate to College Street. The original business plan was discarded and never replaced, and work on the project continued without regard for the financial sustainability of the UTSU. Nonetheless, in April of 2015, the UTSU went ahead and signed a binding agreement with the university, outlining the operational arrangements between the university and the UTSU, operating costs, financial controls, and a management structure. At that point, the project could no longer be stopped.
In June 2016, we calculated the cost of operating the Student Commons for the first time. In the process, we discovered that the Student Commons levy wouldn’t even come close to keeping the building, and ultimately the UTSU itself, afloat. If nothing were done, we were facing a deficit of approximately $500,000 in 2018–2019 and a carried-forward deficit of $3.8 million by the 2027 academic year. Bankruptcy became a real possibility.
So, where are we now?
We’ve spent the last 18 months coming up with a plan to save both the Student Commons and the UTSU, and we’re doing well. If it had been possible to cancel the project, we would have, but the UTSU is contractually obligated to press on — for better or for worse. The people who decided to spend millions of dollars on the mere idea of a student centre have long since left the UTSU. Still, there’s no turning back.
On a day-to-day basis, the Student Commons project doesn’t excite me; it frustrates me. We shouldn’t be in this situation. When the student union at the University of British Columbia decided to build a new student centre, they provided detailed plans before they asked students to commit. The UTSU did no such thing. Needless to say, students aren’t getting what they voted for in 2007.
However, while the Student Commons really does threaten the existence of the UTSU, it’s also a great opportunity. Students voted for a student centre, and the fact that they’re getting one is a good thing. Even if the building that’s opening next fall isn’t the building that was promised, it can still make campus better. There’s a need for accessible, 24-hour space for clubs and students, and the Student Commons will provide that. It will also create more space for clubs and other campus groups. There won’t be a 600-seat auditorium, and it will take the better part of a year to get the building up and running, but the end result will still be a student centre where St. George students can innovate and conduct research, study and learn, attend and organize events, and access student-facing services. Everything else aside, that’s a big deal.
The next step is to show students the mysterious ‘plan’ that we’ve been working on since last summer. That will happen early in 2018. Then, we’ll start rolling out the new programming, and it will finally be safe to get excited about the project again. There really is light at the end of this very long tunnel — the age of the dumpster fire is over.
Mathias Memmel is a student at University College studying Computer Science and Political Science. He is the President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.