Staying peacefully ignorant of university affairs became increasingly difficult this winter, as Governing Council candidates’ ads popped up on my social media feeds at least five times a day. These friendly, professional ads piqued my interest, and so I became familiar with the candidates running for the vague position of representatives on ‘Governing Council.’ A quick Google search and a few casual conversations later, I realized that neither the internet nor my peers were able to tell me what role the Governing Council played in campus affairs and student life or how each candidate hoped to fulfill their positions.
Established by the University of Toronto Act of 1971, Governing Council has ultimate authority over the university’s operations. This body has the power to appoint the President, establish programs of study, and fix salary amounts for university staff, among other responsibilities. Eight students sit on this council of 50 for the purpose of overseeing “the academic, business and student affairs of the University,” meaning they are instrumental in managing and overseeing the university’s day-to-day and long-term decision-making.
This information about Governing Council, as it turns out, is readily available, but it is packaged in unfriendly PDFs and a web of hyperlinks. For the average student, it might be easier to shrug off Governing Council as another vague, bureaucratic body at the university. However, the decisions of the council should not be taken lightly. Featuring members appointed by the President and the Lieutenant Governor in Council, this body governs student and faculty affairs that can affect the university’s structure, including withdrawing the proposed mandatory leave of absence policy and potentially approving a new Bachelor of Information program.
The eight elected student representatives require the input, support, and criticism of their constituents to better provide the council with a meaningful student voice. While it is the responsibility of individual students to stay informed, it is likewise the responsibility of Governing Council to provide access to the students that it is governing, especially concerning policy deliberations and general meetings. It is especially important to highlight this need for transparency given Governing Council’s position within our university.
Despite its impressive role within our university, Governing Council does not effectively attract students through social media platforms that are frequently relied upon for scheduling and networking. Facebook event notifications have become instrumental in encouraging community engagement for many student groups and professional events. While opportunities to get involved might be there, they are hard to find, and they could be more welcoming. Though it is encouraging that reports and meeting minutes are made publicly available, these documents are not always the most engaging way to communicate important messages.
The pervasive reliance on social media platforms in the recent elections reveals that students prefer these more accessible mediums. It would be an asset to both the student body and the council itself to increase engagement through social media.
Student groups are becoming increasingly dependent on online sources to connect and attract members across a variety of platforms. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), for example, is highly active on social media, using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep its constituents aware of changes to its benefits, advocacy efforts, and community events. Regardless of your feelings towards the UTSU, it should be noted that it effectively uses social media to keep itself accountable to students in a direct and accessible way. This transparency is commendable and should be looked upon as a model for effectively informing constituents using contemporary technological methods.
Governing Council, a body that holds even more power over students — and certainly more authority over the university — ought to engage its students, faculty, and community in a similar manner. The benefits of doing so are numerous. Keeping up to date with Governing Council provides students with opportunities to become involved with subcommittees or to apply to be a co-opted member. The council meets fairly frequently and updates its online files every Friday. There are plenty of opportunities for students to get involved and most meetings are held in open session — the council just needs to make sure students know about them first.
Looking back at this year’s debate over the proposed mandatory leave of absence policy reveals just how important communication between the council and the student body can be. Intervention from the Ontario Human Rights Commission was necessary to solidify concerns already vocalized by organizations like the Arts and Science Students’ Union and the UTSU — both student groups that directly engage with constituents in person and on social media. In contrast, the majority of the university’s communications were in the form of formal announcements, speeches during Governing Council meetings, and interviews with news outlets like The Varsity. While the outpouring of criticism makes it evident that students do respond to these methods of communication, the painfully long process leading up to this decision brings into question why it took so long for the council and advisors to listen to the university community’s overwhelmingly negative response.
A board dedicated to the well-being of its students should be in tune with their needs. Opening up new lines of communication would better support Governing Council as a body willing to engage and construct policies that directly concern and support the needs of students.
Confidence in Governing Council’s ability to effect positive change to university affairs and student life is absolutely paramount to maintaining trust in the council and preserving relative stability in academic life. Rather than waiting until problems arise, it would be advantageous for Governing Council to take control of its public image by presenting information in a clear and direct way through its social media platforms, leaving no room for confusion or misinformation. In a time where it is quick and easy to disseminate information over online platforms, failing to do so in an active and explicit way is inexcusable, particularly for organizations that have a profound impact on university affairs.
Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Anthropology and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.