As a PhD student at the university, I’ve sometimes felt a disconnect between The Varsity and the graduate student body. Recently, other graduate students have noted this disconnect as well, commenting on stories that either miss opportunities to engage with graduate students or expose a limited understanding of the graduate experience.
Last week, The Varsity ran an article entitled “Scientific research’s race problem” that argued against the use of race — commonly recognized to be a social construct — as a control in genetic studies. A U of T graduate and now PhD student studying population genetics at Indiana University commented underneath the story on social media, pointing out that although race is understood to be a social construct, it is often correlated with geographic location and controlled for in his discipline as an available proxy for population stratification.
The issue is a reasonable one to disagree on, but it was the PhD student’s closing comment that stood out to me. In it, he wrote, “Despite being squarely in the realm of human population genetics, this article doesn’t cite a single paper or interview a single researcher from that field.”
It’s a good point. As the university’s campus newspaper, The Varsity is uniquely situated vis-à-vis the campus’ academic communities. It is surrounded by the expertise of the university’s scholars and graduate student scholars-in-training. It has little excuse for not incorporating this knowledge into its coverage.
In other instances, The Varsity’s coverage of campus has suggested it doesn’t quite have a feel for the issues that matter to graduate students. In a recent example, the paper covered the university’s announcement that international PhD students would no longer pay higher tuition than domestic students. Yet the piece quotes at length a master’s student not covered by the change. No PhD student affected by the change was interviewed.
A second example involved a January comment piece arguing that the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) should be playing a larger role in addressing sexual assault of graduate students by academic advisers. The column was not a problem from the perspective of journalistic ethics — it was a comment piece, and the author can express the view she wants to, so long as it is based in a reasonable interpretation of fact.
My question is whether commentary on the issue would have been the same if The Varsity had a larger graduate student presence. I do not speak on behalf of the graduate student body, but my own conversations with colleagues tell me that this perspective might not fit with how graduate students experience and engage with campus. The UTGSU exists to advocate on behalf of graduate students as students. Many graduate students also interact with academic advisers as employees, or education workers, of the university, and they are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902 in this capacity. In response to the comment piece, the UTGSU itself argued that it simply does not have the resources to remedy the university’s shortcomings in handling sexual violence.
It is arguably unfair to have too high expectations of The Varsity’s coverage of graduate student life. The newspaper’s per-student levy has only ever been paid by undergraduate students. Consequently, only undergraduates sit on The Varsity’s masthead, its main decision-making body.
But The Varsity is the university’s largest student newspaper. Though an undergraduate paper, it is often the best — and sometimes only — source of campus goings-on for both graduate and undergraduate students. Its mandate — to keep readers informed on campus affairs — is essentially unfulfillable without coverage that impacts both groups.
Last week, graduate students voted in favour of establishing a $0.80 levy for full-time graduates. The results were close and turnout was low, but the referendum’s success means that for the first time, graduate students can have a spot on the newspaper’s masthead and can sit on its board as elected directors. It remains to be seen is if this change will help narrow the disconnect between The Varsity and the graduate student body.