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UTSU AGM 2018: Doing better, but must improve participation

The UTSU is correct on finance, slates, and the UTMSU split, but student involvement remains an obstacle

UTSU AGM 2018: Doing better, but must improve participation

Reflecting on this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), it is clear that the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is, for the most part, moving in a good direction.

In her address, President Anne Boucher accurately said that the organization is no longer “putting out fires.” This is to say the organization has now put itself in a position in which it has solved its previous systemic problems and can now move forward for the better.

The positives: finance, slates, and the UTMSU split  

The first, and most significant, indicator of this is the finances. Through several administrations, the UTSU had been taken down an unsustainable path of debt. While this could have arguably been for good causes, it was irresponsible from a management point of view. You cannot spend money you don’t have.

The executive made the tough but necessary choice of implementing several layoffs and budget cuts, and rightly so. The UTSU now has a surplus of more than $492,000. Not only can the organization reduce its debt, but it can now invest in several worthwhile projects responsibly. This is consistent with the surpluses the organization has run since 2017.

The decision to eliminate UTSU election slates was also a good move, as it facilitates a greater sense of openness. Slates created a sense of exclusivity, even if the grouping wasn’t bad in itself. It could certainly be argued that slates help to organize elections and make sense of the various options available much like parties do for provincial and federal governments.

However, I do not think that UTSU elections are complicated enough to necessitate this. If anything, this creates an intimidating race for potential independent candidates, sending an unintentional message that they are not legitimate. This is despite the fact that independent candidates, including the current president, who won the race for Vice President, External as an independent in 2017, have been successful in the past.

Finally, the decision to formally separate UTMSU from the UTSU was simply the most pragmatic choice. UTM has unique and specific concerns that the UTSU, a primarily UTSG-oriented organization, does not quite understand. It is therefore best that, instead of trying to implement these concerns within a broader organization, there are two separate jurisdictions. Any issues that overlap between the two campuses can be worked out between the two and do not require any overseeing body.

The problem: student participation

However, at this year’s AGM, the elephant in the room was precisely who wasn’t there. With less than 50 students in attendance by the end, the meeting’s final portion could not even meet quorum. It was only through a loophole in the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act that it could proceed at all. The fact that student involvement is significantly lacking is a cause for concern.

I am not blaming the current administration for this problem. Part of this stems from the activities of former executives, who cemented in the minds of many students a negative view of the organization that is no longer in touch with reality. However, it is also possible that this problem is inherent for organizations of this kind.

Regardless, we can certainly do better than struggling with maintaining just 50 AGM attendees, or a 25 per cent turnout in UTSU elections — which itself was inflated due to interest in the controversial U-Pass referendum.

When an important decision that impacts all students is made, all students should naturally be involved in the determination of that decision. Yet consider the controversial AGM decision to allow members to vote on procedural and operational policies. This generated substantial discussion, amendment, and passed with less than 50 students.

Previously, such policies were viewed as under the domain of the UTSU executives, who made decisions on behalf of the students. Now, there is a sense of direct democracy: students are given more power at the expense of executive authority. This change is potentially drastic and too democratic.

Opponents especially pointed to its reflection of majoritarian rule: UTSU meetings may simply become a contest for who can bring out the most people and proxies to enact wrongheaded decisions, potentially with the wrong intentions. That such an important decision passed without even the quorum of 50 students raises serious questions about student governance.

An equally controversial AGM decision was that which officially condemned the Government of Ontario mandate that, in order to maintain funding, all universities must develop free speech policies, with the compliance of student governments. At the AGM, the policy was referred to as an “Orwellian” move that attacks the “time-honoured tradition of civil disobedience on campus.” According to Jeremy Swinarton, a member of Socialist Fightback, this deliberately targets left-wing activists.

This decision is important because it strikes at the heart of a conversation we have been having on campus for several years, particularly revolving around buzzwords like ‘free speech’ and ‘safe spaces.’ The province’s policy, however, arguably attempts to solve the legitimate concern that some students, through silencing tactics, are bringing their own form of censorship on campus. Had there been more students in attendance, the government’s viewpoint would have been better represented in the discussion.

In sum, the controversy and importance surrounding both of these decisions surely necessitated a broader campus-wide conversation. A 50-person quorum at what is meant to be a forum for all students is not representative.

Earning legitimacy

This leads to the biggest problem facing the UTSU: student apathy. A demonstration of this was the Campus Conservatives’ unhelpful approach to the AGM’s response to the free speech mandate. Rather than contribute to the discussion and have their legitimate concerns heard, they declared the UTSU’s actions irrelevant.

There are voices on campus that go unheard. Worse, many have done this to themselves by not engaging with the UTSU, and letting other groups — those who actually show up — have greater influence.

How, then, can we get students interested and involved? The first answer is to change impressions. Several scandals in the past — such as the Sandra Hudson lawsuit and a general lack of financial management — have made it seem to students that the UTSU is a corrupt, self-interested institution. Dissatisfaction was so high at one point that a few colleges even considered “defederating” from the USTU.

It is also important to acknowledge that students are busy people. Coursework, extracurriculars, and jobs are time consuming — and so it is understandable why they should put student government at such a low priority. Apathy may therefore be a natural, systemic part of student life.

However, the UTSU can address apathy and negative perceptions by making itself a more self-evidently good institution. Real actions that improve the experiences of students can slowly change perceptions. The creation of the Student Commons, for instance, is a step in this direction.

Equally importantly, as the AGM demonstrates, the UTSU must find strategies toward increasing student representation and participation. This way, the UTSU can not only move forward in the right direction, as it currently is, but earn legitimacy in doing so.  

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

UTSU AGM 2018: Who isn’t in the room, and why aren’t they here?

Executive’s “insider” comment at the AGM exposes a larger U of T clique culture

UTSU AGM 2018: Who isn’t in the room, and why aren’t they here?

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) went by seemingly unnoticed by the larger student population, but amid debates over policies and bylaws, one comment from an executive stood out to me.

During the debate over a motion that allows members to vote on policy changes at AGMs, Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm said, “All these people here are insiders, every single one of us… We don’t speak for the normal person. The normal person doesn’t care about the UTSU.”

It was a pivotal moment in the debate and in the night as a whole. The discomfort from Biswurm’s statement was evident in the room. Members included in their contributions to the debate that they did not feel like that the “insider” label represented them or others attending the AGM.

I reached out to Biswurm to give him the opportunity to provide context to his statement, and he informed me that while he “spoke out in frustration,” he stands by the comment. He wrote in his email that the AGM looked like “an auditorium packed to the brim with ‘insiders’—Executives, Board Directors, Board Directors’ friends, Board Directors’ friends’ friends, members of the press, and hawks from the old guard.”

He argued that the “AGM is supposed to be a night where everyone is equal and the weak can speak in strength. Time and again, however—and this year’s was no different—the AGM is an arena for the powerful to hijack its credibility with voting blocs backed by arsenals of proxy votes.”

“On the evening of October 30th, 2018, special interests won out over the interests of the average student,” Biswurm continued. “A room of 40 insiders decided, in a moment of disgraceful conceit, that they could choose for everyone else.”

Those in attendance clearly disagreed with Biswurm’s characterization. From my perspective, Biswurm’s remark was cynical and alienating, and didn’t get to the heart of the UTSU’s engagement problem. But his comment at the AGM carries some truth that, while uncomfortable, is worth examining.

As a second year with little knowledge of the UTSU, I certainly did not feel like an insider. I’d like to think of myself as the counterexample to Biswurm’s statement: I am a ‘normal’ student who still cares about student governance, which is why I attended the AGM.

But the truth is, my understanding of student governance at U of T is shaped by my friendships within it, the position I hold on my college’s student association, and my involvement with The Varsity. Denying the powers and privileges I hold in these circles does nothing to tackle exclusionary cultures that prevent others from participating.

The dichotomy of ‘insiders’ and ‘normal’ people is not unique to the UTSU. It exists in many spheres of student life, from clubs to college student associations to dining hall cliques. Although many student groups have mandates of accessibility and inclusion, their internal cultures do not always reflect this.

If we want inclusion to be more than a platitude, we need to get back to what it really means: making people feel welcome as they are. It means something as simple as taking the time to explain things you may take for granted: how procedures work, what commonly used acronyms stand for, and what different terms mean within your group. It also means, at times, valuing curiosity and criticism over experience, and accepting that leadership positions shouldn’t always go to the longest serving members.

A good start toward meaningful inclusion can usually be boiled down to asking yourself two questions: who isn’t in the room, and why aren’t they here? The answers to these questions often require practical solutions, such as providing American Sign Language interpretation, choosing an accessible location, and providing food.

But looking at barriers to student involvement should also give us pause to examine things as intricate as tone, demeanor, and atmosphere. A group that ‘ticks’ every box when it comes to physical accessibility could still be exclusionary if members are hostile, condescending, or intimidating.

Ultimately, the claim that ‘normal’ people don’t care about the UTSU shouldn’t be the end of a debate, but the start of a dialogue. If we want an inclusive campus, we should start by making our own circles more open. While it may be uncomfortable to be labelled an ‘insider,’ it feels much worse to be an outsider so let’s make sure no student feels that way.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.