SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

At the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) Executive Committee election for the 2018–2019 academic year, Internal Commissioner-elect Lynne Alexandrova expressed that her priority was “building together a top-level policy-guided and funding guaranteed mutually supportive tri-campus community.”

This commitment, in line with the UTGSU’s broader mandate to “advocate for increased graduate student representation and act as a voice for students,” has been unsuccessful. Made conspicuous at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) last month, the UTGSU is an increasingly unaccountable and inefficient organization.

A culture of insiders

For several years, the UTGSU has been under the control of a small circle of stubborn insiders. While not illegitimate, their democratic mandate is shaky. During the 2018 Executive Committee election, only two out of six positions were contested and several incumbents remained in their positions. This shows an unengaged and apathetic electorate.

As I have discussed before, lack of participation is a problem that faces all student governments. However, unlike the UTGSU, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, for all of its shortcomings, can at least conduct competitive elections, and has executive turnovers and productive meetings.

Alexandrova was removed from her position in late November by the UTGSU General Council after her office was vacated. Although her statements should be taken with a grain of salt, Alexandrova suggested that her removal corresponded with a culture that, as a Varsity article notes, “supported returning executives without room for outside or ‘different’ perspectives.”

Regardless of the substance of these allegations, this demonstrates an executive that, although not necessarily self-serving, avoids internal criticism and new ways of thinking. The problem, however, is that these governance principles are clearly broken. The lack of student involvement enables an environment that allows the executive to get away with not being entirely accountable, despite not being secretive. This has produced a broken and poorly managed organization, expressed most starkly through its financial situation.

Financial mismanagement

The issue does not stem from debt or threat of bankruptcy, but a failure to provide a draft report of financial statements to its members in time for the AGM. This led to a failure to pass the statements, leaving the union at risk of financial default. Although it is not entirely clear why or how this could have occurred, the situation reflects a sense of tiredness within the organization, such that it cannot provide robust and efficient internal functionality. Avoiding financial default should be one of the top priorities for any representative organization.

In addition to mismanagement, the UTGSU appears to lack democratic transparency and legitimacy. Members were unable to see, evaluate, and express their viewpoints on how their association spends their money.

The AGM subsequently lost any sense of productivity. It was reduced to logistics and, as a result, many of the attendees gave up, expressing a profound level of frustration. The meeting lost quorum and was adjourned with very little having been done and the organization’s future in question.

Lack of external accountability

The adjourned AGM gave way to the General Council meeting. The organization has also seemingly hid from external transparency there: the presence of the student press at both the AGM and the General Council proved contentious. Reporters from The Varsity, who were there to cover the meetings, were barred from taking photos or live-tweeting the event. Under the direction of editors, the reporters live-tweeted anyway. When discovered, The Varsity’s reporters were asked to leave, meaning that the outcomes of the General Council meeting, including the future of the organization, are left unclear to the public.

In some cases, sensitive information can justify confidentiality, which could have informed the union’s decision on this matter. However, this cannot be said for the AGM. The AGM acts primarily as the way in which the executive maintains a link of accountability to the people it represents, who themselves can communicate their will for the organization’s decisions.

The media, while not necessarily a ‘member’ in the strict sense, plays a crucial part in this process. The unconditional reporting of the student press is an established custom of student union meetings, and disregard for it suggests that there is something to hide from the public, especially when put in connection with other issues of accountability at the union.

The need for new faces

For any representative institution, accountability is necessary to perform the function it has been tasked to do, otherwise, it will fail as an organization. The UTGSU has fallen into this trap and risks failing the students it ought to represent.

Together, an insider culture, an uncertain financial situation, and a strained relationship with student journalists point to a systematically unaccountable and broken dynamic — one that the current leadership does not seem willing to change.

The UTGSU needs a much more engaged electorate and democratic governing culture, which can be brought first and foremost through new faces in its leadership. This can be supplemented by regular and competitive elections to avoid another broken culture.

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

Editor’s Note (January 14, 5:00 pm): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alexandrova was removed from office at the UTGSU AGM; in fact, her office was vacated on November 26 by the General Council. A previous version of this article also stated that the union has not posted documents from its December meeting — this is because those documents must be ratified at the General Council meeting later this month.

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