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Candidate Profile: Kim Borden Penney

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Kim Borden Penney

Kim Borden Penney is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is running for Finance Commissioner.

Penney is running because she believes that her 20 years of experience in the financial sector and six years in student governance will enable her to help the UTGSU continue serving its students.

With regard to expected funding cuts stemming from the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), she believes that her background will help her guide advocacy efforts and strategies “to combat some of those cuts.”

Penney has been involved with the Social Justice Education department since 2013, and she has also worked with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education to improve retention issues and support strategies concerning racialized students.

Speaking on her financial background, she referred to her experience as a senior vice-president at a major bank, followed by about 10 years as Chief Financial Officer before her return to academia. Penney declined to name what bank she worked for, as she does not believe it is relevant to her work in student issues.

As Finance Commissioner, Penney would prioritize funding available for student bursaries, conference funding, and financial resources for conducting research. Her goals are to better financially support graduate students throughout their degrees, especially if students face issues finding funding.

Penney also believes that it’s important for the UTGSU to better communicate what financial resources it offers students, referring to her personal experiences having to “navigate the [financial] system alone without very much information about where to even start.”

Her priorities would also include mobilizing students to increase pressure on the provincial government in response to likely funding cuts.

Immediately following the announcement of the SCI by the provincial government, Penney said she was “disappointed” about what she perceived as students’ perceived lack of “mobility or pushback” to the policy. 

To work around the cuts, Penney would draw from her past experience in investment banking to “look at alternative ways of leveraging certain things that we have here with the university.” Specifically, she would lobby the university, student government, community partners, and other stakeholders at U of T.

Candidate Profile: Branden Rizzuto

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Branden Rizzuto

Branden Rizzuto is a fourth-year Archaeology PhD student running for Finance Commissioner.

Rizzuto is seeking re-election to help guide the union’s response to funding cuts that may occur under the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

He also aims to re-evaluate how course unions and graduate student groups are financed in the face of funding difficulties due to inflation and to increase awareness about services offered by the UTGSU among students.

He referred to his record as a UTGSU executive, having served as Academics & Funding Commissioner and Executive-at-Large before his current role as Finance Commissioner, as qualifications for his re-election.

Reflecting on his initiatives this year, Rizzuto believes that he has been “very successful” in revising and overhauling the UTGSU’s financial structures and transparency measures. Specifically, he guided the redesign of the finance section of the union’s website and public posting of UTGSU finance documents.

Rizzuto also highlighted that he supervised revisions of the union’s finance-related bylaws to “increase the efficiency and transparency of the union’s financial operations.”

Faced with possible budget cuts from the SCI, Rizzuto aims to “mitigate any revenue loss scenarios which threaten the health of the union’s services to members.”

He said that he has “formulated more than a dozen contingency plans to address any potential revenue loss scenarios.” Rizzuto also emphasized his belief that any financial restructuring measures would need be done in consultation with the UTGSU’s stakeholders.

Should severe funding cuts occur, Rizzuto said that the UTGSU has “three major options.” These are to “increase the administration fee as part of [its] health and dental insurance plan,” “increase the UTGSU fee itself,” or enact “budget cuts.” However, Rizzuto said that the UTGSU is in a “strong financial position to mitigate any revenue loss scenarios” as it can “tighten many different budget lines.”

Should budget cuts be necessary, he would prioritize grants offered to “our course unions and our caucuses, to our standing committees, as well as UTGSU member groups who put on events on campus that benefit the graduate experience.”

At the same time, he also acknowledges the need to maintain the “internal operating costs” that enable the UTGSU to do “advocacy work for finances, for academics, as well as general outreach in the health and dental insurance planning.”

Candidate Profile: Julie Marocha

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Julie Marocha

Julie Marocha is a fifth-year Molecular Genetics PhD student running for Finance Commissioner.

She is the President of the Toastmasters International Toronto Engineering Club of Speakers and previously served as the club’s Vice-President Membership and Events and Budget Coordinator. Marocha has been a U of T student for more than eight years.

Marocha is running because she wants “to bring positive change to the lives of students.”

Her priorities include maintaining and possibly increasing financial resources for students, such as scholarships. As Finance Commissioner, she plans to fund this by developing “ties with alumni” for donations and sponsorships, and by asking them to support specific causes such as mental health services.

Faced with possible budget cuts stemming from the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), she hopes to avoid compromising services and benefits received by UTGSU members, including scholarships and conference bursaries. She also plans to prioritize funding for UTGSU committees, as well as the UTGSU itself.

Should severe cuts occur, she plans to reduce unnecessary spending, such as expenses for food and drinks for executives. She would then approach the union’s finances based on “percentages, rather than absolute numbers.” For example, said Marocha, if 10 per cent of graduate students receive grants or scholarships from the UTGSU, but a certain number of students opt out of the levy, she may make budget plans in such a way that the same percentage of remaining UTGSU members still receive funding.

She also intends to launch a university-wide survey to better determine budgeting priorities. As a last resort, said Marocha, she would consider increasing the levy.

Marocha also has plans to collect university-wide data on the financial circumstances of graduate students should she be elected. The survey would advocate for “affordable education under the Ford cuts,” and Marocha hopes to spread awareness about the “foreseeable impacts on cuts to OSAP and education funding.”

She plans to ensure that the surveys have high response rates by running social media campaigns, asking graduate student associations of each department to contact their constituents, and possibly adding incentives such as prizes, if funding is available. She also believes that the relevance of the government cuts “to many, if not all of us” will also help garner high response rates.

Candidate Profile: Jarir Machmine

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2

Candidate Profile: Jarir Machmine

Jarir Machmine is a graduate student in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is running for Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 and 2.

Machmine said that his candidacy is motivated by a frustration with the lack of communication and clarity when seeking help from various offices. In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he hopes to rectify this through the position of Academics & Funding Commissioner by communicating with students.

On what he would improve in the UTGSU, Machmine said that he wants to ensure that executives are not only following regulations, but also taking student well-being into consideration, going on to say that some people follow regulations “blindly.”

However, he also emphasized that the current UTGSU executives are maintaining a good relationship with students.

Despite not having been involved with the UTGSU previously, Machmine highlights his multicultural background and open mindset as qualifications for the position.

When asked why he chose to run for the position, Machmine said that he did not see the appeal of working off-campus, and that he is more interested in advocating on academic issues.

Candidate Profile: Norin Taj

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2

Candidate Profile: Norin Taj

Norin Taj is a PhD candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education running for Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2. She has served as Vice-Chair on the UTGSU Equity and Advocacy Committee for three years.

Taj is running because she sees navigating university procedures as daunting, especially for international students. She hopes to keep graduate students updated on funding opportunities, as well as maintain open communication with students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds.

Taj particularly wants to see the UTGSU executive prioritize inclusivity, and wrote in a statement to The Varsity that the current executives are working well toward that goal.

She added that as a mother of two, she hopes to advocate for students with families as well.

“I plan to… initiate conversations with graduate students and to channel student voices concerning funding, health care, degree requirements, supervision, and employment opportunities, among other administrative/policy matters,” wrote Taj.

In addition, Taj strives for equity in her work, seeking to address concerns of all graduate students — part-time, full-time, international, and domestic — with the same level of commitment.

Candidate Profile: Sophie McGibbon-Gardner

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 3 & 4

Candidate Profile: Sophie McGibbon-Gardner

Sophie McGibbon-Gardner is a PhD student in physics seeking re-election as the Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 3 and 4.

Her main goals if elected are to develop tools for lobbying, increase student engagement, and identify systemic issues facing UTGSU members.

“I think that the level of engagement of the [UTGSU] for many reasons is pretty low. There’s not a lot of listening to each other on both sides,” said McGibbon-Gardner. “We can only continue to ask graduate students to come and engage with us so much. We have to switch it up. You have to start going to them.”

McGibbon-Gardner added that she wants to identify systemic issues and fix them before they happen. “If there are funding issues or toxic supervisory relationships that are occurring in a certain area or across the board across the University of Toronto, it would be better to identify structurally what’s going on there, why is this occurring repeatedly, and how can we address the root cause of that issue as opposed to continuously trying to help and deal with it after the fact. How do we stop these issues from happening in the first place?”

When asked why she is running for re-election, McGibbon-Gardner pointed to how she believes it is a “fairly universal feeling among graduate students to feel frustrated with not having access to the funding and academic resources,” adding that she feels less frustrated when she can work to help other graduate students in this situation.

“I feel very strongly that having a cohesive voice for graduate students is important and I want to be involved in that again.”

Candidate Profile: Maryssa Barras

External Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Maryssa Barras

Maryssa Barras is a master’s student in archaeology running for External Commissioner.

Barras is also the incumbent UTGSU Executive-at-Large and recently took on the duties of Internal Commissioner late last year after the office was vacated by the General Council.

Much of Barras’ platform for External Commissioner centres around forging relationships between student levy groups amid the Ford government’s sweeping changes to postsecondary education funding.

“I think that currently, given the political climate and what’s going on with the student services, the main campaign that I would be pushing forward would be to reverse or stop the Ford cuts,” said Barras. She also wants to advocate for mental health initiatives by addressing factors that affect students’ mental health, such as finances.

On the topic of tuition reduction, Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) cuts, and levy opt-outs, Barras said that such changes ultimately disadvantage marginalized groups on campus that would otherwise not be able to access postsecondary education.

“Under the [OSAP] scheme put out by the previous government, there was an increase across the board in students from minorities and underprivileged groups accessing funds.”

Barras also pointed to the exclusion of international students from the tuition cut. “International students don’t have that 10 per cent cut so they’re likely to take on the financial burden.”

University officials have told The Varsity that they are not planning to increase international student tuition more than previously decided for the coming academic year.

When asked about the UTGSU’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Barras acknowledged that while other students may have antagonistic feelings toward the CFS as a whole, the UTGSU ultimately pays to use CFS resources.

The CFS is a national organization representing student unions across Canada. In 2016, the UTGSU lost a lawsuit against the CFS after the former attempted to hold a referendum to defederate. Full-time graduate students currently pay $8.37 per session and part-time students pay $4.19 per session to the CFS.

“I understand that the University Toronto’s Graduate Students’ Union is not a pro-CFS environment… But I also recognize that we pay them money to have access to the resources,” Barras said.

“So long as we are part of the CFS, we should utilize the resources that they give us access to because otherwise it’s just money down the drain.”

Candidate Profile: Adam Hill

Internal Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Adam Hill

Adam Hill is a second-year PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) specializing in Curriculum & Pedagogy. He is running for Internal Commissioner.

Hill is currently an OISE course union representative on the UTGSU’s General Council.

“In my first two years as a member and representative in the Union, I have witnessed two fraught Internal Commissioners’ tenures,” he wrote in a statement online. “I love the Union; I want to do everything within my capacity to do the most for the most people.”

Hill previously served on the Society of Graduate Students and the Education Students’ Council of Western University.

He is campaigning on a platform of developing a conflict of interest policy consistent with the Ontario Corporations Act (OCA), under which the UTGSU is incorporated. “After reviewing all of our current Bylaws and Policies, I found that our Union’s vision of conflict of interest lacks clarity and precision,” he wrote on his campaign platform. “No Conflict of Interest policy will ever be comprehensive and exhaustive enough, but we can do a lot more than what’s currently on our books.”

In his interview with The Varsity, Hill called a more robust conflict of interest policy “extremely valuable” due to “the complicated network of interests within a student society.”

Hill is also advocating for incorporating the UTGSU under the Canadian Not-for-profit Corporations Act instead of the OCA because “it gives us a bit more… flexibility and stability,” given “what’s happening with the Ford government right now, [the OCA is] not exactly reliable… or consistent.”

Hill is referring to the recent changes to postsecondary education funding that are affecting the Ontario Student Assistance Program, tuition, and student fee opt-outs. These changes could potentially lead to drastic cuts to the UTGSU’s funding.