Many first-year students who aspire to make the world a ‘better place’ flock to U of T’s International Relations (IR) program. Since its inception in 1976, the program has offered students an interdisciplinary education in economics, history, and political science.
It also provides them with the analytical tools to reckon with challenges faced by the international community. An official course union for the program followed soon thereafter, with the International Relations Society (IRS) appointing its first president for the 1979–1980 school year.
However, it is no secret among IR students that the IRS has fallen into a state of neglect in recent years — to such a degree that many students in the program are unaware of its existence. The IR program includes at least 350 students across all years, who are well-distributed among the colleges at UTSG. Yet, historically, the IRS executive has been dominated by Trinity College students, often due to a lack of meaningful and equal outreach to all of the university’s colleges.
It is true that the IR program is sponsored by and administratively housed at Trinity College, but it is nonetheless an Arts & Science program open to students of all colleges. The failure to engage with students from other colleges has resulted in IRS elections that, year after year, are poorly attended, often barely at, or below quorum, with uncontested executive elections.
Furthermore, the IRS has demonstrated an inability to perform the basic responsibilities outlined in its constitution, such as hosting a social event before December and maintaining a functional website. It also falls short when it comes to innovating on the rote, poorly-attended events and initiatives described therein, including the mentorship program.
Also, hosting an annual conference is constitutionally mandated, and it was held in January each year between 2014 and 2017. However, last year’s conference was held much later in March, and no conference has been held yet this year even though it is already March. In sum, the timing of the course union’s programming has become increasingly problematic over the last few years.
Such failures have ultimately resulted in a cycle of disengagement and non-representativeness. IR students are left disillusioned with a program that is infamous for its lack of community and inadequate mechanisms for student feedback.
This is not meant to accuse the students involved of maliciously abandoning their responsibilities or intentionally being exclusive. That isn’t the case. Student leaders across campus are often overextended, and amid their many academic and extracurricular commitments, they might drop the ball on some responsibilities.
This is especially true if responsibilities are perceived as a lower priority due to the community seeming unresponsive or uninterested. It is a symptom of a deeper problem: the non-representativeness and exclusiveness of the IRS relative to the full population of students it is intended to serve.
In examining the state of the IRS as a case study for how well-intentioned student societies can fall into disrepair, it is also important that we acknowledge the potential of the IRS to serve as a positive model going forward.
We live at a time when student unions face advanced scrutiny. Opponents raise real questions regarding unsatisfactory participation, misuse of funds, and electoral deception, among other concerns. Student societies are therefore in a position to prove critics wrong by getting back to the basics.
For example, the IRS must rethink the way it communicates with IR students at all colleges as well as the greater U of T community. The IRS can do a better job of embracing all of its students by establishing college representatives for curious students to connect with, or by obtaining a student lounge as a welcoming community hub.
Future executives must also proactively work with the program director to reevaluate the impact of certain mandatory courses, while looking to invite guest speakers, host career nights, and sponsor more meaningful programming that suits the interests of IR students.
Beyond providing a platform for career development or engagement with alumni, it is the fundamental mission of student unions to establish avenues for participatory reform. Through oversight of their bylaws and the suppression of electoral competition, dysfunctional unions do all students a disservice. The underrepresentation of even one group of students in the faculty must always be a cause for wider concern.
The IRS must advance the essential principles of representation, responsibility, community, opportunity, and reform. It has a mandate to advocate on behalf of all the students it represents, not just those in its immediate vicinity.
How we as student leaders uphold our institutions, and whether we do so in an inclusive way, tangibly affects our peers as well as our own capability to create reform in other settings. Why wait until graduation to change the world when we can start making changes right here?
Sarah Ingle is a third-year International Relations, Digital Humanities, and Political Science student at Trinity College. Anvesh Jain is a second-year International Relations student at Victoria College.
Disclosure: Ingle was the VP Mentorship for the 2017–2018 IRS Executive. Ingle and Jain are running as co-Presidential candidates for the 2019–2020 IRS Executive.
Editor’s Note (March 10, 7:30 pm): This article has been updated to include comment about the IRS annual conference.
Editor’s Note (March 11, 9:00 pm): This article has been updated to clarify an author’s past association with the IRS Executive.