The Vice-President University Affairs candidates at the debate: Christopher Chiasson, Avani Singh, and Sharon Ma (seated, from left). Shanna Hunter/THE VARSITY

As part of the 2019 University of Toronto Students’ (UTSU) elections season, The Varsity held a debate on March 21 that featured candidates for the three contested executive positions of President, Vice-President External Affairs, and Vice-President University Affairs. The debate was moderated by Editor-in-Chief Jack O. Denton and Associate News Editor Andy Takagi.

Questions touched on topics ranging from the lack of candidates for three executive positions, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), and the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), a policy announced by the Ford government that will give students an option to opt-out of certain incidental fees.

Presidential candidates

When asked to clarify why he wanted to run for president, Bryan Liceralde said that he had a “visionary platform” to maximize the happiness of the student body, referencing the ethical theory of utilitarianism. He had said in an earlier interview with The Varsity that he was running in order to win the Rhodes Scholarship.

Joshua Bowman, presidential candidate and current Academic Director for Social Sciences on the UTSU’s board of directors, said that if elected he would focus on creating a first-year council in order to improve engagement with first-year students, restructure the organization’s student aid program, and start a mental health audit.

On the vacancies of the incoming positions of Vice-President Operations, Vice-President Student Life, and Vice-President Professional Faculties, both presidential candidates said they would create a hiring committee early in their terms. Bowman said the committee would be composed of both past and present executives, and that having an election during midterms or exams would be inaccessible for many students.

Bowman and Liceralde also acknowledged that there is a mental health crisis on campus, both criticizing the administration for the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which was passed in June and allows U of T to place students on a non-punitive leave due to mental health. 

Liceralde pledged to lobby Governing Council to invest more in students and have a more subsidized education, while Bowman said that he would work with the university and other student societies to be more “proactive” rather than reactive to mental health.

Candidates for Vice-President External Affairs

Innis College Director Lucas Granger and U of T Tabletop Gaming Club President Spencer Robertson are both running for Vice-President External Affairs.

At the debate, both spoke of the need for cooperation among student societies at the university in order to oppose the SCI, which could mandate an opt-out option for the UTSU. Granger in particular said that he would create a campus cooperation committee among student society presidents, similar to the St. George Round Table, which is a body composed of student council presidents and university administrators.

On the CFS, a national organization composed of student unions across the country that many member unions have attempted to leave in recent years, both Granger and Robertson agreed that the UTSU should leave as well. 

Granger said that he would support a non-binding referendum in the fall to ask students if they want to stay or leave the organization, while Robertson said that he would fund a YouDecide campaign to collect signatures for decertification if it was financially viable.

The moderators then asked the candidates how they would negotiate with the provincial government, especially given that Ford recently wrote in a Progressive Conservative campaign email that student unions were getting up to “crazy Marxist nonsense.” 

Granger said that he would focus on the two other levels of government — municipal and federal — and that he would still negotiate in good faith. Robertson, like Granger, referenced that there were other governments and that he would be realistic in talks with the province.

Candidates for Vice-President University Affairs

Debate moved on to the candidates for Vice-President University Affairs, which included Christopher Chiasson, Avani Singh, and New College Director Sharon Ma. Candidate Ramtin Taramsari was unable to attend.

All three candidates acknowledged that there is a mental health crisis at U of T and that the community bears collective responsibility.

Singh called for the administration to implement concrete changes, whereas Chiasson said society at-large needs a fundamental “cultural shift” on mental health and that he would march on Queen’s Park in order to incite change. 

Ma said that she would focus on the upcoming report on the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which is scheduled to be released in the summer. The policy was criticized by all three candidates.

The moderators also asked the candidates whether they consider the role as one of activism or advocacy. 

Singh said it was about both, adding that the VP University Affairs is in a privileged position to meet with administration and do more than just protest. 

Ma echoed this sentiment but said that it was important to let students know that union members were working for them. Chiasson, on the other hand, criticized the UTSU for allegedly not advocating for large-scale activism, while instead doing work behind the scenes.

Another issue that the debate touched on was U of T’s extreme weather policy. Many students have criticized the university this past winter for not closing campus despite adverse conditions. 

Singh called for clearer guidelines on snow day policies and the existence of more contingency plans, while Chiasson pledged to advocate for more online lectures, which he said could lead to a more “realistic” campus closure policy.

Voting takes place exclusively online at utsu.simplyvoting.com, and will run until Monday, March 25 at 5:00 pm.

Disclosure: Avani Singh served as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. — the not-for-profit corporation that publishes The Varsity — from May 2018 to March 17, 2019. Singh has recused herself from the role of Chair and is taking a leave of absence from the board for the duration of the UTSU election period.

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