In 1890, on the 10-year anniversary of The Varsity’s founding, its editors wrote to the student body to thank them for their support of the young newspaper. In words that still ring true to this day, they promised “to make The Varsity a mirror of the events, the lights and the shadows of college life, and moreover a true exponent of the views of the undergraduates of the University of Toronto.”
The Varsity is one of Canada’s oldest student newspapers and one that takes its role as a platform for student voice no less lightly. Yet we are presently facing an existential threat: the Ontario provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which allows students to opt out of our levy.
After almost a century-and-a-half of serving the University of Toronto community, we are writing to you now to ask for your continued support of our mission to provide meaningful and balanced journalism. Please stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy.
We know that this is no small favour. While our per-semester fee is one of the lowest in Canada — $2.87 for undergraduate students and $0.80 for graduate students — there are students for whom opting out of all fees would provide enormous financial relief. However, for those with the means to do so, we ask that you consider supporting The Varsity’s work.
This includes our efforts to keep students informed about our community, to act as a watchdog for campus institutions, and to provide a platform for students to speak on the issues of the day. We also provide a wide range of opportunities for students to develop their professional skills, whether through writing for seven different sections, or through photography, illustration, graphic design, and copy editing. Through their contributions, students can be a part of the larger student life and community at U of T.
With our consistent record of financial transparency and journalistic excellence, we hope that you will put your trust in us to keep you informed.
Our recent work
Whenever news breaks that affects campus life in a major way, The Varsity is always there to uncover the truth and deliver it to more than 100,000 students, staff, and faculty at the University of Toronto.
Consider when the then-Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and current Minister of Long-Term Care, Merrilee Fullerton, announced the SCI back in January under a cloud of suspicion. Our reporter was the only journalist at the Queen’s Park press conference to ask about an apparent lack of consultation with students and campus organizations in the decision-making process.
We were also the first newspaper, ahead of other more established media outlets, to publish the unofficial guidelines of the SCI, lifting the veil on what had been a highly secretive process until that point. It was the first time that the public was able to see which groups were specifically targeted.
Our reporting has also drawn attention to important administrative decisions on campus. In the fall of 2017, we revealed that U of T was proposing a university-mandated leave of absence policy, which allows the institution to unilaterally place a student on leave from school for mental health reasons.
We covered the policy from start to finish, amid strong public outcry from students and even the intervention of Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. And since then, we have been on the ground to document the ongoing mental health crisis on campus.
The Varsity’s journalism has also brought along real change. When The Varsity and The Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper of Queen’s University, reported that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities had come under fire for delaying the results of the provincial survey on sexual violence on campus, the survey was released to the public soon after, shining a light on the important topic.
The SCI as a challenge to student community
A student newspaper provides a service central to a campus community from which all members can benefit, as we’ve noted in a past editorial. Levies enable students to collectively pool resources to provide services accessible to all. As noted in that editorial, the opt-out model is problematic because it treats students as private, individual consumers, as opposed to participants in a broader community.
Consider Canada’s single-payer health care system: we all pay into and benefit from essential health care services. But the dilemma, as with health care, is that students do not always know that they need a particular service until they actually need it. Even if you do not regularly interact with The Varsity today, you could benefit from our services in the future — such as our ability to hold campus institutions, especially the U of T administration and student unions, accountable.
National media outlets also rely on campus newspapers like The Varsity to pick up on campus stories that would otherwise be underreported. We have a track record of doing this, from reporting on Muslims Students’ Association executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement, to covering protests to student death on campus. These are just two recent examples of U of T stories that have received wider attention.
We also understand that students are frustrated that their levies might be abused, especially by student-run organizations. But The Varsity is on the frontline when it comes to student union accountability and financial mismanagement, such as when broke the story about the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) lawsuit against its former executive director and two executives.
While student unions such as the UTSU still have much of their levy considered to be “essential” under the provincial government’s guidelines, The Varsity does not. Staying opted in to The Varsity enables us to ensure that student organizations spend your essential fees responsibly.
The opt-out option makes it difficult for us to hold institutions accountable. The challenge is not just the possible loss of our funding. Each year, The Varsity must wait until autumn to determine our funding, rather than be assured of it well in advance. The opt-out option therefore destabilizes our operational stability by creating financial uncertainty and thereby obstructing long-term plans and projects.
With the federal election coming up, we hope to be the definitive source of information on student issues for the University of Toronto community. Much like how we covered the recent provincial and municipal elections, we aim to profile candidates running in all three University of Toronto ridings, host debates, and provide political analysis.
The Varsity also aims to increase coverage of the crucial issue of the global climate crisis. The University of Toronto is an immense institution and there are a myriad of stories waiting to be unearthed about how the school and the people in it are helping — or not helping — the fight against the climate crisis.
Moreover, we hope to continue our expansion of UTM and UTSC coverage, which was made possible with the creation of bureau chiefs for the two campuses last year following a successful levy increase the year before. Having these positions enabled us to break major stories and cover student unions more effectively, and we plan to expand into covering other areas of student life.
Finally, there are countless ongoing projects that require more resources, such as our blog, our efforts to highlight marginalized groups on campus, our video coverage of U of T sports teams, and our new events calendar, which we hope will become the go-to place to find a comprehensive list of events around the university.
These projects are made possible through our student levy, without which we would not be able to fund them. We are very excited to bring them to life and others like it, but we need your support to make it happen.
Earning your trust
We are humbled by the past century of trust placed in us by students and we hope to keep it through not only continued truthful reporting but also through financial and governance transparency.
On our website, you can find our audited financial statements of the past decade. The Varsity is grateful to be funded by students and we are committed to telling you where your money goes. This includes how we pay our editors a fair wage in line with other student publications and provide professional development opportunities to our hundreds of contributors.
The Varsity is also committed to openness in governance, and our Board of Directors, which is run by students and open to all members, provides oversight on our operations. Any student can run to serve on it. Likewise, our Public Editor holds The Varsity accountable and addresses readers’ concerns.
For the past 140 years, The Varsity has been fortunate to have had the support of the students it serves, and we hope to be able to continue to provide the U of T community with comprehensive and trustworthy coverage for years to come. The University of Toronto is a vibrant university filled with brilliant, compassionate members from diverse backgrounds. It is only with your support that we can continue to be both a mirror and a spotlight for our community.
Students can choose their opt-out selections for the fall 2019 term on ACORN by September 19.
To learn more about our work, and why you should stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy, visit https://thevarsity.ca/dont-opt-out.
The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].