This past Wednesday, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its executive candidates debate. In accordance with university recommendations against large gatherings, the debate was held over video conference. Candidates discussed topics ranging from the long-delayed opening of the Student Commons to how to decide which clubs receive funding.
The debate was moderated by Jacob Lorinc, who formerly served as editor-in-chief of The Varsity, and is currently a reporter at the Toronto Star.
A full debate, however, was not possible for the vice-president operations and vice-president public and university affairs positions, as they are uncontested.
There are three candidates for the presidential race: Arjun Kaul, Bryan Liceralde, and Muntaka Ahmed. They discussed different topics, including the opening of the Student Commons and how to mitigate the negative effects that the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) had on clubs’ funding.
The SCI was a provincial mandate that was struck down in November, which allowed students to opt out of incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential.”
All candidates agreed that opening the Student Commons — a project that was approved in 2007 — is crucial, though it may be delayed even more due to the COVID-19 precautions in place.
Ahmed focused on the student-facing side of the commons, and, if elected, said she would create a Student Commons management committee to collect student input. Her goal is to establish the Student Commons as a community hub that students can use to meet a variety of their needs — for instance, refilling one’s Presto card or withdrawing money from an ATM.
Kaul would seek to increase student engagement with the commons by publishing a guide of student services that would be available in the building, and also proposed creating a management committee that would include representatives from across campus.
Kaul suggested the incorporation of for-profit operations within the Student Commons. He would prioritize student jobs in its operations while working with surrounding businesses to create new sources of income for the UTSU.
Liceralde pledged to include a rooftop restaurant, space for drama groups to rehearse, and a computer lab.
On the topic of the SCI, the candidates agreed that in the case of similar policy returning, the president should work with campus organizations and clubs to ensure that they are able to continue operating using the UTSU’s more sizable resources.
Kaul suggested working on a case-by-case basis and meeting with club leaders. Liceralde would set aside 10–20 per cent of the UTSU budget to ensure clubs continue operations.
Current Vice-President Professional Faculties Dermot O’Halloran is running uncontested for the vice-president operations position.
On the topic of transparency in the UTSU budget, O’Halloran stressed that more transparency in finances is important for accountability; he suggested that this could mean increased engagement with the UTSU from U of T students — which has been a lasting concern in the union.
When asked if there is any part of the UTSU budget that he would cut, O’Halloran responded that he did not see anything worth cutting.
To ensure accountability and improve attendance within the Board of Directors — the governing body that oversees the Executive Committee’s functioning — O’Halloran said that executives and directors should maintain a less adversarial relationship. To achieve this, he would increase director involvement in UTSU projects.
Vice-president public and university affairs
Tyler Riches is running uncontested for the vice-president public and university affairs position. He currently sits on the UTSU’s Board of Directors as a University College representative.
This is the first year that the vice-president public and university affairs position has been offered, as it is a combination of two former roles: vice-president external and vice-president university affairs. When asked how he views the role, Riches responded that the role should be mostly about advocacy and making sure that student priorities are the focus of every platform.
In his opinion, the biggest concern for current students is feeling unsupported by the university. Riches further said that there should be more room for student voices in Simcoe Hall.
Riches also discussed what advocacy initiatives he would undertake as vice-president public and university affairs.
He hopes to advocate for more student grants from the federal government, and he would provincially lobby to get back the interest-free grace period for student loans and the free tuition program under the Ontario Student Assistance Program. In addition, he would lobby for rent control and support for sexual assault centres that have recently lost funding.
There are two candidates for the vice-president equity position: Vibhuti Kacholia and Alexandra McLean.
The two candidates discussed rebuilding trust and engagement in the UTSU within the U of T community.
On rebuilding trust, Kacholia would prioritize collaborations with other campus groups, such as the Black Students’ Association. McLean agreed, saying that the UTSU lacks engagement because they employ a “one-size-fits-all approach,” instead of tailoring outreach to specific communities.
The candidates proposed different strategies to improve equity at the UTSU. While Kacholia would increase transparency and presence by improving communication, and having a UTSU presence at all club carnivals, including college-based ones, McLean would create a diversity and equity first-year council to increase the focus on equity within the first-year community.
Vice-president student life
The two candidates running for the position of vice-president student life are Tasnim Choudhury and Neeharika Hemrajani.
Orientation was discussed at length, as it is a large part of the responsibilities of the position. Both candidates agreed that making it as accessible as possible is a priority.
Choudhury noted that it is an accessibility issue that the yearly clubs carnival and street fest are often congested. She emphasized that there should be a concrete backup plan for heat and rain, and that orientation should cater not just to first-years, but to returning students as well.
Hemrajani would focus on collaborating with student groups and colleges to create a more campus-wide orientation.
The vice-president student life is also in charge of recognizing and distributing funding to clubs. Candidates were asked about how they would handle funding controversial groups, such as University of Toronto Students For Life, an anti-abortion group, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which has been accused of having contentious relationships with students from Hong Kong.
Both candidates agreed that they would likely not recognize these groups if they were to request recognition and funding from the UTSU. They both said that they would look at it on a case-by-case basis and lean on precedence.
Choudhury stressed the importance of free speech on campus and Hemrajani agreed that students’ opinions of clubs’ political stances should not factor into their recognition. However, they argued that some clubs do not add to a positive environment on campus, in which case they may not be recognized.