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Op-ed: The UTGSU is plagued with dysfunction, but it doesn’t have to be

The union must improve transparency, staff and executive power imbalances, accessibility
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Systemic issues are to blame for the UTGSU's recent controversies. CORINNE LANGMUIR/THE VARSITY
Systemic issues are to blame for the UTGSU's recent controversies. CORINNE LANGMUIR/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) has faced considerable conflict in recent years: the second removal of Lynne Alexandrova as internal commissioner, the saga of challenges to the 2020 UTGSU election results, a high turnover rate of executive positions in recent years, and a voter turnout of less than five per cent in the last elections.

These are symptoms of larger systemic issues that pose challenges for graduate student representation and advocacy at U of T.

A lack of transparency

Basic information about the UTGSU’s decision-making processes is not easily accessible to students, which makes it more difficult for students to get involved.

For instance, the names and contact information of UTGSU directors are unavailable on the UTGSU website. Instead, there is a list of dozens of course unions — not all of which have functioning websites.

If a student’s course union does not have a website or if the website is outdated, they have to contact their department, the UTGSU, or their peers to find out who represents them at UTGSU board meetings. This can take up valuable time in an already intensive graduate study schedule and delay them from receiving the support they need.

By contrast, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has the names and contact information of its elected representatives, including directors, clearly listed on its website. The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, and University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union also have directors’ names listed.

To put this into perspective, imagine how much more difficult it would be for people to raise awareness about issues in their community if the names and contact information of city councillors or members of parliament were not clearly listed online or were not publicly available.

To make matters worse, this lack of transparency makes UTGSU directors themselves less informed about who their fellow representatives are. This makes it difficult for them to discuss board business, share perspectives on important issues, develop well-informed motions, and, ultimately, act collectively within the UTGSU political sphere.

While some attempts to bridge this gap have been made with a Slack workspace for elected representatives, it is informal, does not include all directors, and is not officially run by the UTGSU.

Although the UTGSU does have a large board, this is no excuse for poor transparency. It still has to keep and maintain records of who its directors are for attendance and sending meeting agendas. In other words, the UTGSU already has the data but chooses not to publish it online.

Full-time staff, part-time executives

UTGSU executives are at a significant disadvantage because they are paid $1,300 per month and are often limited in the hours they can work each week due to the stringent requirements of many U of T graduate programs.

This makes time-sensitive executive responsibilities like those of many of the internal commissioners particularly challenging. To compensate, the executive relies more on unelected, full-time, non-student staff to maintain operations, which can lead to imbalances of power.

Such imbalance is evident in the current UTGSU elections structure, which gives considerable power to an unelected chief returning officer (CRO) and other unelected officials.

The UTGSU Elections Committee, which creates the Elections and Referenda Code for each election, is composed of three unelected staff members and two elected directors. While the staff generally cannot vote, the directors can, and the CRO — who chairs the committee — has the deciding vote any time the two directors disagree. This code cannot be amended by the UTGSU Board of Directors.

Moreover, the CRO can decide whether nomination papers are valid and enforce penalties. Even if a candidate successfully appeals this decision, the process would likely cost them valuable time in an already tight campaign schedule.

If executives were supported more by their departments and allowed to dedicate more time to the UTGSU, they would be better able to improve its operations and ensure power consistently remains in the hands of students.

Furthermore, the Elections Committee should be composed of a majority of elected directors, and the CRO should not have a vote. Instead of expanding CRO powers and relying on their potentially biased interpretations, the Elections and Referenda Code should be amended to integrate standardized election penalties into the existing bylaws and policies.

Secrecy of board meetings

Dissemination of UTGSU political developments are further hindered by limited student press access. Just allowing the press to attend board meetings was a hard-fought battle during the 2018–2019 school year, and there are still restrictions on how student journalists can report on proceedings.

Meanwhile, other student unions have live-streamed meetings. Without accurate, timely, and easily digestible reporting on UTGSU politics, it is more difficult for students to stay informed and engaged. Minutes alone are insufficient and can be biased.

Until the necessary measures are taken to reform the UTGSU’s structure, we can expect to see its history of controversy and dysfunction continue to repeat itself in this coming year.

Justin Patrick is a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is the president of the International Association for Political Science Students. He served as the internal commissioner of the UTGSU from January to April 2019. He was a governance and policy analyst for the UTSU from June to September 2019.