Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 3

College community members reflect on culture of discrimination, legacy of secret society Episkopon

Trinity College’s institutional reckoning | Part 3

College community members reflect on culture of discrimination, legacy of secret society Episkopon

This is the third part in a three part investigation by The Varsity into Episkopon and the culture of discrimination at Trinity College. 

 

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

The Trinity College Literary Institute and Trinity College Meeting

Ilkay remembers facing a lot of discrimination at the college — perhaps the most jarring experience was an encounter with a student in blackface at a college-sanctioned Halloween party.

Though he was generally accepted, he felt that it was a conditional acceptance, perhaps due to his choice to become involved with Episkopon and the TCLI. Looking back at his time at Trinity College, Ilkay describes it as “a harrowing experience of feeling super out of place.”

“It was a very normatively white space,” he explained. “One of the things that I really found… most racist and shitty and damaging about Trin was how often people… would decide whether or not things were offensive.” When he would call something out for being racist, others would usually deny it.

Ilkay also highlights that many members of Episkopon play active roles in other areas of the college, including the TCM. Although the TCM is supposed to be a safe space for all students to voice their concerns about college governance, students from minoritized groups have come forward in interviews with The Varsity to describe their experiences with discriminatory comments, gestures, and microaggressions — many subtle, but some overt — at college governance meetings.

The 2015 Student Experience Survey revealed that students perceived the TCM as moderately inclusive but not really representative of the student body. LGBTQ+ and off-campus students, especially reported less feelings of inclusivity and representation from the TCM. Over a third of respondents felt that the TCM was not at all or not really inclusive, and 78 per cent of all students reported experiencing some form of discrimination at meetings.

There has been a growing rift between commuter students and those who live on campus. In January, at a contentious TCM meeting, members of Trinity College passed a motion to allow those not living on campus to run for head of college.

Another place where members of Episkopon play active roles is the TCLI — colloquially, “the Lit” — a satirical debating society. Historically, the TCLI organized debates on serious topics, but nowadays a typical meeting includes satirical debates poking fun at humorous topics or personal anecdotes.

Rana remembers being approached by a TCLI member in her first year and being asked to speak against her own religion. Though hopeful about participating in an engaging debate, once at the meeting, she quickly realized the upper-year students had mischaracterized the TCLI — to her, it seemed it was more about making fun of the people in attendance rather than participating in a true debate.

“I was the only woman; I was the only person of colour — the other speakers were all white men who were loud, drunk, and really aggressive,” said Rana. “I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life.”

In a statement to Trinity College members in June, the TCLI’s then-speaker Katie Bray Kingissepp acknowledged that the society partakes in “racist activities” and has a history of “discriminatory behaviors.”

“The Lit commits to changing our practices to make this more accessible space,” she continued in the statement.

Since the statement was posted, Kingissepp has stepped down from her post as speaker due to personal reasons. Deputy Speaker Nika Gottlieb assumed the role of speaker in early September and wrote to The Varsity in response to the events.

“The issues levied against the TCLI commonly reference its insularity, which beyond presenting systemic issues, also isn’t helped by the nature of amateur comedy,” Gottlieb wrote to The Varsity. “The TCLI needs a rebirth — to cultivate a brand of humour that includes everyone.”

The TCLI published a list of organizational changes, including a constitutional amendment banning hate speech during the meetings, implementing a code of conduct, and requiring debaters to send in their speeches for approval prior to each event. The group also plans to “transform toxic cultures” inherent to the organization, such as its drinking culture and the pressure on participants to use “self-othering” humour.

Ilkay describes Episkopon, the TCLI, and the TCM as organizations that “mirror” the rest of the college.

“The institution of Trinity College and the institution of the Episkopon are two entirely separate things,” Ilkay reflected. “But if you’re examining… the racist history and legacy of an institution, and all of the members of that institution… are also members of this other institution… [then] the racist history that we’re talking about is one racist history.”

“I’m really hesitant to allow [Episkopon] to become the focus of the story about institutional racism at Trinity College because the institutional racism of the Episkopon is the institutional racism of Trinity College. They’re inextricably linked. They are one and the same thing.”

The lack of transparency on Trinity College’s race-based data

To understand how to best implement systemic change, race-based data is essential. Without a full idea of how Trinity College’s student body is composed, it is difficult to determine if Trinity has an overrepresentation of white students and an underrepresentation of racialized students compared to the overall U of T student body. It also becomes impossible to ascertain if there has been any progressive improvement to the diversity of Trinity’s student population.

Though Trinity College does collect race-based data through its student experience surveys, which have been conducted twice — in 2015 and 2018 — the college has not been transparent with its findings, citing the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In a written statement to The Varsity, however, Trinity College Provost and Vice-Chancellor Mayo Moran wrote that “Trinity College is in fact quite diverse (based on information we have from a recent student survey) and generally mirrors the student body of U of T’s St. George campus.”

Despite requests from The Varsity, Trinity College did not share which “recent student survey” it was referring to when saying that the college’s diversity “generally mirrors” that of the student body at UTSG. 

The only survey containing race-based data about Trinity that The Varsity managed to obtain was the 2015 Student Experience Survey, which was leaked to The Varsity by an anonymous source. However, its results alone cannot illuminate many additional findings about Trinity’s student population, as the survey only had a 25 per cent response rate.

Results from 2015 Trinity College survey. ADITI PUTCHA/THE VARSITY

This survey determined that, in 2015, 53 per cent of Trinity’s student body was comprised of white students. Twenty-seven per cent identified as East Asian, Southeast Asian, or Filipino, while eight per cent identified as South Asian. Six per cent identified as Arab or Middle Eastern, and three per cent identified as Latin American. Two per cent of the college’s students identified as Black.

While these results are crucial in showing the racial makeup of Trinity during that specific year, these figures stand alone in their importance, as there are no other comparable survey results that have been released and are statistically sound as a basis of comparison.

For instance, The Varsity found the results of the University of Toronto’s 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, but this survey only measured first-year and senior-year demographics at the university, and there was a two-year gap between this survey and the 2015 Trinity College survey. This prevents any additional definite understandings about how Trinity’s racial makeup compares to the overall U of T student body.

In addition, because Trinity College has refused to release any updated race-based data, it is difficult to independently verify if the college has improved the diversity of its student body.

The administration’s response

To address the concern of discrimination at the college — specifically anti-Black discrimination — Watson founded the Trinity College Anti-Racism Collective alongside several other Black students from the college.

On June 22, the group published an open letter to the provost and college administration demanding five action items: creating a more equitable application process, establishing a scholarship and bursary for Black students, implementing mandatory anti-racism training for staff and student leaders, making physical and social spaces “more inclusive and representative of diversity,” and creating an independent committee that will hold the administration accountable for its actions.

The letter has been signed by over 1,000 students, alumni, and community members. 

Since its publication, Trinity College’s administration, along with several student groups, have come forward to address the items highlighted in the letter. According to Watson, the Anti-Racism Collective has been working constructively with the administration to implement the recommendations drafted in the letter.

Watson is optimistic that change will come through. “[The Trinity College administration has] expressed [its] intention to work toward the action plans that were outlined in the open letter,” said Watson. “I believe that these issues can be addressed. I just believe… the task force… needs to act as an independent body for which we can hold admin accountable.”

In a letter to The Varsity, Mayo did not commit to implementing all the recommendations in the letter and instead wrote, “The detailed suggestions in the open letter were also helpful and I appreciate receiving them.”

The action items drawn up by the Trinity College Anti-Racism Collective were put forward in a motion before the college’s Board of Trustees in the summer, but failed to pass in a vote.

Several items from the open letter, however, have already begun to be implemented, such as a special bursary for racialized students at the college, which, as of September, has raised over $40,000.

The college has also committed to striking a task force composed of students, alumni, staff, and faculty, with “strong representation from those who can speak to the experiences of the affected communities” that will make recommendations in an effort to ameliorate the experience for racialized students at the college.

A timeline has not yet been provided for when this task force will be established and the exact role of its members.

Overall, for some students at Trinity, the vague actions and statements by the college organizations do not go far enough. They want to see concrete change and progress in their college.

“We need apologies,” said Rana. “We need transparency and accountability. And we need administration to own up to the fact that they let this go on for a long time and that the emotional labour and the onus was on people of colour, but mainly Black students.”

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

What will the future of Trinity’s student community look like?

In addition to the provost, several student groups have also come forward to release statements in response to the events over the summer.

The TCM has also drafted a seven-point action plan, which was released in one of Trinity College’s Facebook groups in mid-June. It includes “instituting mandatory racial bias training for student leaders” and looking “into using online voting platforms at future meetings to allow for the inclusion of students who can’t attend [regular meetings].”

Anjali Gandhi, the chair of the TCM, expressed in a written statement to The Varsity that she is “dedicated to serving underrepresented students at Trinity College.” With regard to previous surveys and anecdotes highlighting the exclusionary nature of the TCM, Gandhi wrote that she hopes to “empower voices that have been historically silenced.”

On June 3, the Trinity student heads released a statement on the Trinity College Facebook group outlining three “primary steps” that need to be taken: amplifying students’ voices, following a “call to action,” and examining potential reform in student governance.

Since the release of that statement, half of the leadership team has resigned, and the group has yet to put out a more comprehensive action plan.

“We have an action plan, but with the recent departure of 3 of the other heads, we have been reevaluating our plans to ensure that we are able to follow through with them fully given our smaller team now,” wrote the three remaining student heads in a statement to The Varsity.

The student heads cancelled a town hall event focused on exclusion at Trinity College in early June and had stifled discussions on various Facebook groups by temporarily prohibiting new posts and comments.

Despite these setbacks, they claim to remain committed to enacting reform at Trinity and addressing the issues highlighted by community members. The leaders have also been in conversation with the provost to discuss possible changes.

“We are pushing to have all five of [the] action items [in the open letter] implemented,” wrote the student heads.

They also affirm that none of the three current heads are or were affiliated with Episkopon. “We hope that as students who have never been affiliated with the organization, students will feel more comfortable approaching us about anything,” they wrote.

“We plan to be more public and vocal in our denouncement of Episkopon than what we have seen in past years, in the hopes that we set a better example for students, and cultivate a culture where Episkopon not only doesn’t exist, but is not commended at all.”

Elections to replace the student heads and TCM executives who stepped down occurred in early October.

Ingrid Cui and Mariam Mahboob both ran for woman head of college on platforms that addressed concerns surrounding elitism and equity. Cui was elected with 53.57 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. Yiming (Ben) Xu ran unopposed on a platform that included increasing diverse participation in Trinity affairs, and was elected as man head of college.

All three candidates were racialized and explicitly wrote in their candidate statements that they were never affiliated with Episkopon and never will be. Cui and Xu notably replace two white heads who resigned in the summer.

Given these developments, Trinity College seems to be moving in a different direction. However, some uncertainties remain, such as how the anti-racism task force will deliver on bringing about institutional change or how the TCM will implement its action plan.

For Watson, although she is hopeful and optimistic about Trinity College moving ahead, she does have a word of caution for the college community as it paves a way forward.

“Any diversity efforts that you have will die… without equal action that is pointed to making sure that all students feel safe in the environment and making sure that they feel that their experiences and their views and their opinions are valued and appreciated by their peers and… the administration,” Watson said.

“Diversity and inclusion are not mutually exclusive.”

*Names have been changed out of fear of reprisal.

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