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UTSU AGM 2020: Mental health, student fees, student commons

Meeting receives no motions from members, focuses on questions to executives
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The UTSU held its 2020 annual general meeting over Zoom. HANNAH CARTY/THE VARSITY
The UTSU held its 2020 annual general meeting over Zoom. HANNAH CARTY/THE VARSITY

On December 22, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its annual general meeting. The meeting was open to all members of the union, and they were allowed to submit motions, though there were no member-submitted motions at the meeting. 

The meeting was held on Zoom and featured discussions on the UTSU’s finances in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, mental health advocacy and the UTSU’s approach to the issue, and student fees and tuition advocacy. The UTSU also discussed the Student Commons building that has been in the works for over a decade, the opening of which has been delayed again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As required as part of the meeting, the audited financial statements were approved and the UTSU’s auditors for the new year were appointed and approved. The meeting featured the annual president’s address and an executive question-and-answer period.

UTSU fees and the Student Commons

The UTSU announced at the meeting that it is preparing to move its office space to the Student Commons over a decade since the plans for the student space were approved. 

“We’ve officially gained partial occupancy to the Student Commons,” said Dermot O’Halloran, Vice-President Operations. “All the furniture is moved in, the floors are epoxied, [and] the walls are in. We’re really close to starting our final renovations.” 

O’Halloran added that it should be open to students by this coming September, an additional delay from the previous expected opening date of April 2020

In an email to The Varsity, O’Halloran wrote that some of the factors contributing to the continued delays on opening the building were “the need for an unexpected asbestos abatement of the building, the addition of an accessible elevator, and other change orders that weren’t anticipated when the original project was approved.”

O’Halloran wrote that the UTSU is “currently finalizing the last stages of the project, which include [its] agreements with tenants, establishing [its] operating procedures, creating safety measures, and getting final renovations approved for once [its] main contractors leave the site.”

Expressing concern about union spending during the pandemic, Lina Maragha, a former UTSU director, questioned the UTSU’s choice to hire more staff at this time. O’Halloran noted that the plan to hire new staff had been in place for more than a year so that the UTSU could comfortably transition to the commons.

Maragha also asked why the UTSU did not decrease its student levy in light of the pandemic. O’Halloran responded that the executives had come to the conclusion that it would be “financially irresponsible” to reduce the fees, in particular citing the cost of moving into the Student Commons. He explained that the UTSU’s surplus is decreasing as it hires staff in anticipation of its move to the Student Commons. 

“Even without reducing those fees, we will still be running a not insignificant deficit for a while as we move into the building,” O’Halloran said. 

Mental health advocacy

In response to questions about how the UTSU has dealt with mental health advocacy, UTSU President Muntaka Ahmed discussed how the union’s goal is to try to hold U of T accountable for mental health issues on campus. “The effort that I want to take is making sure that [the] administration realizes that stopgap solutions and band-aid solutions are not the right way to be proceeding with student mental health on campus,” said Ahmed. 

She acknowledged that the UTSU’s efforts had been broadly “reactionary” after the death of a U of T student in November.

During the year, Ahmed has met with mental wellness commissioners from student societies around campus to discuss what students can do to further lobby for mental health advocacy at U of T. “My goal is really to work with other student leaders to make sure that a voice is being heard on the administrative level; to make sure that [the] culture and community at U of T is being changed for the better,” said Ahmed.

“The intention to make something tangible happen within the time that we’re allotted as executives is 100 per cent there,” said Ahmed. She added that the UTSU had been consulting with other student societies to develop a plan for lobbying the U of T administration on mental health issues. 

Moreover, she mentioned that the UTSU was previously working with Stella’s Place and the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health to establish a peer support program. Progress was halted due to COVID-19; however, O’Halloran said that the UTSU plans to continue work on the program in 2021.

Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches added that the executive would focus on the review of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) in the coming semester. The UMLAP allows the university to place any student who may pose a threat to themselves or others on leave without academic penalty.

The controversial policy went into effect in 2018, and Riches noted that one of the criticisms against it was that U of T did not properly consult with students while crafting the policy. To ensure that this does not happen again, the UTSU will put out a survey and reach out to student groups once it has more information on the administration’s policy revision plan.

Tuition advocacy 

The UTSU has also teamed up with several other student unions, including the Arts and Science Students’ Union and the Computer Science Student Union, to launch the Same Degree Same Fee campaign. The goal of the campaign is to negotiate a lower tuition for several programs such as computer science, which were deregulated from 1998– 2003 and, consequently, now have higher fees than other Faculty of Arts & Science programs.

Riches said that the UTSU is lobbying both the U of T administration and the provincial government to lower the fees. Students can sign a petition on to help, or they can fill out a survey on how the higher tuition has affected them.