On March 16, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) executive candidates forum was held on Zoom and streamed live on the UTSU’s Facebook page. The Varsity’s news editor, Hannah Carty, moderated the event.
Eight candidates running for five of the six executive positions attended the forum to answer The Varsity’s questions about their platforms and plans. The sixth position, vice-president public & university affairs (VP PUA), is vacant as the sole candidate officially left the race the day prior.
While the elections for vice-president student life and vice-president professional faculties are contested, the candidates for president, vice-president operations, and vice-president equity are running unopposed. Alongside the VP PUA vacancy, the lack of contestation has drawn attention to the union’s challenges with participation, despite pre-election efforts to facilitate the nomination process.
The only candidate running for president is Alexa Ballis, who emphasized creating avenues for student feedback.
Given the anticipated return to on-campus activities in fall 2021, she aims to ensure that students feel safe. Ballis recognized that students coming to campus for the first time would have different kinds of anxieties with the shift to in-person activities, and added that she wants to ensure an online option for classes remains.
She plans to continue pushing for lower tuition fees and is in support of leaving the Canadian Federation of Students, though she acknowledged that the process won’t be easy.
Regarding the mental health crisis on campus, Ballis noted that she would look at the feedback being collected by the university and current UTSU executives, and she highlighted the systemic issues at U of T. She also said that she wants to work to centralize the mental health booking system. She hopes to work with U of T to make the system for mental health more cohesive.
In response to low engagement in UTSU elections, Ballis wants to create a policy allowing nominations for executive positions to reopen if that position is uncontested or has no one running.
Fiona Reuter, the uncontested candidate for vice-president operations, focused heavily on financial transparency in the debate. She said that the UTSU budget is “unreadable” unless someone is studying finance. From her personal experience, she noticed that the UTSU Board of Directors can be an unwelcoming space and wants to make improvements to make it more accessible, such as implementing better board training.
Reuter plans to encourage student involvement in the process of creating and passing the UTSU budget. She also said that she would frequently post updates about the budgeting process on the UTSU’s website and social media.
If the Student Choice Initiative were to return, Reuter would work to redirect internal funding on unnecessary expenses to services that can better accommodate students. If there were any further delays in reopening the Student Commons, she would openly tell the student body the reasoning to improve transparency.
Vice-president student life
Three candidates are competing for the position of vice-president student life: Nathan Ching, Anusha Madhusudanan, and Maria Lin.
In response to a question about the UTSU’s club funding model, Ching said that it is fairly streamlined, and other policies could be altered to improve student engagement through clubs. Madhusudanan disagreed with him and said that the funding model itself needs to be improved. Currently, clubs can receive 50 per cent of their budget from the UTSU, and she thinks that amount should be increased.
In order to inform members about events hosted by all UTSU-registered clubs, Lin suggested club digests. However, Ching argued that club digests would be overwhelming for students who already do all their classes and get most of their information online. He said that a shared Google Calendar displaying every clubs’ events would be an effective way to boost student engagement.
To maintain clear communication between the UTSU executives and general members, Madhusudanan supported the use of suggestion boxes, office hours, and other methods. If elected, Lin plans on making a vice-president student life Instagram account to allow for easier communication.
Regarding plans for 2021 orientation, Lin has created a plan for if it online and another for if it is in person, noting that the use of outdoor spaces would be important for in-person events. Madhusudanan suggested a hybrid model that would include a program that would connect incoming first-year students with each other based on their interests. Ching also plans to consider hybrid options and wants to work closely with all colleges in a unified way to plan a better orientation.
About the topic of mental health, Ching said he would “prioritize revamping mental health resources,” and he aims to overhaul the university-mandated leave of absence policy.
Reva Aggarwal is running uncontested for the position of vice-president equity.
Regarding inequity in the UTSU, Aggarwal responded that she wants to create an anonymous complaints form to make sure every student can have a voice. She also plans to expand the eXpression Against Oppression week to combat anti-Black racism.
In response to an op-ed that argued that the student body sees the UTSU’s equity apparatus as “outdated, costly and woefully ineffective,” Aggarwal said that she does not agree. She said that the equity issue stems from the disconnect between the UTSU from the student body and can be dealt with by enabling better communication.
Vice-president professional faculties
The two candidates competing for the position of vice-president professional faculties are Tiffany Tiu and Ruoheng (Cathy) Wang. Tiu is a kinesiology student and Wang is studying electrical engineering.
To address unique issues faced by professional faculties, Tiu plans to stay connected to their directors so that she is constantly aware of the needs of students in different faculties. Wang said that she would hold information sessions for the students in professional faculties to raise awareness for the UTSU and its goals. She also wants to expand the credit/no credit option for professional faculty students.
Regarding co-op opportunities for engineering students, Wang plans to help the Engineering Society make sure that students can find those opportunities. To the same question about engineering students, Tiu said she would work with the engineering directors and the Engineering Society to make sure their needs are met.
Since both candidates are from first-entry divisions, they were asked how they would advocate for second-entry divisions. Wang said that she would have a complaint form that would always be available to students to raise their concerns. Tiu plans to work on professional faculty students’ gym access, if elected.
Disclosure: Ching is an associate photo editor for The Varsity.
The voting period for UTSU elections is running from March 17–21. Students can vote at utsu.simplyvoting.ca.