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UTSU executive candidate debate focuses on marginalized communities, tuition

Only two positions had multiple candidates present at the debate
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The UTSU spring election debate. CEDRIC JIANG/THE VARSITY
The UTSU spring election debate. CEDRIC JIANG/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held a candidate debate on March 22 as part of its 2022–2023 executive elections. The debate was held entirely online.

Topics discussed included lowering international students’ fees, supporting marginalized communities, and addressing racism and Islamophobia on campus.

The debate was moderated by Micah Kalisch — founder of the Prevention Empowerment Advocacy Response for Survivors Project and president of the Trinity Against Sexual Assault & Harassment — and Tran Thai, the UTSU’s chief executive assistant. 

Despite the title of the event, only two positions saw true debate. The UTSU could not hold a debate for the two uncontested positions — vice-president operations and vice-president professional faculties — nor could it hold one between the two candidates for the vice-president student life position, as one of the candidates was not present, and the sole present candidates were instead questioned on their vision. There was also no question period for the presidential position since there were no candidates

The voting for this year’s elections closed on March 27 at 11:59 pm.

Vice-president operations

Dermot O’Halloran, former vice-president professional faculties in 2019–2020 and vice-president operations in 2020–2021, is running unopposed for vice-president operations this year.

Having held an executive position at the UTSU for two years, O’Halloran was asked how he would evaluate his previous work. He praised his former team for their work, saying the student aid policies implemented in the 2020–2021 academic year have been working well, but also acknowledged the importance of reflecting on whether they’re in need of change.

On the subject of what he hopes to do differently this year, O’Halloran said he would focus on the UTSU’s investing strategy and ensuring investment transparency.

When asked about the criticism against UTSU on its transparency, O’Halloran admitted it had been an ongoing issue, but assured students that work has been done to address it. He promised to improve transparency by making financial documents more widely available and accessible to students.

“At the current moment, no appendices, no executive reports, no period [reports] are accessible to the broader public,” said O’Halloran. “That should have been fixed a while ago.”

Vice-president public and university affairs

There are three candidates running for the vice-president public and university affairs position. However, one candidate, Sruthy Balakumar, was absent from Tuesday’s debate.

The two remaining candidates, Victoria Liu and Harvi Karatha, focused their discussion on lowering tuition fees, and on community issues such as Palestinian rights and the “Hell Bank Note” incident at Grad House.

Karatha said she is committed to continuing the Same Degree, Same Fee campaign, which pressures the university to lower tuition for students in different programs. If elected, Karatha would like to implement a more robust campaign with support from politicians and seek student representation in governmental discussions.

Liu responded that she would work with each student body and create initiatives to alleviate their financial challenges. For example, she wants to expand scholarships for international students and increase employment opportunities for students through partnerships with businesses.

On the topic of Palestinian rights on campus, Liu recognized that both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups exist on campus and said that she would like to consult with these “diverse student groups” on how to handle the topic. 

“I do understand both sides’ perspectives on this. We need to ensure in any kind of future discussion that [the UTSU does not discriminate] against a group [and] that [it] will always hold unconditional responsibility for students’ unmitigated access to goods and services, regardless of their religion, race, or any kind of identification,” said Liu.

Karatha responded that her knowledge on Israel and Palestine is not as comprehensive as that of Palestinian students.

“I would always directly refer back to the Palestinian student groups, talk to them in individual meetings, and hold those conversations that we need to hold as representatives of the student union, and make sure that they’re represented in our university guidelines and conversations,” said Karatha.

On the “Hell Bank Note” incident, Liu said, “being a Chinese student myself [and] knowing that U of T has [a high number] of Chinese students on campus, I don’t know how such a mistake can be made by the Grad House.” She would investigate the incident and advocate for appropriate repercussions, as well as work on adequate counselling supports and avenues for education on equity. 

Karatha emphasized immediate action as well as providing sufficient support in dealing with incidents of racism on campus. “My approach will be focused on firstly protecting and helping the marginalized students who are impacted,” Karatha said.

Vice-president equity

Five of the six candidates for vice-president equity attended the debate, and the discussion focused largely on accessibility. The remaining candidate, Ying J Chow, was not present.

Jerico Raguindin, current Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council president, said that the UTSU’s inaccessibility is an equity issue that makes students lose confidence in the union and can further hinder the union’s response to other equity concerns. 

Raguindin mentioned that many students consider UTSU “nebulous” because accessing the union’s resources and programs can be challenging — a problem he wants to rectify.

Jessie Wu, currently the UTSU director of humanities, agreed with Raguindin that gaps in accessibility hinder student participation. She said that by not being transparent and accessible to students, executives present an image of having power over students while not being held accountable.

Wu plans to address this issue by enhancing communication. For instance, she would set up anonymous forms to get feedback and open a dedicated equity social media account that accepts direct messages.

“This makes it more simple [to keep] students in the loop… and provides updates for how certain initiatives are progressing and how they’re being addressed and investigated.”

To the same question, ​​Muskan Nagra — currently a director for University College — said that she would like to improve student access to financial aid. “I think that the financial aid we offer only reaches a few… so we obviously need to work on increasing financial aid [accessibility].” 

She continued, “I also [would] like to work on building that relationship and trust with students so our services reach more people.”

Sarah Rana highlighted two problems that the UTSU must address: having both an appropriate channel to raise equity concerns and appropriately trained people to address them. “Many times, equity officers are aware of the politics around marginalized communities, but they are unable to handle the nuances of it. You need someone who’s educated on these matters,” said Rana.

Abidur Rahman emphasized expanding mental health resources, describing the current intake process as bureaucratic and burdensome. “I [would] like to reform our intake process so students do not need a referral from doctors to see a psychiatrist or psychologist, not health and wellness, for their very first meeting.” Furthermore, Rahman would like to create student bursaries that help alleviate financial barriers to accessing mental health resources.

Vice-president student life

Elizabeth Shechtman, who is running  for vice-president student life, was the only candidate for the position present at the debate, since the other candidate did not attend. Previously an associate news editor at The Varsity, Shechtman was questioned about her neutrality and the potential for a conflict of interest.

Shechtman stressed that she left the associate position after confirming her candidacy, and she would no longer represent or be represented by The Varsity. She also emphasized that her previous works at The Varsity were written from an unbiased perspective.

“I’m sure that my previous colleagues… at The Varsity will continue to be unbiased with anything that they share about me [and] any criticism that they have toward my work at the UTSU,” said Shechtman. “It’s definitely not going to have an effect on how I work at the UTSU.”

Shechtman further explained that covering student unions for The Varsity helped her understand the UTSU’s structure and procedure as a “bystander,” which she considers an asset. “I did learn a lot about procedural things about the UTSU.”

She believes the experience prepared her to reach out to various student groups and understand students’ concerns.

Shechtman also plans to improve transparency and accessibility at the UTSU, saying that these two factors are at the heart of all her ideas. In addition, she mentioned that the pandemic has brought to light the importance of having online options when it comes to event planning.

Vice-president professional faculties

The only candidate for the vice-president professional faculties position, Maria Ebeid, was asked about how she would serve all 11 professional faculties. Ebeid assured that she would work with students from all the professional faculties to understand each faculty and its students’ specific struggles.

To address racism and sexual harassment on campus, Ebeid also emphasized the importance of reaching out to programs and organizations that promote anti-racism messaging and provide robust mental health services.

“Obviously, this is an ongoing issue that’s been happening for years on end. But I think that slowly, with more education and better advocacy for those who are getting discriminated against, we can come to a realization that this needs to end for all students of the university, and try to give them a safe place to be,” Ebeid said.

Disclosure: Elizabeth Shechtman was an Associate News Editor for The Varsity during the 2021–2022 school year.