Alexa Ballis started her term as the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) president when the vast majority of U of T classes were hosted partially or entirely onlineAlthough a few issues have arisen within the UTSU in the year since she came into office, the union accomplished many of the goals that were part of Ballis’ platform, which majorly focused on representing student voices on the return to campus.
As Ballis’ time in office comes to a close, and her successor remains unclear, The Varsity broke down what this year’s UTSU has looked like under her presidency.
Ballis secured over 86 per cent of all votes for president in an uncontested election last year. Her campaign focused on “academics, student life, mental health, equity, sustainability, and more.”
During her tenure, Ballis created the Listening Peers program. First proposed in 2019, the program trains mentors using a specially developed curriculum from Stella’s Place charity and U of T’s Student Mental Advocacy and Research Team. Students are able to schedule sessions with mentors to discuss “mental wellness and explore self-care strategies.”
Ballis also initiated the creation of the U of T Directory. The directory, which acts like a dictionary of things U of T students need to know about, provides context for many of the acronyms and terms that may be confusing for new students.
At the beginning of the school year, the UTSU took steps to ease the transition to in-person learning by putting together a series of guides on traveling, vaccines, and housing. Ballis also created a survey for student feedback on the transition, which was shared with the administration.
Other initiatives that the UTSU took under her leadership included directly interfacing with the university on behalf of students. In January, the UTSU lobbied the Office of the Vice Provost to extend the deadline for winter semester tuition payments.
“We also brought up… the cost of tuition and how it does not correlate with the quality of the education that students are receiving in these times,” she wrote in her January executive report.
Increasing student engagement
According to Ballis’ May executive report, the UTSU created its town halls “to provide more avenues for feedback from students, and to help hold the UTSU accountable.” Ballis wrote that gathering student concerns around the transition to in-person learning was important for this year’s executive committee.
During her initial campaign, Ballis pledged to continue pushing for the university to divest from fossil fuels and fund student-run sustainability projects. This year, the university fulfilled some of these aims. In October 2021, U of T President Meric Gertler announced that the university would divest from fossil fuels in its investments.
Ballis also wanted the UTSU to create guides for life after graduation and lobby the university for earlier exam schedules; however, there was no indication that either of these had occurred.
The UTSU has taken many positive steps for students in the past year, from increasing student aid to securing a new health care policy that provides the same services to students at a lower price.
In response to sexual misconduct allegations against former Trinity College Provost Andy Orchard and members of the Faculty of Music, the UTSU launched the Students for Survivors campaign. The campaign aims to improve U of T’s policies concerning sexual violence and includes an upcoming protest scheduled for April 8.
Despite the positive developments it has made, the UTSU received criticism this past year for its response to controversies on campus regarding Israel and Palestine. In July, the UTSU signed, revoked its signature, and then re-signed the Muslim Student Association open letter calling on the university to recognize violence in Palestine and Israel.
As of the publication of this article, no one has stepped forward to fill the role of UTSU president for the 2022–2023 school year.
The Varsity has reached out to Alexa Ballis for comment.