On February 15, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) hosted debates between candidates running for the six executive positions in the UTSU’s spring 2023 elections. The candidates addressed topics including accessibility, university policy, and engaging the student body. Varsity editors Khadija Alam, Angad Deol, and Nawa Tahir moderated the debates.
The debates were held in person at the Student Commons and livestreamed on Zoom and the UTSU’s Facebook account.
All three candidates for president — Jake Barton, Jerico Raguindin, and Elizabeth Shechtman — attended the debate. Debate topics included increasing student engagement at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and, in general, managing a team of people with different goals for the UTSU, and the UTSU’s role in contentious social issues.
Barton and Raguindin agreed that the UTSU could implement new strategies to increase student engagement. Raguindin said that the UTSU should start going to places where students already congregate to engage with them.
Barton said that the key to increasing engagement is to increase transparency. He added that he hopes to increase the UTSU’s responsiveness to student concerns, which he hopes will increase AGM attendance.
Shechtman said that she has been working to increase student engagement with the UTSU this past year in her current position as vice-president student life. She explained, “Just in one week, we were able to increase our following on Instagram by 3,000 followers” during orientation.
On increasing AGM attendance, Shechtman argued for monetary incentives for students. She explained that this would remove the accessibility barrier for students that have to work or who are unable to prioritize a student union meeting. Barton disagreed, saying, “I don’t think paying students to participate… is the way to do it.”
On responding to contentious social issues, Raguindin said he believes that the UTSU has to remain true to “values of equity, anti-oppression and sustainability, [and] disability justice.”
Barton said that most contentious issues stem from the disparity between “what the student body wants and what actually gets done.” He argued that the only solution is to listen to students.
Shechtman also emphasized the importance of prioritizing what students want when it comes to the UTSU’s responses to contentious social issues. She added that UTSU tabling in student spaces is helpful in hearing students’ voices.
Two candidates — Jakob Kramer and Nick Leiper — attended the debate, while candidate Samir Mechel was absent.
Kramer and Leiper both said that the UTSU needs to provide services that students want and emphasized the importance of communicating with the student body. They also agreed that the UTSU should be more financially transparent. However, they presented different views on the UTSU’s fiscal situation.
Kramer noted that the UTSU had a surplus of over $900,000 after the 2021–2022 academic year, and argued that the UTSU should improve fiscal efficiency by prioritizing its most used services. He argued for canvassing the U of T campus to ask students what services they want.
Leiper was more pessimistic about UTSU’s financial situation, warning that the UTSU could find itself in “financial danger.” He spoke about the need to either reduce costs or increase revenues.
However, Leiper said, “I don’t want to push for austerity; we need to increase our services offerings no matter what,” and argued that the union should cut election budgets rather than student services.
Vice-president public and university affairs
All four candidates for vice-president public and university affairs focused on how they plan to push the university administration on a number of key issues, including mental health support and housing crisis.
Faiz Jan and Avreet Jagdev spoke about their desire to repeal the recently amended University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP), while Aidan Thompson and James Wang discussed affordable housing policy and expanding green spaces on campus. All candidates touched on the need to reform U of T’s mental health support system.
The candidates debated over how to use the position for lobbying and advocacy. Thompson argued that repealing university policies is impractical because students are outnumbered on U of T’s Governing Council, while Wang argued that radical change is impractical within the confines of a one-year term.
Jagdev emphasized that the UTSU should work closely with “progressive allies” in the municipal and provincial governments, and Thompson stressed that asking the university administration for change is less effective than lobbying local government. Jan, however, argued that asking MPs for policy concessions doesn’t necessarily work. Rather, he said, calling for activism such as student strikes can be more effective.
Kristina Cổ and Micah Kalisch, focused their discussion on sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and international events. The other two candidates running for vice-president equity, Fatima Sohail and Rebecca Sy, did not attend the debate.
Cổ said that she would like to hold gender-based violence training for fraternities on campus in collaboration with the U of T Sexual Education Centre. She added that she is against expanding police surveillance to address this issue and would rather take an education-based approach. “The police have historically hurt so many marginalized groups and, as [vice-president] equity, I’m here to work to ensure that those groups aren’t further hurt,” she said.
Kalisch explained that “the issue of sexual violence on our campus is a pandemic.” If elected, they would like to revise U of T’s sexual violence policy, expand peer support, and promote cultural competency to address “sexual violence [that] disproportionately impacts feminized, trans, nonbinary, racialized and disabled bodies.”
When asked about how the candidates would address international events that impact the U of T community, Cổ said she plans to support students by reaching out to student groups these events directly impact. “I don’t want to take actions that could potentially hurt someone without consulting them,” she added.
Kalisch acknowledged that they are not an international student and highlighted the need to decentre themselves to connect with international students, who already face disproportionate challenges at U of T.
Vice-president student life
Three of the seven candidates for vice-president student life attended the debate; candidates Andrew Alvarez, Ranveer Kalra, Catherine King, and Ayesha Narang were absent.
Fiona Hewes said they are committed to promoting student safety. Hewes would like to permanently implement a U of T Rideshare Program that would provide students with a $10 Uber or Lyft credit usable from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am.
Glen Xian Quan Hung agreed that the vice-president student life should focus on campus security. He mentioned that campus events provide students with an important opportunity to socialize, meet new people, and take a break from academics.
Hannah Yin committed to making orientation more accessible. She said that she wants to ensure that each attendee feels safe commuting to campus and provide more food options during orientation week.
When asked how they would navigate potential conflicts of interest when corresponding with clubs, all three candidates expressed their intent to act in the interest of the student body and promote transparency.
Vice-president professional faculties
All three candidates for vice-president professional faculties highlighted the need for more representation of professional faculty students in the UTSU.
Maria Ebeid — who is running for re-election — said that events will play a major role in better incorporating professional faculty students into UTSG student life. She explained that, if re-elected, she plans to provide professional faculty students with networking opportunities, a co-op banquet, a women empowerment banquet, and headshot events throughout the year.
Harvi Karatha explained that the UTSU often underrepresents professional faculties. If elected, she hopes to host bi-weekly town hall meetings where representatives from each professional faculty can voice their concerns and implement professional, faculty-specific opportunities for students, such as a law panel. Karatha also noted that professional faculty students don’t feel engaged in student life at UTSG. She argued that the UTSU orientation team should actively collaborate with professional faculties to better incorporate these students into university life.
Al-amin Ahamed agreed with Karatha, adding that the UTSU disproportionately supports Arts & Sciences students over professional faculties due to “a lack of connection” between the UTSU and professional faculty students. “For me, it’s really just about being a platform to amplify voices of professional faculties,” Ahamed said.
The voting period for the UTSU’s spring 2023 election ends at 5:00 pm on Friday, February 17. Students may cast their votes at utsu.simplyvoting.com