The UTSU is currently preparing for its transition to the 2023–2024 academic year after its spring elections wrapped up on February 21. However, the union’s 2022 Annual General Meeting late last year is still worth discussing. At the meeting, members of the student body made two significant decisions: the number of Board of Directors (BOD) seats was reduced from 43 to 12, and an additional body of student representatives — known as the Senate — was founded.
Prior to its amendment, the BOD was composed of an executive committee with the president and five vice-presidents as well as 43 seats total for delegates from various undergraduate divisions. Now, the BOD has only 12 seats, two of which belong to the president and vice-president finance & operations. To compensate for this drastic downsizing, the UTSU has green-lit the founding of a representative Senate. With as many as 75 available seats, the Senate seemingly solves the issue of reduced representation under the updated Board structure.
However, the central problem is that the Senate fails to address the lost seats in terms of actual legislative power. Furthermore, this downsize in the UTSU BOD comes at a time when low engagement in student government is already a problem. With these changes in mind, I’m concerned that the decision to decrease the amount of students involved in decision making may further alienate students at U of T.
Can the senate make up for the reduction in BOD seats?
First, it’s important to note that the authority of the Senate differs substantially from that of the BOD. Unlike directors who oversee the UTSU’s financial, human resources, legal, and corporate affairs, senators primarily advise directors on behalf of their respective constituencies. That is to say, rather than being its own legislative power, the Senate is more of an advisory committee intended to inform the decisions being made by board members. This implies that the power to make decisions is essentially concentrated in the BOD. In other words, binding motions made on behalf of all students at the UTSG are ultimately decided by a mere 12 people.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not entirely against the changes that have been made to the structure of the UTSU. After all, the Senate is beneficial because it provides an opportunity for students to get involved without having to take on the responsibilities and obligations associated with being a director. Despite this, I believe that a board consisting of 12 people lacks the ability to adequately represent the interests of over 45,000 undergraduate students.
For perspective, UTSG has more than twice the number of undergraduate students than UTSC and UTM combined. Nonetheless, the BOD in the individual unions representing students at each campus — the Scarborough Campus Student Union and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union — is larger than the current BOD at the UTSU. It’s not hard to see with these numbers that there may be a problem with how student unions at U of T represent its constituents. The UTSU claims to both recognize and appeal to its diverse student body, which is why I find it hard to understand their decision to downsize.
Furthermore, the directors at the UTSU are responsible for the approval of the union’s annual budget and are also the only ones at the UTSU allowed to adopt policies. The previous structure of the BOD allowed for these responsibilities to be distributed among a wider net of constituency-based representatives. However, with the current reduced size of the BOD, these crucial decisions are now being made by fewer representatives.
Some might argue that the creation of the Senate to compensate for the reduction in BOD members solves the problem of representation, because the Senate contains students from various unique student populations such as first years, commuters, and international students. However, the problem lies in the fact that the members of the Senate have little power to actually influence important decisions being made about students at U of T.
Overall, I believe that as an organization representing such a densely populated campus, the UTSU should consider expanding its powers so that its decisions are more representative of the needs of students. After all, a student union should be able to advocate for the needs of every student it claims to represent — otherwise, why bother?
Student Engagement in the UTSU
The UTSU’s shift toward more concentrated control is risky when engagement in student government is on the decline. Although the UTSU announced that the downsize was partially intended to avoid organizational issues associated with an oversized board, this motion has more to do with the union’s consistent inability to reach quorum and fill its share of seats come election season.
According to the provided minutes, BOD meetings at the UTSU failed to reach quorum at least three times between May of 2022 and April of 2023. Furthermore, as of the most recent meeting on February 26, 19 director seats are vacant. The numbers don’t lie; they tell a tale of increasing disinterest in the UTSU among students at U of T. Given that a lack of student engagement lies at the crux of the current problem with representation at the UTSU, is scaling back really the solution?
On the one hand, I wonder whether things will be so different under the 12-director structure, considering that many of seats on the 44-director structure often went unfilled anyways. On the other hand, if this is ultimately a matter of student participation, does downsizing send the right signals to a disinterested demographic? Students might feel that such a limited board fails to truly represent their interests, and I would share their sentiment. Hopefully, the proposed Senate can bridge these gaps in the UTSU’s decision making, if even partially.
As it stands, the success of the new structure of the UTSU is contingent upon the directors’ integration of senators’ suggestions. The main concern with the cut to the BOD is that there are too few student actors involved in the union’s legislative operations, and the Senate only partially addresses this. Overall, I believe that the reduction in seats on the UTSU BOD fails to adequately represent students at U of T.
Emma Dobrovnik is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and criminology. She is an executive-at-large for the Association of Political Science Students and a Comment Columnist at The Varsity covering the UTSU.