Pressure mounts on UTSU for electoral reform

Declaration from colleges, Simcoe Hall recommendations give new urgency to changes

Pressure mounts on UTSU for electoral reform

Pressure began mounting this week for electoral reform by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The St. George Roundtable has backed a “non-partisan declaration” calling for reforms that are, according to the three-page document, “both necessary and overdue.”

The declaration was well received by all the nine college leaders who sit on the SGRT. “All of the presidents have agreed that this is necessary,” said Paulina Bogdanova, co-head of college at Trinity. “They’re very basic issues, very basic suggestions,” she said.

Also this week, The Varsity obtained a letter from vice-provost, students Jill Matus to former UTSU president Danielle Sandhu detailing Simcoe Hall’s concerns with the union’s electoral policy in the wake of the spring 2011 elections, and admonishing Sandhu to implement many of the same reforms currently being pushed for by the SGRT declaration.

“I’m sure you know that the complaints, both formal and informal, raised annually about the fairness of UTSU’s election procedures are an on-going concern,” Matus wrote in the January 2012 letter, adding, “Once again, Danielle … it would be a fine outcome of your tenure as President if you were able to bolster confidence in your organization’s electoral system.”

Matus clarified that the concerns raised in the letter remained outstanding via email on Friday.

“We have been given assurances by UTSU that the organization would address the issues raised in the letter no later than the fall of 2012,” wrote Matus. “The president of UTSU repeated this assurance in a meeting several weeks ago.”

Meanwhile, the SGRT declaration’s widespread adoption could add to the urgency for reforms before this spring’s election, an effort that will likely come to a head when the UTSU convenes its annual general meeting on November 22.

The declaration was endorsed by both the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit) and the Trinity College Meeting last week. Other colleges and professional faculty associations will be considering the declaration in the weeks to come.

Benjamin Dionne, president of the UCLit, stresses the importance of “getting the discussion going” with the declaration.

“We decided to support it because it contains genuinely good measures that any democracy cannot, in good faith, turn down,” said Dionne.

Dionne admitted that the UCLit did have some reservations about the declaration, “mostly regarding the membership of the appeal committee.” He added that many of the aspects of the Declaration “are already part of the election code of the UCLit, and are therefore coherent with what we stand for.”

The university administration and the SGRT appear to have raised similar concerns about the optics and policy of UTSU-run elections.

The SGRT declaration calls on the union to address procedural issues by reforming the electoral code. Proposed changes include reviewing the appointment and powers of the chief returning officer, altering the composition and structure of various electoral appeals bodies, and removing financial barriers for candidates. The declaration also advocates a move to online voting and introducing a preferential balloting system.

Various propositions have attracted support in diverse quarters of the university.

Rishi Maharaj, president of the Engineering Society, is supportive of the call for a move to preferential voting. “Student organizations around the world have been leaders in the development and use of preferential voting and its benefits are well documented in academic research,” he said.

Both the declaration and Matus’ letter encourage the UTSU to move to online voting, with the declaration saying that such a move could improve participation rates among “commuting students, students with physical disabilities, and disengaged students.” Matus’ letter cited improved security and increased voter turnout as possible benefits that could arise from online voting.

UTSU remains non-committal 

Sam Greene, co-head of college at Trinity, says he sent the declaration to UTSU “a few weeks ago” but has yet to receive a “real affirmative response.”

“We decided to forge ahead to get stakeholder support — we’re looking to the UTSU to commit to these changes,” said Greene.

UTSU president Shaun Shepherd said he has read the declaration and passed it on to the Elections and Referenda Committee. “I’ve passed [it] on, I’ve shared my thoughts in honesty with those people,” said Shepherd.

But Corey Scott, vice-president internal and this year’s chair of the influential Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC), refused to comment on what aspects of the declaration he agreed with, or which of its proposals would receive serious consideration. Scott also refused to provide a timeline for when students could expect a formal response from the union.

“The members of the Elections and Referenda Committee will be more than happy to review and seriously consider the proposals,” Scott said. “It is always a good idea to review policies and procedures to ensure fairness, transparency and access.”

Asked to identify the area most in need of electoral reform, Scott pointed to Professional Experience Year (PEY) engineering students who are unable to vote in their PEY year, even though they return to full-time status the following year, saying the cause was something he would “personally prioritize.”

“Some of these other issues in here … I don’t think that anyone had conversations with Clara Ho [former chair of the ERC] about this stuff last year,” Scott said.

Bogdanova was not pleased with Scott’s response. “I feel like that’s a minor part of a broader issue,” she said. “He’s obviously just nit-picking.”

Concerns at Simcoe Hall

Matus’ letter is the clearest articulation to date of Simcoe Hall’s concerns about the optics of the UTSU’s annual elections. The document strongly recommends that the UTSU “undertake a serious review and overhaul of the process related to elections.”

“This complaint and assertions made about previous UTSU elections clearly indicate that there are students who perceive the electoral system at UTSU to be unfair,” Matus writes in the letter, although she clearly notes that the Office of Student Life found no direct evidence of unfair practices during the 2011 election.

No formal complaints were filed regarding the spring 2012 election that brought the current executive under Shepherd into office.

In the letter, Matus stressed the importance of both policy and perception when it comes to elections. “Electoral procedures must not only be fair, they must be perceived to be fair … in order to avoid perceptions that electoral processes are favouring a particular candidate or group of candidates,” she wrote, outlining six areas of concern to complainants.

Robert Boissoneault, who served as legal director for the 2011 Students’ First slate, submitted one of the 2011 complaints that eventually prompted the letter. (Since 2012, Boissoneault has been a member of The Varsity’s Board of Directors.)

“They [the administration] didn’t want to deal with politics, litigation. They were concerned, I think justifiably, with politics of defunding student unions,” said Boissoneault. He acknowledges that there was no “smoking gun” to prove outright bias in the 2011 election, but maintains that “there are enough little things wrong with this process to call into question its democratic legitimacy.”

The administration has, in the past, intervened in cases of gross corruption on the part of student unions. When The Varsity published transcripts of conversations between ASSU executives in 2007–2008 plotting to rig the election, there followed a high-profile intervention.

Matus explained the rule Friday. “If the Provost has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible and democratic fashion and following the terms of its constitution, the Policy provides procedures for the review of such matters and ultimately, the withholding of fees from the society,” she noted.

Previous calls for reform unheeded

“Typically, election reform is discussed after elections and not during the crucial periods where changes can be made,” explained Scott.

This year’s calls have come early, but Maharaj says he is skeptical that the effort will succeed, having seen annually “some attempt by those opposed to the CFS-affiliated incumbent to craft and pass policy and bylaw changes that would address some of the systemic criticisms of the UTSU.”

“I’ve yet to see a motion passed at any general or board meeting of the UTSU without the approval of the executive,” said Maharaj.

In August 2010, the Engineering Society submitted a detailed call for reform. According to Maharaj, then-UTSU president Adam Awad promised that the ERC would examine the proposal and respond. But nothing came of the plan. “From the minutes available to me, [the consultation] never occurred,” Maharaj claims.

The concerns expressed in Matus’s letter from January 2012 also appear to have gone unheeded thus far. A copy of the union’s electoral policy indicated that the document had not been updated since November 16, 2011.

New transcript to record extracurricular involvement

Lingering concerns as focus group testing continues

New transcript to record extracurricular involvement

The University of Toronto’s Office of Student Life is developing a new co-curricular record (CCR) for all undergraduate and graduate students. The initiative is designed to help students find extracurricular activities within the university and record them on an official, institutional document.

“The research indicates that successful students get involved in activities both inside and outside the classroom,” said Catherine Drea, director of student life at U of T. “The CCR will provide a new extensive database that will help students search for co-curricular opportunities, based on location (campus, faculty, college), type of activity, or skills they would like to develop.”

According to Drea, the co-curricular transcript will be “a separate and distinct document from their transcript, one that helps to demonstrate a student’s whole university experience.”

The impetus for the transcript was borne out of concerns raised by the student body, Drea said. “Students have asked for the CCR as a way to track their involvement at university.”

“In 2010, the university held a broad series of focus groups and asked students about their university experience,” said Drea, referring to the Council on Student Experience (CSE), which called for the creation of a co-curricular transcript as a means of enhancing student experience.

At the time, the CSE suggested such a move would “prioritize the importance of co-curricular involvement at U of T” and  “recognize, celebrate, and make sense of co-curricular experiences, helping students relate to, reflect on, and learn from co-curricular involvement.” The council predicted that the record could become a “useful reference in a student’s community, workplace, scholarly, professional and personal life.”

“Working groups were established in response to what we heard, one of which focused on school spirit and engagement, which we thought could benefit highly from a formal incentive to contribute,” Drea explains. The working groups were comprised of more than 75 staff, faculty, and students from across all three campuses.

Kimberly Elias, program coordinator for the CCR, extols the benefits of extracurricular involvement. “Successful students get involved in university life,” said Elias. “By participating in these activities, U of T students will be able to build their experience and gain valuable skills.”

Elias says that the CCR will complement the current GPA and academic transcript and will allow greater recognition of extracurricular involvement in university life.

Carleton, Guelph, and Dalhousie already have a similar system in place. As focus groups help the Office of Student Life turn the proposal into reality, some students expressed lingering concerns.

Second-year student Alexandra Sundarsingh says that a formalized co-curricular record may encourage students to join as many clubs as possible and “emphasize quantity of involvement over depth” simply to have the activities listed on their record.

Drea disagrees. “The record will emphasize more than just joining and will reflect active engagement,” she said.

Drea said that student concerns highlighted in focus group sessions “have been heard” and that the main goal is to ensure that the administration communicates the policy change so that all students know about the CCR. “Every student should be aware of it and should have a better understanding of the types of co-curricular activities that are available at
U of T,” she said

Other students questioned the efficacy of such a policy. Political science student Giorgio Traini says he thinks that the “policy presents an unnecessary inconvenience for students who are already hard-pressed for time.”

The Office of Student Life will continue to consult students through focus groups this week; students can begin to sign up for the record beginning in 2013.

Naylor defends Access Copyright agreement

Student unions call for university to reject agreement come 2013 renewal

Naylor defends  Access Copyright agreement

U of T president David Naylor defended the controversial Access Copyright agreement at a Governing Council meeting Tuesday, saying the university’s early ratification of the agreement, which has been widely criticized, gave it more flexibility on copyright issues.

“We adopted the [agreement] early on to see if we could be first movers,” Naylor said. “We sought first mover status to see what we could do to secure a reasonable price and to make sure we had an early exit.”

Access Copyright is a Canadian non-profit collective representing copyright holders and publishers . The terms of its 2011 agreement with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada would raise the annual fee universities pay for copyrighted material from $3.38 to $26 per full-time student .

The University of Toronto and the Western University both signed the agreement in January . Other Canadian universities have opposed the new agreement, and over a dozen have refused to sign it, including UBC, York, and Queen’s .

Opposition among U of T students and faculty has also been considerable.

“Student unions stand united with faculty and with student unions across the province in our criticism that Access Copyright has no legal basis, as we saw in the recent Supreme Court ruling,” said Erin Oldynski, external commissioner of the Graduate Students’ Union, during the Governing Council meeting.

Oldynski expressed concerns about the agreement’s potential impact on academic freedom, and criticized the university for its failure to consult students and faculty before signing the agreement.

“The student unions recommend that Governing Council move a motion for U of T to reject Access Copyright when it comes up for renewal in 2013,” she concluded.

A Supreme Court of Canada ruling in July expanded the definition of materials considered “fair dealing” and therefore exempt from copyright . Interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling has been mixed to date.

“There can be no question the Supreme Court’s rulings are a serious blow to Access Copyright,” wrote Ariel Katz, an associate professor at the Faculty of Law. “The message from the Supreme Court to users is clear: Fair dealing is real; fair dealing is important; do try it at home!”

Access Copyright disputed the significance of the ruling in a July press release, claiming it would have a “limited impact on the importance of the Access Copyright license.”

“The Supreme Court was only looking at about seven per cent of the copying done in schools,” said Maureen Cavan, executive director of Access Copyright. “The decision absolutely does not mean a free-for-all on copyright-protected materials. On the contrary, it leaves copyright licensing in the education sector alive and well.”

With the current status of the Access Copyright agreement in flux, Naylor said the university’s long-term goals were to widen the interpretation of “fair dealing” and to reduce costs.

“This is a very fluid and quite contentious playing field,” Naylor said later in the Governing Council meeting. “The view that this was somehow a done deal when the Supreme Court ruled is not true, I’m afraid: this will continue to evolve, and the key right now is to have an aggressive but principled approach to fair dealing.”

“We certainly have some sympathy with those who argue that it would be ideal for the university to go at this alone at some point. But let’s watch and see how this unfolds in the months ahead.”

Unions demand ex officio student seats

Governing Council grapples with composition of new campus councils for UTM and UTSC

Representatives from five student unions requested on Tuesday that the university’s Governing Council add ex officio seats to UTM and UTSC’s campus councils. Members from UTSU, SCSU, UTMSU, APUS, and the GSU all voiced their support for student ex officio positions on the campus councils.

“All councils should have fair and accurate representation across their campuses,” said Chris Thomson, president of the University of Toronto Mississauga Student Union. “Ex officio seats have been brought up as necessary for elected representatives to bring our concerns to the table.”

The UTSC and UTM campus councils were first proposed in a 2010 report on the university’s governance, and will be formally established by July 2013. The campus councils will oversee campus-specific concerns and report to the Governing Council.

The student unions’ request drew a number of responses from Governing Council members during a question period on the floor, re-opening a debate about the proposed structure of campus councils that has been ongoing since the matter was first raised in 2010.

Under the current plan, campus councils would have 26 members, four of whom would be elected students. The only ex officio positions, which are given to members because of their other elected positions at the university, would be for the chancellor and president of the university, and the chair and vice-chair of the Governing Council.

The student unions have framed the matter as one of transparency and freedom of information.

Guled Arale, vice-president external of the Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU), said that ex officio seats would bring greater transparency and improve student leaders’ access to information. According to Arale, ex officio members of the campus councils would also have privileges not typically offered to other members, including access to campus list-servs, and opportunities for consultation and debate on sub-committees.

Both Arale and Thomson discussed the need for increased student participation in campus committees. Arale said during the meeting that he wanted to see ex officio seats included in addition to the elected positions currently proposed.

“We want to get as many students as possible,” Arale said. “Division [of representation] is good for governance.”

Administrative staff member P.C. Choo and student representative to Governing Council Aidan Fishman, among others, raised concerns about the student unions’ demands.

Choo voiced his opposition to ex officio positions for anyone but “senior administrative staff.” He recommended that those concerned run as student representatives for the university’s governing bodies.

Fishman took issue with the student unions call for transparency, claiming that elections for student unions lacked just such transparency. He pointed to the boycott of StudentsFirst in the UTSU election two years ago, over what the slate perceived to be an unfair election.

Other council members raised the issue that ex officio seats could decrease constituent diversity on the councils, as more students could be represented if candidates unaffiliated with the unions were to run independently for the campus councils.

Choo elaborated on this point in during an interview.

“I am not in favour of ex officio representation on principle,” Choo said. “I have spoken to some student leaders a couple of months ago on this and have made my stance clear. In my conversations with the student leaders, they had made it known that they are quite comfortable with the non-voting option. This is exactly my point — if they are non-voting, how can they make a difference where it counts?”

Consultations about the distribution of elected seats in the university’s governing bodies will be held throughout November. Governing Council is set to meet again on December 13.

Tanenbaums lead campaign to reinvigorate Jewish Studies

A $5 million donation from the Tanenbaum family has kick-started the second phase of a fundraising effort to improve and expand for Jewish studies at the University of Toronto. The donation came from the estate of Anne Tanenbaum, and the Lawrence and Judith Tanenbaum Family Charity Foundation, to the Centre for Jewish Studies.

The donation marks the beginning of a $36 million campaign spearheaded by the co-chairs of the Centre for Jewish Studies, Ken and Larry Tanenbaum. The goal, says Ken Tanenbaum, is “[f]irst, to raise funds to enable the work of the remarkable faculty and staff, [and] second, to raise funds for programming and student support.”

The fundraising drive will ultimately provide for the hiring of six new professors, two new research positions, and general enhancement of courses. The centre also intends to move into a larger space in the Jackman Humanities Building, and establish a curatorship for resources and awards.

— Dhruv Mayank


Ombudsperson presents annual report to Governing Council

Last week, the U of T Ombudsperson presented their annual report to the Governing Council surveying complaints made to the office during the 2011-2012 year.

The Ombudsperson is an impartial official who deals with university complaints and aims to offer fair and reasonable solutions to them. The report gives an overview of the systemic issues that affected the U of T population last year as well as a statistical overview of their users, the nature of proffered assistance, and the outcomes.

Issues highlighted in the report include international fee exemptions, program fee refunds, academic integrity matters, discrimination, grading policies, student health plans and graduate supervision.

Overall, the report makes no formal recommendations on any issue, and states that university and union officials have acted in a speedy manner to help resolve many of them. The report also gives information on outreach activities undertaken by the office and describes efforts to spread awareness of their services to students.

The Governing Council’s official response to the report states that they have drafted new policies to deal with the issues presented and commends the Ombudsperson in its fair dealings of the complex issues presented in the report.

 — Vipasha Shaikh
Sources: BBC, The Guardian

David Naylor vists Hong Kong; raises $6 million for Boundless

University of Toronto president David Naylor and alumna Daisy Ho visited Hong Kong last week to launch the Asia-Pacific branch of the university’s Boundless Campaign.

The launch, celebrated with a gala event in Hong Kong, featured two major contributions to the Campaign: a donation of $2 million from Daisy Ho herself, and gift of $4 million from an anonymous donor.

Ms. Ho’s donation will be used to fund a new scholarship award, the Award for Emerging Leaders, which will reward strong international students who are attending the Rotman School of Management. Her donation will also support a new undergraduate program that will encourage Chinese relations through China-based research projects and student exchanges.

The $4 million was donated in order to establish a Chair in Chinese Canadian Studies at University College. The Chair will ultimately be part of a new awareness program that emphasizes the contributions of Chinese Canadians on campus and in Canada.

Boundless: the Campaign for the University of Toronto is U of T’s major funding campaign, and is used to support the university’s goals and endeavours. Currently, the university has raised $1.12 billion out of a $2 billion goal, with $17 million being raised in the Asia-Pacific Region.

— Jerico Espinas

Queen’s professors demand apology on behalf of colleague

Queen’s University professors are demanding an apology from the university for false accusations of racism and sexism leveled against Michael Mason, a former history professor at the university.

Mason, who had been teaching for almost 50 years, was “banned” from the second-year history course on imperialism and neo-colonialism, following accusations from students and teaching assistants that he was making racist and sexist statements in his lectures.

Students said that he had used the terms “rag head,” “towel head,” “japs,” and “little yellow sons of bitches,” and one of Mason’s female teaching assistants accused him of telling the female TAs that they should become “mistresses.”

Mason defended himself saying that he was using the offensive phrases to demonstrate the attitudes of the era that they were studying. He added that some of his statements were direct quotes from contemporaneous documents. Mason said that he had simply expressed the hope that his students would become “masters and mistresses” of the material by the end of the semester.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers published a report in which the said that Queen’s had “acted callously and irresponsibly.”

Sources: The Globe and Mail