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Atwood threatens to write U of T out of her will over Astroturf plan

Margaret Atwood has taken up the charge against U of T’s plan to convert its back-campus field into a field hockey pitch with artificial turf, hinting that the move could lead her to write the university out of her will.

“So, @UofTNews: as a soon-to-be dead alum w. $ to leave, am I annoyed by the anti-green plan? Y!,” read one of Atwood’s tweets.

The esteemed novelist and U of T alumna has used her clout on social media to back a campaign opposed to the plan, which is part of preparations for the Pan American Games in 2015.

Although university officials have maintained the plan will proceed, a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures raises serious aesthetic, environmental and health concerns.

U of T’s vice president, university operations, Scott Mabury, says that while Ms. Atwood has the “perogative” to make her opposition be heard, he hasn’t heard any such warnings from other alumni members, adding, “We all like natural grass better, but the needs of our students lead us to taking advantage of great opportunities like this to make sure the university’s dollar goes as far as possible.”

With construction to begin on July 1st, the opposition has indicated it will continue protesting the move.

“I think the pressure to reverse the decision is coming from all sides: it’s young

and old, it’s humanists and engineers and doctors, it’s alumni and friends of the university, students, faculty, people on the left … and people on the right,” said Suzanne Akbari, an organizer behind the opposition movement and professor of English and medieval studies at the university.

With files from the Globe and Mail

Federal government to absorb loss as unpaid student loans reach $540 million

The federal government has announced it will write off 44,000 loans this year, meaning taxpayers are set to pick up the tab on $540 million in unpaid student loans.

“Amounts being written off are debts for which all reasonable efforts to collect the amounts owed have been exhausted,” read a statement from the Treasury Board.

The Canada Revenue Agency attempts to collect unpaid loans by sending notices and withholding income tax refunds, and in some circumstances they may also garnish wages or seize assets. The Crown, however, loses legal authority to collect these debts after a six-year limitation period.

The department has stated that approximately 87 per cent of all student loans are repaid within this limitation period.

With files from

Google acquires U of T start-up

Google recently acquired the University of Toronto start-up company DNNresearch Inc., the brainchild of computer science professor Geoffrey Hinton and his graduate students Alex Krizhevsky and Ilya Sutskever.

The start-up’s research focuses on deep neural networks that are capable of developing digital speech recognition. Under their new arrangement with Google, the DNNresearch Inc. team will split their time between Google’s Mountain View, California-based headquarters and Toronto.

Google had previously invested $600,000 into the start-up’s research, though the details of the new deal were not released.

“The deal with Google allows me and my students to work on whatever we like and to publish whenever and whatever we like … It doesn’t put any constraints on what we work on and when we publish,” said Hinton in an interview with the Toronto Star.

Google currently uses deep learning as part of the Android 4.1’s speech recognition, an area that is to be further developed by this University of Toronto team.

With files from the Toronto Star


Post-doctoral fellows seek unionization

If successful, fellows would form fifth unit of CUPE 3902

Post-doctoral fellows at U of T have launched a campaign to become universally unionized under CUPE 3902.

The campaign, which commenced in January 2013, comes a year after the Ontario Labour Board’s initial ruling that post-doc fellows should be considered trainees, not employees of the university. The ruling was revised by the Board this year, resulting in a new provision that post-doc fellows should indeed be given employee status and thereby treated as such.

“If a vote were ordered by the Labour Board, we would encourage everyone in the proposed bargaining unit to vote and to let their wishes be known. The university values its post-doctoral fellows highly,” says Laurie Stephens, director, news and media relations at the University of Toronto. According to a press release issued by CUPE, post-doc fellows currently  receive salaries as low as $27,500 (before taxes), and are subject to inadequate leave-of-absence options and meagre professional development opportunities.

“Post-docs are an integral part of the academic life at this university. They are working in labs, they are developing research that is being published in prestigious academic journals, and U of T gets its ranking as one of the best universities in the world partly because of those publications and what goes on in those labs. That is why these workers deserve better,” says Abouzar Nasirzadeh, chair of CUPE 3902.

U of T presently does not consider post-docs to be employees unless they teach at the university. Post-doctoral fellows who teach are the only fellows currently represented by CUPE 3902. The arrangement leaves those who do not teach unrepresented by a formalized bargaining agent and unable to receive standard workplace benefits.

As CUPE member organizer Jennifer Ridgley explains, this policy excludes a substantial number of the university’s post-doctoral fellows. “The vast majority of post-docs don’t teach courses — their full-time work is research. That work right now, with the way that post-docs are paid, is not considered employment income, which has a lot of implications,” says Ridgley.

According to Nasirzadeh, the most significant problem facing post-doc fellows is the lack of a formalized system under which the university’s post-doctoral fellows can be protected

“There is no protection whatsoever, and no formalized system,” Nasirzadeh says. “Post-doctoral fellows don’t have anything to prevent their principle investigators from overworking them. The other issue is that they don’t have any protection against arbitrary dismissal. They can be dismissed at any point.”

“Of all academic workers, post-doctoral fellows are the only major group of employees that don’t collectively bargain with the university,” says Ridgley.

If post-doctoral fellows successfully unionized, they could form a new unit of CUPE. The union would collectively negotiate workplace terms and conditions with the university.

Both Ridgley and Nasirzadeh are confident that the campaign will be successful, as they believe there is a large backing of post-docs to the campaign.

Graduate Students’ Union backs defederation referenda

With votes on fee diversion looming, the UTSU declines to lead a campaign encouraging students to stay

The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) endorsed college and faculty plans to host referenda that would sever financial ties with the UTSU if approved.

The surprise announcement from the union’s long-time ally came in an open letter condemning the UTSU’s actions during the recently concluded campaign season. The letter finds that it may not be “productive or possible” to keep UTSU unified any longer, and that referenda asking students to approve fee diversion is an “appropriate” response.

The letter was released after UTSU vice-president, internal, Corey Scott appointed Gale Fernando, a resource coordinator with the GSU, to a coveted seat on the Elections and Referenda Appeals Committee (ERAC), the UTSU’s highest elections appeals body.

GSU executive Brad Evoy explained that although UTSU had for several years hand-picked a staff member of the GSU to sit on the committee, this year the GSU decided to pick their own representative.

The UTSU refused to accept the GSU’s representative on the ERAC, and Fernando declined the invitation.

Scott described the whole situation as a “misunderstanding”, adding that “this is the process we’ve been following for years.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Evoy described an organized outreach effort from the UTSU to try and halt defederation efforts that has unfolded behind the scenes in recent weeks.

Evoy says he received several emails trying to coordinate “traditional campus allies” to “speak out against defederation.”

Evoy identified APUS, UTMSU, SCSU as well as “about 10” other campus groups that have been asked to contribute to efforts to halt defederation.

The CRO, Eric Leung has issued 11 rulings, overturning all complaints and issuing no demerit points. The ERAC has not met this year and according to Scott, will not be meeting.

The GSU’s letter comes as preparations are underway for referenda on fee diversion to be held at the end of this month.

The campaign period for Trinity’s referendum on diverting fees from UTSU began last Friday. Referenda at Engineering and Victoria are scheduled for the coming weeks.

As of The Varsity’s press time, no one had registered to run the “no” campaign at Trinity, although the college has delegated $500 dollars for this purpose.

Longtime opposition figures Taylor Scollon and Brett Chang are organizing the “yes” campaign at Trinity.

At the Trinity College Meeting last Monday, a formal invitation was issued to the UTSU to serve on the “no” campaign.

UTSU president Shaun Shepherd has acknowledged receipt of the invitation, but as of press time, has not issued a response.

Shepherd has previously stated he does not recognize the legitimacy of any of the College’s referenda and has “clear legal precedent” to stop them regardless of the outcome. Newly-elected UTSU president Munib Sajjad said he did not recognize the legitimacy of Trinity’s referenda, because it was not open to all UTSU members and was not being held under the official auspices of the union’s referenda procedures.

Sam Greene, co-head of Trinity College issued a public challenge to the UTSU, encouraging them to send someone to campaign to “justify their own existence.”

“If they don’t do this, it’s their own fault — they’ve know this referendum was going to happen for a long time.”

UTSU calls for new drop credit policies

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has released a discussion paper calling for a revised drop credit policy.

“Academic forgiveness policies support students in extenuating circumstances,” reads the report. “Across universities in North America, institutional-wide academic forgiveness policies are the standard. By implementing similar policies, the University of Toronto would align itself with peer North American institutions.”

In the paper, UTSU recommends that students be allowed to make multiple attempts at a course, and that the highest subsequent mark be reflected on their transcript, with the original mark deleted.  Under the union’s proposal, only the best attempt at a class would also be used in calculating cumulative grade point averages (CGPA).

The justification for such a recommendation according to the UTSU is the external factors that could affect a student’s academic performance, such as household education levels, mental health, and socio-economic status.

“Academic performance is tied to realities that extend beyond the borders of our campuses… Multiple course attempts are a means of ensuring students with extenuating circumstances can progress in their academic careers,” the report finds.

The report also identifies problems with the current appeals process, suggesting that it is “lengthy” and “cumbersome,” and can take anywhere from seven days to several months to complete.

The UTSU justifies reflecting the higher mark on the transcript and in the calculation of the CGPA, suggesting that “by committing to reflect the improvement of performance on both students’ CGPAs and transcripts, the university would honour its commitment to recognizing academic achievements. It would also help to ensure that students are not penalized for extenuating circumstances and individual hardships.”

The report cites examples of other North American universities who have different or more flexible drop credit and academic policies.

For example, at Carleton University, the original course attempt and grade are bumped out of your degree and are moved to a section of your audit called “Courses Set Aside” when a course is repeated. Both grades appear on Carleton transcripts, but only the most recent grade is included in CGPA calculations.

“I’m very happy that the UTSU has a drop-credit proposal, and that they’ve featured it fairly prominently in their election platform. It’s an example of the sort of academic advocacy that I think should be the UTSU’s main focus, along with student services,” said Aidan Fishman, an undergraduate representative on the Governing Council.

The UTSU calls for students to be free to swap out their lower grade three times over the course of their undergraduate careers.

Fishman agrees that there should be a limit placed on the policy, but thinks that three attempts is too many.

“My only minor criticism is that I don’t see why three drop-credits per student, rather than one or two, is necessary — at that point, I fear that this system could be exploited simply trying to raise sub-par marks in some courses for medical or law school purposes, rather than those truly afflicted by [extenuating circumstances].”

“All that being said, drop credit would be fairly low-impact; it would only affect students who do particularly poorly in 1–3 courses that they require in order to complete their degree, and who have time and money to retake those courses. I believe that pushing average U of T marks upward from their extremely low current level and altering the breadth requirement system to work better for students are likely to incur far more benefit for a far larger group of students,” said Fishman, who has made his own proposals regarding academic performance at U of T.

The UTSU recommends that the policy be made simple and easy to access through ROSI or New Generation Student Information Services (NGIS) and that information about the policy and academic appeals be provided to students upon enrollment in courses. The UTSU expressed concern that students often do not find out about the appeals process until some time after an academic issue arises.

“By promoting the policy through an online student registration system, every student would be aware of the policy and would be more likely to understand and not misuse it,” says the report.

Finally, UTSU recommends that U of T develop a university-wide standard for making multiple course attempts; right now, policies on multiple course attempts are different across faculties.

“Standard practice across faculties would facilitate academic fairness for all students. Other post-secondary institutions investigated in our report have established standard, institutional-wide practices.”

University registrars and administrators declined to comment on the UTSU’s proposal.

Renew victorious in acclamation

Slate led by Munib Sajjad sweeps board, executive position

Renew victorious in acclamation

All of Team Renew’s executive candidates were successfully acclaimed to their seats in this year’s UTSU election

Current vice-president, university affairs Munib Sajjad will succeed Shaun Shepherd as president of the union in the coming year.

Joining him will be current vice-president, campus life Yolen Bollo-Kamara in the equity portfolio, current Innis College director Agnes So as vice-president, university affairs, and newly-elected vice-president internal & services Cameron Wathey.

The executive team candidates each received slightly more than 2,000 “yes” votes and approximately 900 “no” votes.

Chief returning officer Eric Luong confirmed that ballots for the vice-president, external seat would not be counted. The seat will remain vacant until further notice. Renew’s candidate for the position, Sana Ali, withdrew from the race late last week.

The tightest race in this election period was for the Arts & Science At-Large Director seat.

Following a friendly but competitive campaign against current vice-president equity Noor Baig, independent Ben Coleman took the seat with 1097 votes, surpassing Baig’s 801 votes.

Ben Crase won his seat as Trinity’s board director with 165 votes, surpassing Umer Saeed’s 85 votes.

Most Board of Director positions were  filled by members of Team Renew, with Aimee Quenneville and Vinoj Suthakaran in the UC and Engineering director positions respectively, being the only independents acclaimed.

Only one slate ran in this year’s election period. The majority of the campaign period was uneventful. Ali’s forfeiture on the second day of voting caused a major stir among students who followed the election.

Sajjad said that his goal for the UTSU is to solidify its relationships with student groups. “Whether they are the college councils, clubs or levy groups… We all serve students, and we all have a role to play in building a greater university experience,” he said.

The statement comes following many colleges and faculty student unions’ wish to defederate from the UTSU. When questioned at the All Candidates’ Debate, Sajjad and his team did not express any concrete plan to address this issue.

As one of a handful of independent directors on the board, Coleman said that he intended to develop a strong relationship with the rest of the BOD.

“I want to be able to speak my mind and ask critical questions without the other board members feeling attacked, and it takes strong personal relationships for that to work,” says Coleman.

Coleman plans to hold himself accountable to students through a website or Facebook page, where he will keep students updated on the progress of his platform goals. He hopes to outline the steps to achieving his goals to students through this medium.

Unlike previous years, there was no controversy regarding the chief returning officer’s rulings. Official election results have not been published, but unofficial results are unlikely to change.

For now, says Sajjad, his chief priority is planning for the year ahead. “We need to get to work. We need to be working effectively, reaching out to all our campus partners.

“It is going to be a very interesting year, to say the least.”

Cora’s for sale?

Cora’s for sale?

U of T students may be disappointed — or relieved — to hear that local pizzeria Cora Pizza has been put up for sale.

Known for its cheap prices and generous slices, Cora Pizza has been a family-owned business since it opened in 1984. It remains unclear whether the sale will result in a closure, or if the restaurant will carry on under new management.

Many students have dubbed Cora Pizza, located near Spadina Avenue and Harbord Street, a staple in the U of T community. Regularly open late, the restaurant is a favourite for those undertaking all-nighters.  Online reviews proclaim that Cora’s is “the closest thing you can find in the core [to] a NY style slice. Cora offers the kind of drippy, gooey slice that every U of T co-ed dreams about grabbing after class.”

“This pizza store is a huge part of student life at U of T. It is very close to Morrison Hall residence, New College residence, Innis residence, Robarts library and many other houses,” says another reviewer.

While many students openly profess their love for the pizza joint, others say it’s hard to forget the sanitation issues of the past, which forced Cora to close briefly in 2009. The Toronto Public Health food safety program DineSafe found “gross unsanitary conditions” after “several dead rats and fresh rat droppings were found on the premises.”

Cora reopened its doors a few months after the closure and has since passed every health inspection, including the latest conducted by DineSafe in October 2012.   One student said the potential closure or sale is “a devastating loss for students and rodents alike”

While employees said they were confident that Cora Pizza was not closing, ownership declined to comment. The pizzeria has been listed on HomeFinder and Craigslist, as well as on Kijiji.  For any students with a passion for pizza-making, the asking price has recently been lowered from $149,900 to $129,000