Op-ed: Building a student centre

The poorly managed Student Commons project has the potential to bankrupt the UTSU — but we’re working on a plan to fix it

Op-ed: Building a student centre

The Student Commons is opening next year. If you don’t know what that means, you’re not alone — and even if you are not aware of what the Student Commons is, you’re paying for it.

Ten years ago, in the fall of 2007, students voted to let the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) build a student centre. They even voted to pay for it themselves, by way of a new UTSU fee that has now grown to $10.24 per semester. At the time, students were promised a 600-seat auditorium, three restaurants, and office space for campus groups. The building would be in a central location on Devonshire Place, and it would be under the complete control of students — or, rather, of the UTSU. Most of those goals were never realistic.

The university ultimately gave the Devonshire plot to the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, and the Student Commons was forced to relocate to College Street. The original business plan was discarded and never replaced, and work on the project continued without regard for the financial sustainability of the UTSU. Nonetheless, in April of 2015, the UTSU went ahead and signed a binding agreement with the university, outlining the operational arrangements between the university and the UTSU, operating costs, financial controls, and a management structure. At that point, the project could no longer be stopped.

In June 2016, we calculated the cost of operating the Student Commons for the first time. In the process, we discovered that the Student Commons levy wouldn’t even come close to keeping the building, and ultimately the UTSU itself, afloat. If nothing were done, we were facing a deficit of approximately $500,000 in 2018–2019 and a carried-forward deficit of $3.8 million by the 2027 academic year. Bankruptcy became a real possibility.

So, where are we now?

We’ve spent the last 18 months coming up with a plan to save both the Student Commons and the UTSU, and we’re doing well. If it had been possible to cancel the project, we would have, but the UTSU is contractually obligated to press on — for better or for worse. The people who decided to spend millions of dollars on the mere idea of a student centre have long since left the UTSU. Still, there’s no turning back.

On a day-to-day basis, the Student Commons project doesn’t excite me; it frustrates me. We shouldn’t be in this situation. When the student union at the University of British Columbia decided to build a new student centre, they provided detailed plans before they asked students to commit. The UTSU did no such thing. Needless to say, students aren’t getting what they voted for in 2007.

However, while the Student Commons really does threaten the existence of the UTSU, it’s also a great opportunity. Students voted for a student centre, and the fact that they’re getting one is a good thing. Even if the building that’s opening next fall isn’t the building that was promised, it can still make campus better. There’s a need for accessible, 24-hour space for clubs and students, and the Student Commons will provide that. It will also create more space for clubs and other campus groups. There won’t be a 600-seat auditorium, and it will take the better part of a year to get the building up and running, but the end result will still be a student centre where St. George students can innovate and conduct research, study and learn, attend and organize events, and access student-facing services. Everything else aside, that’s a big deal.

The next step is to show students the mysterious ‘plan’ that we’ve been working on since last summer. That will happen early in 2018. Then, we’ll start rolling out the new programming, and it will finally be safe to get excited about the project again. There really is light at the end of this very long tunnel — the age of the dumpster fire is over. 

Mathias Memmel is a student at University College studying Computer Science and Political Science. He is the President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

UTSU Food Bank aims to remedy food insecurity on campus

Breaking down the bank’s supports, challenges, Student Commons plan

UTSU Food Bank aims to remedy food insecurity on campus

Since 2001, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has provided a weekly service at UTSG for U of T students. The UTSU Food Bank aims to remedy food insecurity on campus for students who register and present a valid TCard and schedule. On average, the food bank serves 50 people per week.

Beginning September 2018, the food bank will move to the new Student Commons, where it will operate every weekday; it currently operates out of the Multi-Faith Centre every Friday of the year from 12:00–3:00 pm, except for Good Friday and the two weeks that the university is closed in December.

UTSU Services Coordinator Terri Nikolaevsky began working with the UTSU Food Bank in 2001 and has been involved in running it since. According to Nikolaevsky, yearly usage since the UTSU started managing the food bank has “been kind of similar over a long period of time.”

Support

The food bank relies primarily on food from the Daily Bread Food Bank and Second Harvest, two Ontario-based organizations that provide food for those in need. Both organizations sometimes face food shortages, especially during the winter months due to increased demand in Toronto.

To address this problem, Adrian Huntelar, the UTSU’s Chair of the Student Aid Committee and General Equity Director for Students in Poverty/Financial Insecurity, released an open letter in October to over 150 student clubs and 50 course unions, encouraging them to run food drives during their events in order to support the UTSU Food Bank.

“The response to the open letter has been amazing to watch,” said Huntelar. “Several clubs and course unions who run major annual events that attract large audiences have confirmed that they will be encouraging donations as part of their programming.”

The food bank receives donations and support from other sources around campus as well. For example, the Hart House Singers collect non-perishables at many of their concerts. The UTSU has also begun to request voluntary donations at some of its events.

Another example of the U of T community supporting the food bank is the Food for Fines program, which has been running since 2012. Through the charity drive, U of T libraries will waive $2 of library fines in exchange for a donation of a non-perishable food item, to a maximum of $20 waived. This year, the drive will run from November 20–24.

Huntelar has also been involved in discussions with two food-related organizations, FoodReach and Feedback, in order to secure healthier and affordable food to U of T students in the future and achieve greater food security beyond the food bank.

Beyond these initiatives, and certain departments occasionally running collection drives, the university administration does not provide direct funding or support for the UTSU Food Bank.

Challenges

Nikolaevsky said addressing dietary restrictions and providing healthy food are recurring challenges for the food bank. “We’re always trying to find ways to meet those needs of students and make sure that the hamper that we are able to distribute to them have… healthy food choices,” said Nikolaevsky. “Because we want to get the best, most nutritious food into the hands of the students.”

The food bank has four to six consistent volunteers per term. The Hunger Squad volunteer program allows students to get a CCR credit for volunteering.

Julia Devorak, the on-site supervisor of the food bank since August, said volunteer availability fluctuates. “Sometimes I can’t get anybody to come and it’s me and one other person and it can be a lot of work, but some weeks, like [reading] week, everybody wanted to come because everybody was available. It’s up and down.”

UTSU President Mathias Memmel said that “Terri [Nikolaevsky] does an incredible job of making everything work; there are no significant problems.”

Moving to the Student Commons

The food bank was started in the 1990s by U of T’s Women’s Centre. In 2001, the UTSU took over leadership, making the service available on a weekly basis throughout the year.

Next year, the food bank will find a permanent venue at the UTSU’s Student Commons, which is slated to open in September 2018. Although the UTSU has called for tighter financial management in light of the Student Commons’ projected $2.3 million deficit over 11 years, Memmel said such costs do not impact the food bank’s operation. “The Food Bank isn’t especially expensive as the food is donated to us from a number of external partners, so cost isn’t a major concern,” said Memmel.

As the food bank prepares for the move, Huntelar is working with other members of the UTSU Board of Directors and Executive Committee to secure proper storage space for fresh food. It is especially important for fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other perishable items to be available to students.

According to Devorak, “Having the space to accommodate [clients] and offering it on multiple days of the week could be helpful to students because not everybody can come on a Friday and people have needs on other days of the week.”

However, Devorak also noted that “in terms of logistics, [increased operation] could make it more difficult for sure. It can be hard for me to find people once a week — finding people five days a week? We’ll have to see.”

Cost-cutting for the Student Commons has lost support from the UTSU constituency

The union's position of the project as a burden amplifies student frustration

Cost-cutting for the Student Commons has lost support from the UTSU constituency

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) took place on October 30. What was made clear to attendees was that, understandably, the UTSU is focused on the future — which means reigning in the Student Commons and the financial deficit stemming from it.

However, if the UTSU wants to maintain students’ trust, it must accept that the impassioned population that actually attends UTSU meetings may not entirely agree with campaign promises. This is especially the case when efforts to preserve financial security come at additional costs to students.

The UTSU finds itself scrambling to cut costs to salvage the Student Commons, a project it has referred to as a “dumpster fire.” There is no question that the Student Commons is putting the UTSU in a difficult financial position. At the same time, according to a blog post on the UTSU site, if the Student Commons continues to run a deficit four years after opening, U of T will reclaim management of the building and possibly force the UTSU to vacate it. The UTSU is not forever bound to maintaining this building — and it will inevitably run a deficit, regardless of the services and executive positions it cuts.

The UTSU’s attitude toward this project amplifies students’ frustrations with the project itself, given the financial sacrifices students are forced to make to construct and maintain a building that apparently no one wants. At the end of the day, it is student money that continues to go toward this project, and the UTSU’s apparent cynicism is discouraging.

Really, the union has an attitude problem. If it continues to position the Student Commons as a burden, then why should the student body be willing to support it, especially at a cost to student services? Let’s remember that the Student Commons is not just a “dumpster fire.” There are benefits to a new student space that the current UTSU team is not clearly explaining to students. It is important for students to understand why exactly it is necessary to make budgetary cuts to accommodate the Student Commons. 

This is all the more important given the UTSU’s apparent failure to consult with its constituents, which was a source of criticism at the AGM. One proposal was raised to merge two executive positions, Vice-President University Affairs and VP External, into a VP Advocacy position — largely to cut costs. There was concern among those opposing the proposal that combining these two positions would sacrifice student services to finance the Student Commons, a project that the current UTSU does not even seem to support. The UTSU had no contingency plan should the VP Advocacy proposal be voted down, but given the opposition from students, this proposal should not have been the only option.

Additionally, despite the UTSU also being responsible for representing UTM students, only four UTM students were in attendance at the AGM. University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union President Salma Fakhry pointedly reminded UTSU executives of the exclusionary nature of scheduling proxy sign-up during UTM’s reading week. UTSU President Mathias Memmel, in turn, explained that the online sign-up process was specifically meant to improve accessibility for all students. Fakhry reminded Memmel of the UTM community’s preference for face-to-face interaction, which the UTSU did not seem to consider.

But it is too early to say whether the new UTSU purposely excludes dissenting groups or if it is just having a difficult time connecting with them. However, it is evident that important voices are not being heard.

It is unacceptable to blame a lack of UTM student turnout on the UTMSU’s failure to organize; the AGM was a UTSU event, and it was necessary for the UTSU to adequately promote it on both campuses. The UTSU encompasses UTM students — they must be afforded the same level of access to UTSU meetings as UTSG students.

While the financial toll of the Student Commons greatly affects students, the UTSU needs to do a better job of communicating why it is such a significant issue to both UTSG and UTM students. Otherwise, the project will continue to be perceived as a mistake that we are forced to pay for.

Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying History and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.

CUPE Ontario posts open letter template in support of laid-off UTSU staff

CUPE 1281 still trying to get positions restored

CUPE Ontario posts open letter template in support of laid-off UTSU staff

 

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario has posted an open letter template on their website calling on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to reverse its decision to eliminate two full-time staff positions. The letter, released October 20, is addressed to UTSU President Mathias Memmel and UTSU Vice-President Internal Daman Singh and is intended for members of the U of T community to send to the UTSU.

The UTSU’s decision to lay off Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez last spring was met with protests and criticism. Critics have argued that the decision was unfair and would negatively impact student services. The UTSU also eliminated the position of Financial Coordinator, which has been unoccupied since August 2016.

“The labour movement will unite to hold the UTSU accountable for these unnecessary and unfair cuts,” reads the letter. “We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and call on you to do the right thing and bring back Vita and Maria.”

Orion Keresztesi, President of CUPE Local 1281, the union representing Carlino and Galvez, called the UTSU’s decision to cut the positions “illegal” and in defiance of the collective agreement CUPE 1281 has with the UTSU.

CUPE 1281 is still working to get the positions restored. Keresztesi said that CUPE 1281 will file grievances against the UTSU, which will be heard by a third-party arbitrator, if Carlino and Galvez are not given back their positions before the arbitration dates. CUPE 1281 and the UTSU are currently in the process of setting the first arbitration date. Keresztesi is “pretty confident that all the positions will be reinstated.”

“Unfortunately, that process is long, and it will be expensive for us and the UTSU,” said Keresztesi, who asked CUPE Ontario to release the open letter in support of Carlino and Galvez.

“I think [the open letter template] is getting the message out that the UTSU has clearly become anti-worker, and from what I’m hearing and seeing, I would even say a right-wing employer,” said Keresztesi. “So I think it’s very important that students and unions and other progressive organizations become aware of the direction that Mathias and Daman are taking the UTSU in.”

The UTSU has defended its decision, arguing that the staff cuts were made because of future financial concerns related, in part, to the development of the Student Commons. A UTSU statement released on May 30, 2017 addressing the elimination of the positions stated that the UTSU would have a “carried-forward deficit of $2 million by 2022” if the three positions were not eliminated, compared to a “carried-forward deficit of $250,000 in 2022” if the positions were eliminated.

The letter template also questions the reputability of Kokobi, the non-profit consulting firm hired by the UTSU to provide a report on the Student Commons project, and it states that “their conclusions are based on many deeply pessimistic assumptions.” The letter also says that “the UTSU’s financial documents indicate the UTSU is not in any immediate financial trouble.”

“We strongly believe, that one worst-case-scenario report cannot justify these drastic staff cuts that have such a negative impact on student services,” reads the letter.

Memmel said the letter’s claim that the UTSU “is not in any immediate financial trouble” is a “lie” and that bankruptcy was and is a “very real possibility.”

“Kokobi had nothing to do with the decision to reduce services,” said Memmel. “CUPE should stop indulging in childish conspiracy theories and start engaging in the grievance process.”

Adrian Kaats, Kokobi’s founder and Operations Director, told The Varsity that the firm “isn’t and has never been involved in UTSU’s HR decisions,” and that their work was limited to the Student Commons.

Memmel and Singh each reported receiving three copies of the letter, which is still available to send, but the changes are not being reconsidered.

“The UTSU exists to serve students; CUPE exists to serve its members,” said Memmel. “We’re not going to accept the subordination of students’ interests to the needs of full-time employees.”

Toronto-based Superkul selected to design Student Commons

Construction of downtown student facility expected to commence this fall

Toronto-based Superkul selected to design Student Commons

The Toronto-based architectural firm Superkul has been selected to design the Student Commons, a much-anticipated facility that will be located at 230 College Street.

Superkul has a history of working with the university. Past projects at U of T include the Enrolment Services building for U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, the Chestnut Residence and Conference Centre renewal, the Undergraduate Medical Education Suite, the Department of Family and Community Medicine, and the Linguistics Department within Sidney Smith Hall.

Discussion surrounding a space for students on St. George campus began in the 1960s. In 2007, members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) voted in favour of a student levy that would go toward building a student centre; the project became known as the Student Commons. In 2015, the Governing Council finally approved the Operating Agreement drafted by the UTSU, allowing the project to go forward.

The Student Commons will include student workspaces, a multi-faith space, a storage space, a lounge space, and multi-purpose areas. It will also feature accessibility services and will house the student-run bike shop, Bikechain.

The site on which the Student Commons will be built is currently home of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. The faculty will relocate to One Spadina Crescent upon construction of the commons.

The Student Commons is slated to open in 2017 and construction is expected to commence in the fall.

With files from U of T News