UTSU AGM 2018: Question period sees inquiries on CFS, Student Commons

UTSU reveals Student Commons opening delayed again to April 2019

UTSU AGM 2018: Question period sees inquiries on CFS, Student Commons

Students took full advantage of a question period at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) 2018 Annual General Meeting, asking the executives about topics ranging from the operations of the Student Commons to the union’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

Immediately prior to question period, UTSU President Anne Boucher delivered her presidential address. Boucher reflected on the tumultuous relationship the union has had with its constituency in the past, citing, in particular, how 95 per cent of engineering students voted to leave the UTSU in 2013.

She stressed that the UTSU is focused on building strong financial relationships and wants “to be the best UTSU possible in absolute terms rather than relative ones.”

Following Boucher’s address, the floor was opened up to questions from members.

Canadian Federation of Students

Joshua Bowman, Academic Director for Social Sciences, asked about the executives’ campaign promise to leave the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a national student association representing over 70 post-secondary student associations across the country.

Boucher said that, through her personal experience with the CFS, she feels that there is no room for internal change in the organization. In the past, she has been a strong supporter of leaving the CFS.

In response to another question from Bowman about You Decide — a student-led campaign to hold a referendum on leaving the CFS — Boucher stated that the UTSU is not actively collecting signatures for a referendum, and added that any petitions are independent of the UTSU.

Student Commons

In one of the more notable parts of the AGM, Vice President, Operations Tyler Biswurm revealed that the opening date for the Student Commons has been pushed back — again — from January 2019 to April 2019.

The Students Commons is a proposed student-run centre at UTSG that is 11 years in the making. The building was originally scheduled to open in September 2018 but was delayed to January 2019 over the summer.

Biswurm gave similar reasons for this delay as he did for the last one, saying that the building’s age as well as contracting complications have caused problems in the renovation process.

On this point, member Tom Yun asked about reports that The Newspaper, an independent campus publication, had been denied office space in the Commons.

Former UTSU President and current UTSU contractor Mathias Memmel responded that despite covering issues relating to U of T, The Newspaper does not have status within the university. As such, the UTSU made the decision to prioritize U of T clubs.

Boucher assured the union’s membership that other student groups that were promised space in the Student Commons were told about the delay and have spaces elsewhere until the opening.

Other questions

New College Student Council President Madison Hönig raised a concern about a lack of preparedness during orientation, specifically regarding students’ access to water.

Hönig said that the UTSU did not provide a sufficient supply of water to students, which posed a health problem on Parade Day, as it was especially hot.

In response, UTSU Vice President, Student Life Yolanda Alfaro acknowledged that they were not prepared for the extreme heat. Alfaro stated that more needed to be done in creating contingency plans for unexpected events like weather.

Following that, Arts and Science Students’ Union President Haseeb Hassaan asked about who was taking on the responsibilities of the UTSU’s General Manager (GM) position, which has been vacant since mid-July.

Boucher responded that the union has brought in Memmel to help with financial management while the UTSU searches for a new GM, which they hope to have by mid-November.

Explaining the rationale behind Memmel’s hire, Boucher acknowledged that “people tend to jump to certain conspiracies,” but that “when you have someone who has had three years of experience with an organization… it’s a good resource to have.”

“It’s unfair to assume that having a presence of someone who has been a past executive would be something that is worth discussing,” she added.

With regard to the empty GM position, 2018 UTSU Junior Orientation Coordinator Dhvani Ramanujam asked about who was handling the union’s human resources concerns. When Biswurm responded that he and Boucher were filling the role, Ramanujam asked if it was a conflict of interest that the person who handles paycheques also handles complaints.

Biswurm responded that he did not think it was a conflict of interest. He said he believes it is the “default arrangement” in other employment contexts, as “the boss telling you how to do your job is also the person who signs your cheques.”

However, Biswurm acknowledged that there were gaps that he and Boucher could not fill, which is why the UTSU is aiming to hire a GM soon.

Near the end of the question period, a student asked the executives if they would endorse a college for the U of T Memes for True 🅱lue Teens meme bracket, a competition in a Facebook group that is pitting the university’s colleges and faculties against each other.

Boucher responded that while “there is not an official UTSU take on the war going on… my heart is in engineering.”

— With files from Ilya Bañares, Ann Marie Elpa, Josie Kao, Adam A. Lam, and Andy Takagi

 

Disclosure: Tom Yun is The Varsity’s former Managing Online Editor (2017–2018) and News Editor (2016–2017).

 

Editor’s Note (December 13, 5:18 pm): This article has been updated to correct a quote from Boucher about the UTSU being the best in absolute terms rather than relative ones.

Student Commons opening delayed to January 2019

Opening originally scheduled for September, postponed due to construction delays

Student Commons opening delayed to January 2019

The opening of the Student Commons — a proposed student centre that has been in the works for over a decade — has been delayed from September 2018 to January 2019. According to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which is in charge of running the centre, the postponement is due to unexpected construction delays.

Though they will not have an exact opening date until the construction nears completion, UTSU Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm told The Varsity, “We are as confident as we could possibly be in our projected open date.”

Biswurm explained that since the Student Commons building at 230 College Street is over 100 years old, it presents its own unique renovation difficulties.

“Due to contemporary limitations in construction techniques, the poor quality of building materials used, and the loss of architectural documentation to time, multiple unforeseen obstacles have presented themselves in the implementation of plans for the Student Commons,” said Biswurm.

Both the proposed Operating Levy fee of $6.50 and the increased semesterly levy of $14.25 will be pushed back to the second semester in accordance with the building’s delayed opening.

The approaching opening of the Student Commons marks the end of a journey that began in 2007, when students voted to implement a levy to fund the Student Commons. The project has since faced tremendous financial difficulties, with a 2016 budget plan forecasting a $300,000 deficit in the first year. A 2017 estimate lowered this amount to around $27,000.

Prior to this most recent delay, the building’s opening had already been pushed back from September 2017 to September 2018. During this time, changes had to be made to the plan to decrease the likelihood of bankruptcy, as the building’s agreement outlining the UTSU’s terms of use states that U of T will have the right to seize control in the case of two consecutive years of deficits following the first three years of operation.

Biswurm confirmed that the building is still on track to report a surplus in its third fiscal year, which will keep the building in the hands of the UTSU.

Among the groups that had planned to move into the Student Commons in September is the UTSU, which will remain in its current office at 12 Hart House Circle during the first semester. On behalf of any other groups that had planned to move into the building as of September, “the UTSU did negotiate extended occupancy permissions for all service groups and levy groups that had been promised space.”

Biswurm emphasized that all student groups are a priority for the UTSU as the Student Commons takes shape, adding that “whether it be for hosting their events programming, for hosting their regular office hours, for use as [a] convenient meeting space, or for use as a staging ground for events, the Student Commons is built to facilitate the vital role clubs play on the U of T campus.”

Student Commons projected to post surplus by 2020–2021

Costs include maintenance expenses, security, signage, IT systems

Student Commons projected to post surplus by 2020–2021

With the Student Commons set to open in September 2018, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is releasing an updated projection of its overall finances, including details of the revenue and expenses attached to the building.

Principal costs of the Student Commons include maintenance expenses, beginning at $144,926.88 in 2018–2019, and operating expenses, including programming, security, signage, and IT systems, totalling $299,926.88 in the first year of occupancy.

There are also costs tied to administration and office, salaries and wages, governance of the building, and occupancy. In total, the Student Commons is forecasted to accumulate $1,198,161.17 in expenses in its first year.

The Student Commons does have some avenues for income. Advertising revenue is projected to consistently bring in $25,000 per year, until 2023, when that revenue is projected to increase to $35,000. Similarly, conferencing revenue is projected to earn $40,000 in 2018–2019, increasing annually. The UTSU has also leased space to university units and external tenants who will provide services to students and occupy less than 20 per cent of the building.

In total, revenue is projected to begin at $1,170,536.79 and increases each year.

For the first two years of occupancy, the Student Commons will post deficits of $27,624.38 and $10,459.97, respectively. In the third year, 2020–2021, the building forecasts a $4,307.14 surplus, and it does not dip for the rest of the forecasted years until 2029–2030.

In April 2017, the Student Commons was projected to post a deficit of $300,000 in its first year and more deficits for the next 10 years.

The surpluses would avoid triggering Article 7.7(f) of the revised Student Commons Agreement between the UTSU and the university, which stipulates that, should the Student Commons run deficits in two consecutive fiscal years after its third year of occupancy, and no fiscal solution is reached in two years after the deficits, the university would have the right to terminate the UTSU’s management of the building and take possession.

UTSU President Mathias Memmel explained that the Student Commons budget posts a surplus because it will be receiving money from the UTSU’s operating budget. “The fact that the Student Commons will post a surplus doesn’t mean that the organization as a whole will post a surplus (in this case, it won’t),” he wrote in an email to .

In a letter to U of T’s Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr, dated August 30, 2017, Memmel expressed that the UTSU must, “to the greatest extent possible, transform the Student Commons into a source of revenue.”

“We also eliminated non-essential services and reduced our HR expenses accordingly, which will save us $250,000 per year going forward,” which allows them to remain afloat and operate the Student Commons, wrote Memmel of the UTSU’s overall budget.

Memmel indicated that the Student Commons financial plan must be followed with little to no variation. “If you look at where the UTSU was three years ago, it’s hard not to be worried. We’ve done our best to mitigate the risk of any future mismanagement, but there’s no guarantee that the UTSU won’t revert to — for example — nepotistic overspending on salaries,” he added.

In September 2018, the union will begin charging members an Operating Cost Levy of $6.50 per semester. This is on top of the already existing Capital Cost Levy, which will increase to $14.25 per semester next year.

The Student Commons will provide much-needed campus space for students

Re: “The Breakdown: The Student Commons”

The Student Commons will provide much-needed campus space for students

With the scheduled opening of the Student Commons just months away, it has become clear that several of the promises the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) first made to students over 10 years ago will not be realized. The project has since undergone several drastic changes and delays.

A fund intended to reserve $50,000 of the UTSU‘s operating budget annually for the Student Commons was liquidated immediately before the 2015 UTSU Executives took office, thus limiting the UTSU’s ability to offer all the amenities it initially had promised.   

While the Student Commons may not be what students imagined it would be 10 years ago, it will provide students with a new space of their own. The Student Commons will provide areas for students to socialize and study, bookable spaces for student clubs, and a student-run café. Although this may pale in comparison to initial promises of a 600-person auditorium and three restaurants, the Student Commons’ emphasis on student space will fill a major void in student life at U of T.

When I first came to U of T, I was shocked that a university of this size seemed to lack spaces that were fully student-run. Compared to other schools across Canada, UTSG lacks many spaces that are explicitly designed to foster community. Consider that other universities have designated student centres similar to what the Student Commons will be, including the Nest at the University of British Columbia, the University Centre at McGill, and even the student centres at UTM and UTSC. At a school criticized by students for lacking a sense of community, this lack of student-run space seems particularly troubling, especially for commuter students who usually spend long days on campus. The Student Commons would provide alternatives to students whose current options are cramped lounges or libraries.

As UTSU President Mathias Memmel has acknowledged, the Student Commons comes with its fair share of baggage.  Aside from the aforementioned change in facilities it will offer, the project is costing students far more than originally intended — accounted for by a $14.25 sessional levy starting in September — and it is already a year behind schedule.

Nevertheless, for a university that often feels alienating, it is invaluable to invest in spaces that create a sense of home on campus. With the project now almost complete, it represents an important development in campus life at U of T, despite not meeting all initial expectations.

 

Yasaman Mohaddes is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Sociology.

The Breakdown: the Student Commons

How much it will cost us — and what we’ll get in return

The Breakdown: the Student Commons

The Student Commons, a student-run centre at the St. George campus, is set to open in September 2018. With the deadline fast approaching, here’s what you need to know.

Construction is still underway on most of the building, located at 230 College Street, the former home of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture. It will feature a community kitchen, a conference centre, office space for clubs, presentation galleries, a student-run café, and prayer space. It will also house the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Food Bank.

St. George members of the UTSU are paying a semesterly levy of $10.24 for the Student Commons, which the UTSU can increase by 10 per cent each year. The fee will rise to $20.75 in September.

Currently, only capital expenses are included in the levy. When the centre opens, the capital expenses will increase to $14.25 per semester, and operational expenses of $6.50 per semester will be collected.

The building cost will be in excess of $20 million when completed. About $4.6 million has been collected from the UTSG student levy as of April 2017. The remaining $15.4 million will be financed through a loan taken out by the university on the UTSU’s behalf.

UTSU President Mathias Memmel said the building underwent a full redesign because the original plan was a “recipe for bankruptcy.” In an op-ed published in The Varsity, Memmel explained that the union would have canceled the project if possible, but it was contractually obligated to continue.

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“My hope is that the Student Commons will be a service-oriented community centre, as opposed to a costly monument to the vanity of student politicians,” said Memmel in an email. “To that end, we shifted the focus of the project from ‘student space’ to student services. To be clear, there hasn’t been change to the spaces set aside for students and student groups, but it’s important to remember that the original demand for “student space” was really just a demand for UTSU-controlled space.”

Claiming to have made every consequential decision regarding the building and its design over the last eight months, Memmel said that his guiding principle has been the idea of a “community of communities” rather than a “single student community under the control of the UTSU and the idea of the UTSU as a provider of services.”

The Student Commons project began in 2007. Its opening in September will come a year later than forecasted.

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.