UTSU AGM 2019: Opt-out rates and finances, mental health, CFS

Union announces average fall semester opt-out rate of 23.6 per cent for non-essential UTSU fees

UTSU AGM 2019: Opt-out rates and finances, mental health, CFS

“As of right now, the [University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)] is performing stronger than ever,” said UTSU President Joshua Bowman at its 2019 Annual General Meeting (AGM) on October 30 at the Innis Town Hall. During his presidential address, Bowman listed out achievements, like the First Year Council and the union’s various lobbying efforts. 

However, the conversation at this year’s AGM centred on other matters: UTSU finances in the wake of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI); student mental health; and leaving the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

UTSU finances, clubs, and the SCI

Under the SCI — the provincial mandate to Ontario universities and colleges to provide an opt-out option for certain incidental fees — a portion of the UTSU’s fees were deemed “non-essential,” while others remained mandatory for all members of the union.

In his presidential address, Bowman unveiled the fall semester opt-out rates for the non-essential UTSU fees:

The Advocacy, Training and Development fund, which has a fee of $0.19, saw an opt-out rate of 21.9 per cent.

Bikechain, a non-profit cycling organization with a $0.54 fee, saw an opt-out rate of 25.4 per cent.

The Blue Sky Solar Racing Car design team, which has a fee of $0.13, saw an opt-out rate of 27.1 per cent.

The CFS, which has a fee of $8.21, saw an opt-out rate of 26.6 per cent.

The Ontario Public Interest Research Group, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 23.7 per cent.

The Centre for Women and Trans People, which has a fee of $1.50, saw an opt-out rate of 25 per cent.

The Cinema Studies Students’ Union, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 27.6 per cent, although it’s worth mentioning that the UTSU is not its only source of funding.

Dollars for Daycare, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 25.4 per cent.

Downtown Legal Services, which has a fee of $3.29, saw an opt-out rate of 19.4 per cent, though the UTSU is not its only source of income.

Food Security for Students, which has a fee of $0.15, saw an opt-out rate of 21.2 per cent.

Foster Parents Plan, which has a fee of $0.05, saw an opt-out rate of 24.4 per cent.

Health initiatives in Developing Countries, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 22.7 per cent.

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans people of the University of Toronto, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 25.8 per cent.

UTSU Orientation, which has a fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 22.7 per cent.

The scholarships and bursaries fee, which is $0.16, had an opt-out rate of 15.8 per cent.

The Sexual Education and Peer Counselling Centre, which has a fee of $0.25, saw an opt-out rate of 23.1 per cent.

The UTSU’s Clubs Funding and Resource Bank fund, which has a fee of $2.00, saw an opt-out rate of 20.9 per cent.

Students for Barrier-Free Access, which has a fee of $1.00, saw an opt-out rate of 23.7 per cent.

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team, which has a fee of $2.77, saw an opt-out rate of 27.1 per cent.

And finally, the University of Toronto Environmental Resource Network, which has an incidental fee of $0.50, saw an opt-out rate of 23.2 per cent.

The overall average opt-out rate was 23.6 per cent. Bowman told The Varsity that “any percentage of students opting out of our fees is… not great.”

During the executive Q&A session, Vice-President, Student Life Ameera Karim noted that two funding regimes had been added to the UTSU’s funding structure for campus organizations, including the abolition of automatic renewal of funding and a new semesterly funding application. Karim maintained that these changes were necessitated by the SCI.

Another point of contention arose around the UTSU’s guidelines for recognition and funding of clubs, with students questioning whether groups with ties to the Chinese government or anti-abortion student groups are eligible. While Karim’s answer indirectly referenced the fact that student groups that threaten student safety would not be recognized, Bowman — following a direct question from a student — clarified: “We will not recognize Students for Life.”

The UTSU’s operating budget

Former UTSU President Anne Boucher challenged the UTSU on its delay in posting an operating budget for the year. Bowman pointed to the SCI in response, emphasizing the lack of precedent and the resulting difficulties in financial planning. 

While a preliminary budget does exist, Bowman felt it wasn’t appropriate to post or approve a budget without knowing the UTSU’s opt-out rates. With the confirmation of the rates at the AGM, the budget will pass through the executive committee to be approved at the next UTSU Board of Directors meeting on November 17. 

Approximately 87 per cent of the UTSU’s budget was deemed essential under the provincial guidelines, with the remaining designated as non-essential. Bowman noted that the remaining non-essential budget is directed at “people-facing” initiatives, which indicates that those formulating the guidelines “don’t understand what campus life is all about.” 

Some substantial changes made in light of the SCI include cuts to club funding, student aid, and orientation. However, Bowman added that the UTSU would work to ensure that cuts to student aid would not impact those most reliant on the funds. 

Mental health concerns

In a discussion on the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, Bowman expressed his disappointment with the task force’s operations thus far. He further noted that its four student members have not been present at recent consultations with U of T community members.

Vice-President, Operations Arjun Kaul echoed this sentiment, commenting that “the mental health task force… has been extremely uncooperative” and has only reached out to the UTSU once. When questioned regarding whether the UTSU should develop a committee to hold the task force accountable to its mandate, Kaul asserted that the UTSU’s resources would be more effectively used toward new independent initiatives.

U of T Ombudsperson Dr. Ellen Hodnett’s comments at the October 24 Governing Council meeting — which defended the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) and accused student activists of unfairly using campus deaths to criticize the policy — were raised repeatedly on the questioning floor. Campus groups, including the UTSU, have expressed outrage and called on Hodnett to issue a public apology. 

Kaul highlighted the lack of consultation involved in developing the UMLAP as well as the policy’s inappropriate nature: “I do believe that there are cases where it would be the student’s best interest to be removed from their studies, but it’s an inherently devoid-of-logic question to pair that with mental health.”

Questioning CFS membership

Vice-President, External Affairs Lucas Granger claimed that the UTSU executive team cannot initiate a referendum with union resources to leave the CFS, in response to a question from Ilya Bañares. Rather, that responsibility resides with student members. A petition to call on decertification must be signed by 15 per cent of the UTSU’s members in order for an exit referendum to occur.

Bowman told The Varsity that, speaking as an individual, if a member were to initiate such a referendum, he would be in support. 

With files from Hannah Carty and Andy Takagi

Disclosure: Ilya Bañares is The Varsity’s managing online editor and attended the AGM as a voting member.

Editor’s Note (November 12, 4:25 pm): This article has been updated to reflect that signatures from 15 per cent of the UTSU’s members, rather than 20 per cent, are needed for a referendum to leave the CFS to occur.

Student Commons to have soft launch in April 2020, projects UTSU

$24.5 million student centre set to open 13 years after project first approved

Student Commons to have soft launch in April 2020, projects UTSU

The University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) Student Commons project — first proposed in the ’60s and approved by students in 2007 — has been fraught with delays and modifications to its original plan. Now, the UTSU projects an April 2020 soft launch, with the building being fully operational in September 2020. Funded by an $11.26 levy per student, the space aims to be the first student-run centre on the UTSG campus.

The history of the Student Commons

In 2007, students were promised a space that would include a 600-person auditorium, three restaurants, and office spaces for student groups. The project was originally supposed to be located where the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport now stands. Instead, it will now be at the old location of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at 230 College Street. The referendum to begin collecting a levy from students to fund the project passed later that year.

In 2015, the UTSU signed the Revised Student Commons Agreement, a binding document between the UTSU and the university. Former UTSU President Mathias Memmel, then Vice-President, Internal, criticized the UTSU executive that year for a lack of consideration when signing the document.

He said that the agreement “appears to have been negotiated and signed by the UTSU without due consideration of the real, long-term requirements for the building’s operations and the project’s financing as a whole.” Memmel also wrote that it favoured the university and was overall an “imbalanced deal.”

The Student Commons threatened to put the UTSU in financial jeopardy. In a 2017 op-ed in The Varsity, Memmel wrote, “Bankruptcy became a real possibility.”

That year, the project was revised so as to avoid a $500,000 deficit and the possibility of the building being seized by the university, which would occur if the project ran a deficit for two consecutive years after the first three years of operation. Current UTSU President Joshua Bowman said that the most recent deficit projection for the first year of operation is around $112,000, and that the project will reach a surplus after six years of operation, but clarified that the Student Commons’ operating costs would be covered by UTSU reserves.

Where the Student Commons is now

According to Bowman, the Student Commons costs $24.5 million to build, and will cost around $600,000 to operate. Students are paying $11.26 each semester of the 2019–2020 school year.

The UTSU has been collecting the capital levy from students since 2008. This levy pays for the renovation and building costs, as well as the licensing fee that is paid to the university every year. Costing $200,000 each year, the licensing fee will continue to be collected for 25 years after the building opens.

When the building is fully operational in September 2020, students will also be paying an operating levy. Sources of revenue for the project once it is operating include space rentals and program partnership grants.

UTSU executives from this year and last year expressed that the project’s delays were due to the difficulty of renovating an old building, as well as “a significant amount of asbestos” that had to be dealt with.

Speaking on the projected opening dates at the 2019 Annual General Meeting, Bowman noted, “[Bear] in mind that that is what our contractor has told us, and they have also been the same ones that have given us dates in the past.”

In an email to The Varsity, Bowman wrote, “Our timelines are set by the University Capital Planning Department and informed by the pace of construction. Additional delays could still happen… It is impossible to be certain given the continuously moving target set by our partners.”

Still in the midst of construction, Bowman wrote that “most large scale engineering within the building has been completed and the current work is being directed towards finishing the floors, walls, ceilings and lighting.”

The UTSU will move into the Student Commons when it opens, along with Student Life and the Innovation Hub. The Student Commons is also planned to have space for student groups, a student-run cafe, and an accessible kitchen.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“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.