Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

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.

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

With constitutional bylaws ignored and events not hosted, the union is in grave need of improvement

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

The Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) has failed in its duty to adequately represent students in the Computer Science program. Like other course unions and student organizations, the CSSU is responsible for organizing events and providing services to its members. However, this year the CSSU has been complacent in its duties, and has demonstrated gross negligence in following proper rules and regulations.

Events originally proposed by the CSSU, like careers fairs, academic seminars, and tea time with professors never happened. Only six out of 18 events listed on the budget proposal from the beginning of the year occurred. Fortunately, other campus Computer Science groups, like Undergraduate Women in Computer Science, were able to fill the role of hosting tea time with professors and weekly technical interview preps throughout the year.

But it wasn’t always like this. Just last year, the CSSU gained positive attention for hosting a successful first Hack Night at the beginning of the school year with generous sponsorship from both Google and the Department of Computer Science. The CSSU would go on to host four Hack Night events in total that year. Only one was hosted this year.

The CSSU also has trouble following its own rules. The CSSU Constitution mandates that at least one General Meeting must be held per academic semester while classes are in session, with at least two weeks notice given prior to each meeting. This year, no such meetings have been called in either semester. With fewer than two weeks of classes left, there won’t be enough time to host a meeting, and Computer Science students won’t have the chance to voice their opinions.

Disregarding rules and procedures comes with consequences. In the upcoming CSSU election, procedures were initially ignored. According to the Chief Returning Officer (CRO), Christina Chen, the current CSSU president, Hanchen Wang, changed elections procedures in order to permit an online voting system in lieu of a physical ballot system.

Yet, the executives are not allowed to unilaterally make changes to the election process without amending the constitution first — which is impossible at the moment, as no general meetings have been held. After a complaint was filed to the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the CRO corrected the election process so that it followed previous procedures.

This kind of behaviour is not surprising from the CSSU. Already, some Computer Science students see the CSSU as an exclusionary group, or clique consisting of select upper-year students. Students, intimidated by this behaviour, hesitate to hang out in the CSSU student lounge, and conversations within the lounge often consist of language that can be off-putting or uncomfortable for others. The CSSU’s lack of female representation is especially concerning, as there are virtually no women within the group who regularly use the space.

Past and present members alike are unhappy with the current state of the CSSU, with many fearing its demise. Such concerns are not unjustified, as the CSSU has not appointed any first-year representatives this year; these positions are informally used to ensure the continuation of student organizations for future students.

Former CSSU president Jonathan Webb is especially frustrated, saying “The CSSU is actively failing and is not doing its job at all and hasn’t even pretended to try all year.”

Responsible CSSU executives are becoming increasingly necessary since Computer Science is becoming a more popular subject at U of T and elsewhere. The university’s Department of Computer Science is presently experiencing a significant increase in enrolment for both computer science courses and programs. Historically, similar enrolment booms occurred during the late 1980s and the dot-com boom — and with each boom, the percentage of women and minority representation in the field decreased.

In light of the contemporary enrolment boom in Computer Science and its current issues, it is extremely important that the CSSU properly dedicate its efforts and resources to promoting inclusivity and diversity, actually hosting events, and making the CSSU student lounge an environment that is less unwelcoming for students that do not regularly use the space.

 

Charles Huang is a third-year student at University College studying Computer Science and Mathematics. He is running for president of the Computer Science Student Union. 

The Explainer: How to leave the CFS

The process student unions undergo to decertify from the Canadian Federation of Students

The Explainer: How to leave the CFS

Last April, the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) ad-hoc committee on the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) released its report, which criticized the federation for being too bureaucratic and called the decertification process “unnecessarily burdensome.”

The CFS is an association of over 80 post-secondary student associations across Canada. The federation offers services such as the International Student Identity Card and free tax filing through UFile.ca, but much of the work focuses on activism and lobbying.

The UTSU has been a member of the CFS since 2002 and pays around $750,000 in membership dues on an annual basis. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, the UTM Students’ Union, the Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), and the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students are also members.

Should a student union attempt to leave the CFS, the process is as follows:

  1. A petition to call for a vote on decertification must be signed by a minimum of 20 per cent of the members of an association and sent to the CFS’ National Executive via registered mail.
  2. The National Executive will then review the petition and determine if it is in order. This decision would have to be made “within 90 days of receipt of the petition.”
  3. If the petition is deemed to be in order, the National Executive will work alongside the member local association to schedule a referendum. The referendum cannot be held between April 15 and September 15 or between December 15 and January 15, and no more than two member local associations can have a decertification vote within a three month period.
  4. The CFS’ National Executive will recommend an individual to take on the role of Chief Returning Officer (CRO) for the referendum vote. The appointment of the CRO will then be ratified at a general meeting of the CFS.
  5. A notice of the vote — which states the dates of the referendum and the referendum question – will be given to the member local association in “no less than two (2) weeks prior to the first day of voting.”
  6. After campaigning during the CFS-specified campaigning period, a vote will be held under the CFS-set rules to determine whether or not they wish to continue with their membership. Only paper ballots are allowed and quorum is 10 per cent of the membership.
  7. If the vote passes, the formal Procedure for Application for Withdrawal begins with the member local association giving the CFS a written letter to “notify the Federation of its intention to decertify from the Federation.”
  8. Once again, within a 90-day period the National Executive will determine if the application is in order. If found to be in order, the National Executive will “make a recommendation to the voting members of the Federation concerning the decertification.”
  9. During the CFS’ next general meeting, a vote will be held to ratify the member local association’s vote of desertion.
  10. Lastly, on June 30, the decertification will be in effect – given that “all outstanding membership fees payable to such a date shall have then been received by the Federation.”

The decertification process is often accompanied by litigation as well. The UTGSU is currently in the midst of a lawsuit with the CFS after 66 per cent of the participating members voted against continued membership. Student unions at McGill University, Concordia University, Simon Fraser University, University of Guelph, University of Victoria, and Cape Breton University have also been engaged in legal battles with the CFS.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that 66 per cent of UTGSU members voted against continued membership in the CFS. This percentage represents the voting choices only of those UTGSU members who voted in the referendum.

UTSU elections’ accountability crisis

Platitudes and politeness in place of substance and pragmatism

UTSU elections’ accountability crisis

A post-mortem analysis of the recent University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring elections reveals a series of insights on the evolution of campus politics over the years: most notably, the increasing role politeness and geniality, rather than substance and pragmatism have come to play in campaigning.

The recent history of union elections is checkered with conflicts that have typically hinged on significant and divisive issues; the threat of divisional defederation comes to mind. Much of that discourse was difficult, some of it bordered on ad-hominem attack, but the impassioned debate overwhelmingly had the best interests of students at heart.

That tradition seems to have entirely given up the ghost however, as this campaign season was the most vapid in some time. No one misses histrionics of the past when it comes to debate performances or campaign statements, but something vital was lost with the bathwater as this year’s candidates wasted opportunities to scrutinize one another on specifics.

Few of the candidates were willing to engage with the details of their campaign promises, many chose instead to pay brief lip service to the core mandate while focusing on grandiose ideals.

Providing for medical and dental coverage, consulting with administration on academic life, protecting and promoting equity, and advocating for student issues are important and valued contributions, though they reflect the limit of what the union can realistically achieve. Propositions such as bringing about free tuition province wide, constructing and staffing a 24-hour mental health centre on campus, or bringing international students coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) are not promises, they are platitudes. Airing the notion that projects of this magnitude fall under the UTSU’s purview and potential is not only foolhardy, it’s irresponsible.

Proposals like these reveal some insidious trends in UTSU electioneering: either the candidates include them in their platforms knowing full well that they are unachievable, or they don’t know and haven’t taken the time to look into it. Both are bad.

Unfortunately, the only incisive questioning during the Executive Debate came from the moderators and audience, most of which went unanswered.

The issue is complicated further by an undergirding skepticism and distrust of the provincial government and U of T administration. Often, prospective student leaders hurl vitriol at these bodies in an attempt to scapegoat and draw undeserved attention to the power and purpose of the student movement.

Yet, the administration and government are not necessarily the enemy, and certainly aren’t worth provoking with contemptuous grandstanding. The reality of the situation is that the success of anything the UTSU hopes to achieve in a given year, big or small, is inextricably linked to decisions made by these groups. The provincial government and U of T administration are not intransigent gatekeepers. They are our partners.

Bombastic promises like the ones thrown around during the Executive Debate and throughout the campaign represent little more than diversions, drawing focus away from the big-picture impotence of the union, and in some cases the lack of preparedness of the candidates.

It certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it one that is unique to student politics, but that is not reason enough to excuse it in our community. There are meaningful and substantial things the UTSU can achieve, but those things tend to take a back seat when candidates are fighting for the lion’s share of support.

Building a platform on unreasonable, or in some cases unattainable ideals is irresponsible and part and parcel of the UTSU’s mandate crisis — 9.7 per cent of eligible voters participated in last week’s elections —insofar as students are not willing to engage or endorse leaders without realistic plans.

This bankruptcy of substance is a disappointing turn of events for the UTSU after a year that was shepherded in with high hopes. Brighter UofT ran on a pledge to clean house and initiate a process of responsive and responsible governance — though in recent months the union and especially its returning executives have remained hard to pin on the outstanding question of membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which most will remember was implicitly at the core of their run for office.

When pushed on the topic at the Executive Debate, now president elect, Denike and 1UofT candidate, Madina Siddiqui were expectedly non-committal, offering some variation on the “whatever the students want” response. The students, at least the ones still willing to participate, handed the UTSU a pretty clear indication of their wants last year when Brighter was elected and a CFS affiliated, slow-to-act cycle of incumbencies was brought to an end. As of yet, the implicit promise at the heart of Brighter’s success last year remains unfulfilled.

If the UTSU wants to make itself more relevant on campus, it can start by engaging students in a responsible way during elections with respect to what can be achieved, and how.

Editorial Cartoon: March 22nd, 2016

#UTSUelections

Editorial Cartoon: March 22nd, 2016

UTSU board impeaches Akshan Bansal at emergency meeting

Third round of hiring to select new vice president campus life

UTSU board impeaches Akshan Bansal at emergency meeting

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors voted to impeach Akshan Bansal, its former vice president, campus life from both the Executive Committee and the board. UTSU president Ben Coleman moved to impeach Bansal at an emergency meeting on December 30. The motion to remove Bansal from the UTSU Executive Committee passed with 24 votes in favour, two against, one abstention, and one spoiled ballot.

Immediately following the impeachment, the UTSU Executive Committee released a statement encouraging students to hold them to account. “It is important that, as the leaders of the UTSU, executives uphold the mission and values of the organization. We therefore encourage our members to continue to hold their elected leaders to account,” read part of the statement.

Bansal was impeached after a public allegation of sexual assault came to the attention of the UTSU executives on December 14. In the hours following the circulation of the allegation, the UTSU released a statement calling for Bansal’s impeachment and condemning rape culture on campus. The statement was signed by five of the seven UTSU executives.

Uranranebi Agbeyegbe, president of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) and UTMSU designate on the UTSU’s Executive Committee, did not sign off on the original letter calling for Bansal’s impeachment. Instead, the UTMSU published a statement on December 22 calling for an investigation into the allegation against Bansal.

Agbeyegbe declined to comment for this story.

According to Jasmine Denike, UTSU vice president external, the allegation was a “tipping point,” but not the sole reason behind the impeachment; rather, it was the result of several complaints regarding Bansal’s job performance. “We don’t wish him ill and we wish him all the best, but we wanted to make sure students feel safe on campus. That is our first priority,” Denike said.

Previous complaints received by the UTSU’s Executive Review Committee (XRC) included claims that Bansal made sexist and sexual comments and was inebriated at work. The XRC investigated the grievances over the summer and recommended that Bansal be placed on probation, but did not recommend impeachment.

Immediately after the meeting at which he was impeached, Bansal told The Varsity that he was distraught.

A new vice president, campus life will be selected to fulfil the office for the remaining four months of the term. A hiring committee comprised of UTSU executives, with the possible addition of one or two UTSU board members, will be responsible for the appointment and will conduct interviews for the position after the January 15 application deadline.

This round of applications marks the third time that the hiring process for the position of vice president campus life has been opened this academic year. Denike noted that this time, the hiring process will be an improvement upon the previous two, where concerns were raised about the disproportionately low number of board members present.