Governing Council approves Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations

Opponents of the policy stage sit-in outside Council Chambers

Governing Council approves Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations

Governing Council has voted to approve the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations.

Executives from the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) came to the June 23 Governing Council meeting, imploring governors to vote down the policy.

Conversely, student leaders representing the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Engineering Society, the University College Literary & Athletic Society, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, and the New College Student Council also attended to show their support for the policy.

After the vote, the detractors of the policy held a sit-in outside the Governing Council chambers; loud chanting could be heard from within the chamber as Governing Council proceeded to the next items on the agenda.

The new policy would create the University Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS) made up of one student from a representative student society, three students from other student societies, and one chair with experience in conflict resolution to hear grievances against student societies. Additionally, the policy provides definitions to what it means for student societies to act in a matter that is “open, accessible, and democratic.”

Under current policies, the provost has the unilateral authority to withhold fees from a student society acting undemocratically. With the new policy, the CRCSS can discuss resolutions before recommending the withholding of fees.

This policy was the results of negotiations between the university and students’ societies that occurred during the Student Societies Summit from 2013 to 2014.

Opponents of the policy argued that the policy violates student union autonomy and students already have the opportunity to challenge their unions through courts.

“The introduction with the appeals board provides the provost with a false sense of legitimacy,” argued UTGSU academics and funding commissioner Brieanne Berry-Crossfield.

According to the policy, it “does not provide any additional power to the Provost.” Supporters of the policy have also ridiculed the idea of students pursing litigation against student unions over grievances and praised the policy for encouraging student societies to act transparently.

“Student societies willing to conduct themselves in an open, accessible, and democratic manner have nothing to fear,” said UTSU vice-president internal & services Mathias Memmel.

Disclosure: The Varsity is a levy-collecting student society and would be affected by the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations

This story is developing, more to follow.

Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations met with opposition

UTSU exec in support, UTMSU threatens to seek “legal remedy” against university if policy is implemented

Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations met with opposition

The university’s proposal for a structured grievances system for levy-collecting student societies has been met with considerable opposition from several large societies.

Details of the proposed Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations were made public to Governing Council’s University Affairs Board on May 25. The policy is pending approval by Governing Council on June 23.

The policy defines the university’s expectations for student societies to operate in an “open, accessible, and democratic” manner and creates the University Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS or SSCRC), which would hear complaints against student societies that violate this standard or their constitution. 

The CRCSS would be made up of four student members appointed on a case-by-case basis and one chair with experience in conflict resolution appointed to a two-year term. One of the four student members would be drawn from one of the representative student societies, which are comprised up the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Association of Part-Time students (APUS), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU). The remaining three members would be appointees from other student societies. According to the policy, “The Chair will consider the type of complaint; and the size, location, constituency and type of organization when selecting the members.”

Currently, complaints against a student society are dealt with by the provost, who has the authority to withhold fees if they believe the student society is not acting appropriately.  This has happened to the Arts and Science Students’ Union back in 2008. According to the proposed policy, if complaints cannot be addressed within the society, the CRCSS would be a forum to discuss complaints but can recommend the withholding of fees to the Provost, who would still have the sole authority to do so.

Opposition to the policy

The policy has been criticized by leaders of several large student societies. Jessica Kirk, president of the SCSU called the policy “a direct attack on the agency of student societies, equity service groups, and student organizations.” She continued, “In the case of student unions particularly, created by and for students, it makes little sense for them to be overseen by the University administration, especially seeing as we have an obligation to be accountable to our members first and foremost.”

UTGSU academics and funding commissioner Brieanne Berry-Crossfield expressed similar concerns, saying, “we feel that this makes all UofT affiliated clubs, groups and societies vulnerable in a way that does not serve their membership or recognize our bylaws.”

APUS president Mala Kashyap also cited a desire to remain independent from the university administration: “As students, we can manage our own organizations and resolve conflicts that may arise.” 

In addition, University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) president Nour Alideeb sent a letter on May 26 to Andrew Szende, the chair of the University Affairs Board. In the letter, Alideeb alleges that the new policy infringes on the UTMSU’s legal autonomy and its exclusive commitment to its members.

“If the University adopts the new policy, which inevitably becomes a tool to attempt to coerce, intimidate or force UTMSU to adopt or abide by the policy, the University will be acting in bad faith and forcing the students’ union to make decisions in contradiction to the mandate of its members,” reads a portion of the letter, “This is a breach of the important and crucial role of the student union being autonomous from the University Administration, so that it could fulfill its role as a watchdog on behalf of its members.”

[pullquote-features]“… the University will be acting in bad faith and forcing the students’ union to make decisions in contradiction to the mandate of its members”[/pullquote-features]

The letter also states that the UTMSU will seek “a legal remedy” if the policy takes effect.

U of T media relations director Althea Blackburn-Evans stressed that the policy does not give additional powers to the Provost and is actually gives more responsibility to students.

“The university sees this as a very positive move for the students and student societies. It’s putting more power into the hand of the students,” said Blackburn-Evans. “The possible concern that something is being taken away from students, I’m not sure where that’s coming from because it actually gives more power to the students than what has historically been the case.”

However, Alideeb disagrees.

“While some may suggest that the new policy does not expand the Provost’s existing powers, I think it does by lending support to the idea that the Administration should approve of every student campaign or initiative,” Alideeb told The Varsity. “This obviously undermines our ability to advocate for students independently on issues, such as tuition fees or fossil fuel divestment where our position differs from that of the Administration.”

[pullquote-default]“The possible concern that something is being taken away from students, I’m not sure where that’s coming from because it actually gives more power to the students than what has historically been the case.”[/pullquote-default]

Representatives from the UTMSU, the SCSU, the APUS, and the GSU also appeared in a video released by the UTMSU, encouraging members to speak out against the policy at the June 23 Governing Council meeting. UTMSU vice president campus life Tyrell Subban also sent an email to UTMSU clubs executives, urging them to attend the meeting and express opposition to the policy.

Conversely, the UTSU executive committee released a statement endorsing the proposed policy, noting that the Provost would not gain additional powers.

“We are not, by endorsing the SSCRC, capitulating to the administration — simply put, the SSCRC will help our members hold us accountable. We hope that our fellow student societies come to the same conclusion,” reads a portion of the statement.

UTSU vice-president internal & services Mathias Memmel told The Varsity that the statement was released urgently in response to Alideeb’s letter: “The UTMSU had made its position clear, and we needed to act immediately.”

Prior consultations

According to Alideeb’s letter, the UTMSU was “not consulted during the development of the policy.”

“It is unfortunate that the University Administration has proposed to move forward with a policy without consulting all the relevant stakeholders that will be impacted by the new policy, and will undermine the watchdog role of student unions, who act in the best interests of their members and not necessarily the University Administration, when it pertains to policy matters.”

The policy was the result of talks between the University and student societies during the Student Societies Summit that took place between 2013 and 2014. The establishment of a university-wide appeals board was one of among the recommendations outlined in the Student Societies Summit report. The UTMSU withdrew before the conclusion of the summit, arguing that the summit was undemocratic and “privileges some student groups over others.”

In February and March of this year, the university released the first draft of the policy and invited students to send feedback. In the first draft of the policy, the SSCRC would have made up of four elected student members and two members appointed by the provost.

Blackburn-Evans said that the university consulted widely while developing the policy.

“Many changes were made in response to student comments so there has been quite a bit of back and forth and redrafting based on student feedback and UTMSU, as with all the societies, they had ample opportunities to provide feedback,” she explained.

Disclosure: The Varsity is a levy-collecting student society and would be affected by the Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations

“Open, accessible, democratic”

University proposes new student society policy, seeks input

“Open, accessible, democratic”

The University of Toronto administration is inviting students to provide feedback and comments on the first draft of the new Policy on Open, Accessible and Democratic Autonomous Student Organizations.

The policy aims to implement recommendations made by the provost in response to concerns raised during the 2013–2014 Student Societies Summit — a series of meetings between different campus organizations centred around their operations and mandates as “open, accessible, democratic” student groups.

“The issues discussed in the Summit — including complaints from members regarding the operation of societies, and disputes between societies — are evident beyond just those societies involved in the Summit,” reads the web page of the consultation.

Student society elections, the structural operations of student organizations, and various inter- and intra-organizational communication breakdowns were among the most contentious issues discussed at the summit. Sandy Welsh, vice provost, students, received complaints related to these topics on a frequent basis.

A month after the summit’s conclusion, the provost released a report that included recommendations on how to best respond to the issues discussed. The report speculated on three broad topics: the enhancement the democratic operations of societies, the implementation of on a policy for the recognition and restructuring of student societies, and the future scope of the presentation of student societies.

Welsh explained that the draft policy addresses all three areas by providing clarity on what it means for a group to be open, accessible, and democratic.

The policy suggests a method of resolving disputes between and within student organizations by proposing the appointment of University Student Societies’ Complaint and Resolution Council (SSCRC).

According to Welsh, the SSCRC is intended to provide a mechanism to deal with complaints within and between student societies when their own internal mechanisms have been exhausted. Welsh emphasized that the clause that requires student societies to attempt to resolve complaints internally before bringing them forward to the council.

As stated in the drafted policy, the council would consist of six members, four of whom would be students selected through an election process, with the remaining two being appointed by the vice president and provost as chair and secretariat support. Out of the four student members, two would be nominated by divisional student societies, while the other two would be nominated by representative student committees.

Welsh told The Varsity that some of the feedback the administration has received so far has included questions and comments about the student representation within the committee, including details of the election process. “In terms of electing student members to the council, it’s really up to the student societies themselves,” Welsh said.

Maina Rambali, president of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) is primarily concerned with how the policy would affect student organizations. “In 2014, APUS expressed our concerns to the Governing Council about its lack of jurisdiction over student unions. Our priorities are protecting the rights of our members and our autonomy as an organization.”

Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) appears to share Rambali’s sentiments, especially regarding the possible implementation of a new council and grievance process.

“Student societies and student politics will always have disagreements — this is part of democracy, it is important that whatever system comes into place, respects this and only functions when there are clear egregious violations occurring,” Shihipar said.

Welsh has received a “range of comments” on the issue. She stated that the council will not supersede the student societies. She stressed that since the policy is still in its early stages of development, the need for feedback is paramount to any further development. “While the idea has come out of the student summit, it is really important that we take feedback from student society members as it reflects what students think of the council.”

Rambali said that she sees the need to clarify the terms “open, accessible, and democratic” for the general public. “I have questions on the Complaint and Resolution process and how it… may threaten the autonomy of student societies, and… create a path for disruption by trouble makers,” said Rambali.

Shihipar believes that, given the “myriad of bureaucratic channels that students have to navigate” it is necessary to flesh out the details of the policy prior to implementation; if this does not happen, “we may be left with an inefficient system that takes up time and resources but does not work.”

When asked about a deadline for the possible implementation of the policy, Welsh responded that future plans for the policy depend on the feedback received before March 15.