Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Reviewing this year’s SCSU, UTGSU, UTSU, and UTMSU

To next year’s unions: less controversy, more engagement, please

Thanks to last year’s levy increase, The Varsity has expanded its tri-campus and graduate affairs coverage. We are proud to comprehensively report on the governance and election cycles of four major student unions: the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU); the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU).

With the emergence of a common threat — the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative — student media and governments must remain committed, more than ever, to serving U of T students, earning their trust, and defending campus life. So let’s remember, student unions: our job is to keep students informed, and yours is to represent them.

As the academic year comes to an end, there is no better way to inform students than to review campus politics from the last year. All four unions must do better if we are to have meaningful student democracy.

For next year, let’s hope for more competitive and contested elections, more engagement with the membership, and unequivocal freedom of the press to cover student politics.

The SCSU

SCSU elections were the first of the season, and the most controversial. Unfortunately, controversy had been striking the union all year. In the fall, multiple food safety scandals raised serious concerns about sanitary practices on campus. Yet the union did not respond with meaningful action.

In December, the Board of Directors voted unanimously on a motion put forward by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang that would regulate and limit student media access to board meetings. Dang accused student media of “abusing their positions” and “misrepresenting the reality of the situation.”

The duty of media is to freely and independently hold those in power  to account. During the 2019 SCSU elections, Dang expressed some regret for the policy. But it nonetheless demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies on the part of the union.

SCSU elections were, however, the most competitive and contested of the four unions. Two slates faced off, making for an engaged race, and ending in a split executive. But everything else was pure chaos.

One presidential candidate, SCSYou’s Anup Atwal, was questionably disqualified early on for multiple campaign violations. He made noise when he claimed that fellow presidential candidate, Shine Bright UTSC’s Chemi Lhamo, hit another candidate with a table, which Lhamo denied. Post-disqualification, he was exposed by The Underground, UTSC’s student paper, for making transphobic remarks about Vice-President (VP) Equity candidate Leon Tsai in a leaked group chat.

Controversy did not conclude once the election results were released. President-elect Lhamo became the target of an online harassment campaign due to her views on Tibetan independence. The story became a world headline.

Some U of T students agree with demands for the nullification of her election. But it is important that students respect democratic outcomes and demand change through voting or running as candidates themselves. Most importantly, it is unacceptable that an elected candidate face threats of violence.

Drama continued when the board refused to ratify Rayyan Alibux, who had been elected as VP Operations. Concerns were raised regarding Alibux’s involvement in Atwal’s transphobic remarks. In a Varsity op-ed, Alibux reasonably questioned the legality of the SCSU’s decision. The SCSU later reversed its decision and ratified Alibux.

The new SCSU must correct for the anti-democratic tendencies of its predecessors and ensure that elections are run competitively and fairly. And of course, it must cut the controversy.

The UTGSU

In December, the UTGSU Annual General Meeting (AGM) failed to meet quorum. As such, it was unable to pass important motions, including its 2017–2018 audited financial statements. Members were frustrated and some worried that the organization would financially default to the university.

At the General Council meeting immediately following the AGM, conflict arose between Varsity journalists and the council. The journalists were offered seating on the condition that they would not photograph or live-tweet the events, the latter of which they purposefully ignored as directed by The Varsity’s editors.

Live-tweeting helps ensure transparency, allows The Varsity to keep a public record of governance events, and makes meetings accessible to those who cannot attend. But The Varsity’s journalists were asked to leave.

These issues were resolved only recently. Over the course of several months, The Varsity had to defend its interest in reporting on the events of the union, and we still differ in our views of how the union’s activities should be scrutinized. Ultimately, journalists’ attendance at UTGSU meetings is still subject to challenge from UTGSU members.

The union’s elections were overwhelmingly dominated by incumbents. Five of the seven individuals elected are returning to positions they held last year. This suggests that insiders will retain control of the organization, and that little is likely to change.

Moreover, only five per cent of eligible students voted, demonstrating that engagement with the union is very weak. This undermines the credibility and mandate of the elected representatives.

Nevertheless, The Varsity is able to provide a valuable service to our readership, which overlaps with the UTGSU’s membership, by reporting on the union’s activities and working to increase awareness. We hope the UTGSU works to smooth out its operations, address engagement, and, in time, fully accept the importance of our presence in the room.

The UTMSU

This year, the UTMSU made significant changes both internally and externally. During their AGMs, the UTMSU and UTSU voted unanimously to separate.

With this separation, funds paid to the UTSU by UTM students will instead be paid to the UTMSU to directly improve campus life there. This is a step in the right direction. According to incoming President Atif Abdullah, one way these funds could be used is to create more bursaries for UTM students.

After intense debate at the AGM, students voted to reject online voting in UTMSU elections. This was disappointing. As UTM is a commuter campus, online voting is the most accessible means to involve students in campus governance. Incorporating online voting could have increased voter turnout at UTM, which was 13 per cent last year.

It is clear that the UTMSU has not made itself accessible to students. In this year’s election, the Students United slate swept all five executive positions. There was no other slate, and the majority of positions were uncontested.

If students were engaged, the race would have been more competitive. UTMSU executives should take a closer look at how they operate and what they can do to improve student engagement, and not just during elections.

For starters, the UTMSU should be more transparent by letting The Medium, UTM’s student paper, do its job. Earlier this year, a conflict between the two was publicized. The Medium has its flaws, including questionable journalistic standards, but nonetheless serves as an important voice at UTM, keeping students informed about their elected representatives. As such, the UTMSU should invite criticism from The Medium — not seek to limit it.

To its credit, the UTMSU has been able to introduce a U-Pass and the course retake policy, and extend the credit/no credit deadline. These have taken years to develop and implement and are important to UTM students. If the UTMSU worked to increase transparency with The Medium and facilitate engagement among students, it could achieve much more. 

The UTSU

At the UTSU AGM last fall, slates were banned from future elections. Slates had previously enabled teams of candidates to run under organized platforms.

UTSU President Anne Boucher claimed that independent candidates, as opposed to slated candidates, would offer voters a better understanding of the individual running as opposed to the team to which they belong. Many also criticize slates for an elitist culture that favours insiders. In theory, these are valid perspectives that justify the ban.

But the same night that slates were banned, another remarkable phenomenon took place: the UTSU failed to maintain the required quorum of 50 attendees. This despite being one of the largest student unions in Canada. This spoke to the UTSU’s longstanding and fundamental engagement problem.

The UTSU’s attempt to make elections more accessible to outsiders by banning slates, when the union continued to face, and had yet to resolve, its engagement problem, turned out to be a huge miscalculation. The casualty was the 2019 UTSU election.

This year, no candidates ran for three of the seven executive positions, including the crucial VP Operations and Student Life roles that are needed this summer to draft a budget and prepare for orientation. There were also no candidates for 18 out of 28 Board of Director positions — which means it will be unable to meet quorum and function. The 10 positions that had candidates were all uncontested.

The lack of candidates and contested positions is extremely concerning, and reflects the lowest level of engagement in recent history. Voters responded in kind: turnout was 4.2 per cent — the worst of all four unions this year — and no executive candidates garnered 1,000 votes.

This contrasts with the three previous spring elections, where candidates tended to surpass this threshold and voter turnout was at least double. In those elections, there was at least one full slate competing.

In practice, slates serve to ensure that a given team fields candidates for all available positions, and by running under an organized platform, more easily engages voters. Only after securing a record of stronger engagement and turnout should the UTSU have considered a slate ban.

As it stands, the 2019–2020 UTSU has an extremely weak mandate to govern. The current UTSU has been forced to hold by-elections in April to address the unfilled positions, before the new term starts in May. Given that these elections will occur during exam season, we have low expectations for the quality of campaigning and level of engagement from students.

Next year, the UTSU’s priority must be to market itself better, recognizing that students do not feel heard, represented, or connected to it. It must launch a campaign that builds a better relationship with students to justify its existence and its fees, and improve voter and candidate turnout for next year’s election.

Externally, it must be more vocal vis-à-vis the university administration with student concerns like the weather cancellation policy and mental health resources. And, of course, it — alongside the three other unions — must lobby the provincial government to minimize the impact that the Student Choice Initiative and Ontario Student Assistance Program changes have on student life and finances.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Incumbents dominate graduate students’ union elections

Five out of seven winners are returning executives

Incumbents dominate graduate students’ union elections

A majority of the current executives will be continuing in their roles at the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), according to the unofficial 2019 election results released today, which still need to be ratified by the union’s General Council.

According to the Chief Returning Officer, 919 students voted in the election, out of a possible 18,069 electors, meaning that there was a turnout rate of 5.1 per cent.

Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 and 2 Christopher Ball, Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 3 and 4 Sophie McGibbon-Gardner, and Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto were all re-elected to their positions in contested elections.

This will be Rizzuto’s fourth term as a UTGSU executive, having previously served as Executive-at-Large and Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 and 2. Ball will also be returning for a third term as Academics & Funding Commissioner.

Civics & Environment Commissioner Leonardo José Uribe Castano won an uncontested race and will be serving his third term in the position. In a statement to The Varsity, Castano wrote, “I’m very honoured to see that the student body approved my re-election and [am] excited to continue working for graduate students. I’m also thrilled that the turnout was so high compared to past years as we continue to increase engagement across all campuses.”

The Varsity has requested information about voter turnout, which is not publicly available, from Chief Returning Officer Adrian Aziz.

Maryssa Barras, the former Executive-at-Large who temporarily filled the position of Internal Commissioner earlier this year, will be the new External Commissioner. Barras wrote to The Varsity, “I am excited to be able to represent the UTGSU as external commissioner for the next year, and I hope to be able to carry forward in a way that protects the interests of the UTGSU membership to the best of my ability.”

Lwanga Musisi was elected University Governance Commissioner, defeating Lynne Alexandrova, the former Internal Commissioner who was voted out of office in November. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who liberally bestowed their effort, time and vote to our campaign during this year’s UTGSU election,” wrote Musisi.

“The UTGSU needs affordable graduate student accommodation, better integration of international graduate students in the UofT intellectual community and secure and guaranteed daycare facilities for graduate students with children…I look forward to working with everybody, particularly members of the UTGSU and interacting with the university policy makers on your behalf.”

Adam Hill won the race for Internal Commissioner, the only position that did not have a former executive in the running.

The Varsity has reached out to Ball, McGibbon-Gardner, and Rizzuto for comment. Hill has not responded to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note (March 10, 11:41 am): This article has been updated with comment from Musisi and with the turnout rate.

Candidate Profile: Kim Borden Penney

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Kim Borden Penney

Kim Borden Penney is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is running for Finance Commissioner.

Penney is running because she believes that her 20 years of experience in the financial sector and six years in student governance will enable her to help the UTGSU continue serving its students.

With regard to expected funding cuts stemming from the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), she believes that her background will help her guide advocacy efforts and strategies “to combat some of those cuts.”

Penney has been involved with the Social Justice Education department since 2013, and she has also worked with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education to improve retention issues and support strategies concerning racialized students.

Speaking on her financial background, she referred to her experience as a senior vice-president at a major bank, followed by about 10 years as Chief Financial Officer before her return to academia. Penney declined to name what bank she worked for, as she does not believe it is relevant to her work in student issues.

As Finance Commissioner, Penney would prioritize funding available for student bursaries, conference funding, and financial resources for conducting research. Her goals are to better financially support graduate students throughout their degrees, especially if students face issues finding funding.

Penney also believes that it’s important for the UTGSU to better communicate what financial resources it offers students, referring to her personal experiences having to “navigate the [financial] system alone without very much information about where to even start.”

Her priorities would also include mobilizing students to increase pressure on the provincial government in response to likely funding cuts.

Immediately following the announcement of the SCI by the provincial government, Penney said she was “disappointed” about what she perceived as students’ perceived lack of “mobility or pushback” to the policy. 

To work around the cuts, Penney would draw from her past experience in investment banking to “look at alternative ways of leveraging certain things that we have here with the university.” Specifically, she would lobby the university, student government, community partners, and other stakeholders at U of T.

Candidate Profile: Branden Rizzuto

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Branden Rizzuto

Branden Rizzuto is a fourth-year Archaeology PhD student running for Finance Commissioner.

Rizzuto is seeking re-election to help guide the union’s response to funding cuts that may occur under the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI).

He also aims to re-evaluate how course unions and graduate student groups are financed in the face of funding difficulties due to inflation and to increase awareness about services offered by the UTGSU among students.

He referred to his record as a UTGSU executive, having served as Academics & Funding Commissioner and Executive-at-Large before his current role as Finance Commissioner, as qualifications for his re-election.

Reflecting on his initiatives this year, Rizzuto believes that he has been “very successful” in revising and overhauling the UTGSU’s financial structures and transparency measures. Specifically, he guided the redesign of the finance section of the union’s website and public posting of UTGSU finance documents.

Rizzuto also highlighted that he supervised revisions of the union’s finance-related bylaws to “increase the efficiency and transparency of the union’s financial operations.”

Faced with possible budget cuts from the SCI, Rizzuto aims to “mitigate any revenue loss scenarios which threaten the health of the union’s services to members.”

He said that he has “formulated more than a dozen contingency plans to address any potential revenue loss scenarios.” Rizzuto also emphasized his belief that any financial restructuring measures would need be done in consultation with the UTGSU’s stakeholders.

Should severe funding cuts occur, Rizzuto said that the UTGSU has “three major options.” These are to “increase the administration fee as part of [its] health and dental insurance plan,” “increase the UTGSU fee itself,” or enact “budget cuts.” However, Rizzuto said that the UTGSU is in a “strong financial position to mitigate any revenue loss scenarios” as it can “tighten many different budget lines.”

Should budget cuts be necessary, he would prioritize grants offered to “our course unions and our caucuses, to our standing committees, as well as UTGSU member groups who put on events on campus that benefit the graduate experience.”

At the same time, he also acknowledges the need to maintain the “internal operating costs” that enable the UTGSU to do “advocacy work for finances, for academics, as well as general outreach in the health and dental insurance planning.”

Candidate Profile: Julie Marocha

Finance Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Julie Marocha

Julie Marocha is a fifth-year Molecular Genetics PhD student running for Finance Commissioner.

She is the President of the Toastmasters International Toronto Engineering Club of Speakers and previously served as the club’s Vice-President Membership and Events and Budget Coordinator. Marocha has been a U of T student for more than eight years.

Marocha is running because she wants “to bring positive change to the lives of students.”

Her priorities include maintaining and possibly increasing financial resources for students, such as scholarships. As Finance Commissioner, she plans to fund this by developing “ties with alumni” for donations and sponsorships, and by asking them to support specific causes such as mental health services.

Faced with possible budget cuts stemming from the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), she hopes to avoid compromising services and benefits received by UTGSU members, including scholarships and conference bursaries. She also plans to prioritize funding for UTGSU committees, as well as the UTGSU itself.

Should severe cuts occur, she plans to reduce unnecessary spending, such as expenses for food and drinks for executives. She would then approach the union’s finances based on “percentages, rather than absolute numbers.” For example, said Marocha, if 10 per cent of graduate students receive grants or scholarships from the UTGSU, but a certain number of students opt out of the levy, she may make budget plans in such a way that the same percentage of remaining UTGSU members still receive funding.

She also intends to launch a university-wide survey to better determine budgeting priorities. As a last resort, said Marocha, she would consider increasing the levy.

Marocha also has plans to collect university-wide data on the financial circumstances of graduate students should she be elected. The survey would advocate for “affordable education under the Ford cuts,” and Marocha hopes to spread awareness about the “foreseeable impacts on cuts to OSAP and education funding.”

She plans to ensure that the surveys have high response rates by running social media campaigns, asking graduate student associations of each department to contact their constituents, and possibly adding incentives such as prizes, if funding is available. She also believes that the relevance of the government cuts “to many, if not all of us” will also help garner high response rates.

Candidate Profile: Jarir Machmine

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2

Candidate Profile: Jarir Machmine

Jarir Machmine is a graduate student in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is running for Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 1 and 2.

Machmine said that his candidacy is motivated by a frustration with the lack of communication and clarity when seeking help from various offices. In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he hopes to rectify this through the position of Academics & Funding Commissioner by communicating with students.

On what he would improve in the UTGSU, Machmine said that he wants to ensure that executives are not only following regulations, but also taking student well-being into consideration, going on to say that some people follow regulations “blindly.”

However, he also emphasized that the current UTGSU executives are maintaining a good relationship with students.

Despite not having been involved with the UTGSU previously, Machmine highlights his multicultural background and open mindset as qualifications for the position.

When asked why he chose to run for the position, Machmine said that he did not see the appeal of working off-campus, and that he is more interested in advocating on academic issues.

Candidate Profile: Norin Taj

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2

Candidate Profile: Norin Taj

Norin Taj is a PhD candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education running for Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 1 & 2. She has served as Vice-Chair on the UTGSU Equity and Advocacy Committee for three years.

Taj is running because she sees navigating university procedures as daunting, especially for international students. She hopes to keep graduate students updated on funding opportunities, as well as maintain open communication with students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds.

Taj particularly wants to see the UTGSU executive prioritize inclusivity, and wrote in a statement to The Varsity that the current executives are working well toward that goal.

She added that as a mother of two, she hopes to advocate for students with families as well.

“I plan to… initiate conversations with graduate students and to channel student voices concerning funding, health care, degree requirements, supervision, and employment opportunities, among other administrative/policy matters,” wrote Taj.

In addition, Taj strives for equity in her work, seeking to address concerns of all graduate students — part-time, full-time, international, and domestic — with the same level of commitment.

Candidate Profile: Sophie McGibbon-Gardner

Academics & Funding Commissioner, Divisions 3 & 4

Candidate Profile: Sophie McGibbon-Gardner

Sophie McGibbon-Gardner is a PhD student in physics seeking re-election as the Academics & Funding Commissioner for Divisions 3 and 4.

Her main goals if elected are to develop tools for lobbying, increase student engagement, and identify systemic issues facing UTGSU members.

“I think that the level of engagement of the [UTGSU] for many reasons is pretty low. There’s not a lot of listening to each other on both sides,” said McGibbon-Gardner. “We can only continue to ask graduate students to come and engage with us so much. We have to switch it up. You have to start going to them.”

McGibbon-Gardner added that she wants to identify systemic issues and fix them before they happen. “If there are funding issues or toxic supervisory relationships that are occurring in a certain area or across the board across the University of Toronto, it would be better to identify structurally what’s going on there, why is this occurring repeatedly, and how can we address the root cause of that issue as opposed to continuously trying to help and deal with it after the fact. How do we stop these issues from happening in the first place?”

When asked why she is running for re-election, McGibbon-Gardner pointed to how she believes it is a “fairly universal feeling among graduate students to feel frustrated with not having access to the funding and academic resources,” adding that she feels less frustrated when she can work to help other graduate students in this situation.

“I feel very strongly that having a cohesive voice for graduate students is important and I want to be involved in that again.”