UTGSU Council member censured following discussion on mental health

Censure resulted from alleged violation of equity statement

UTGSU Council member censured following discussion on mental health

Tensions flared regarding mental health services and infringements of decorum during a University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) General Council meeting on March 26. What began as a discussion on the UTGSU’s Health and Dental Plan resulted in the official censure of a student union representative.

Debate on mental health occurs during discussion on approval of Health and Dental Plan

As the UTGSU began proceedings to approve their new Health and Dental Plan, Ben Hjorth, a proxy representative for the Comparative Literature Student Union, moved to delay the confirmation. He hoped that delaying the plan’s approval would give the union more time to lobby for the expansion of mental health services coverage.

The current UTGSU insurance plan provides $500 per year of coverage for mental health services administered by psychologists, licensed psychotherapists, or counselors with a master’s degree in social work.

Hjorth said that the provided coverage for mental health services was inadequate, so he recommended that the union delay the approval of the insurance plan. He believed this would be an effective way to leverage U of T administration and thus allow the union to expand mental health coverage in the plan.

Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto spoke strongly against delaying the plan’s approval, saying that he did not believe that tabling the motion would be “the most efficient way to put pressure on the university.”

Rizzuto also said that a delay may put the insurance plan at risk, since it could result in prolonged negotiations with the U of T administration. This could ultimately lead to the insurance plan failing to be passed by the end of U of T’s governing cycle.

“What you’re asking for is basically to restart what we’ve done this year,” said Rizzuto.

In an email to The Varsity, the Executive Committee, which includes Rizzuto, wrote that it has seen increased claims through the Health and Dental Plan over the last three years, resulting in increased premiums. The Committee went on to write that the “burden of [expanding] mental health resources for students lies with University of Toronto administration and should not be met by increasing out of pocket costs for our members.”

“We agree that current access to mental health resources for U of T graduate students is inadequate, but [we] do not believe that the solution to this problem is to increase the Health and Dental Plan premiums and subsequently force larger fees on already financially impoverished graduate students.”

The Committee declined to comment in response to a request by The Varsity for justification for the claim that delaying approval of the plan would endanger the following year’s coverage.

The General Council ultimately voted to approve the Health and Dental plan, voting down Hjorth’s motion to table the plan’s approval.

UTGSU General Council member later censured for alleged equity statement violation

During the discussion on delaying the approval of the insurance plan, Hjorth spoke out of turn multiple times. These incidents violated Bourinot’s Rules of Order, which govern UTGSU General Council meetings.

Hjorth specifically interrupted Rizzuto with an out-of-order objection while Rizzuto was explaining his belief that delaying the approval of the insurance plan would risk the plan entirely.

Later, Hjorth requested to make a “point of order.” The Chair did not immediately address Hjorth’s point. In response, Hjorth sharply asked whether the Chair was purposefully ignoring him. The Chair then requested Hjorth to respect decorum.

Hjorth’s responses prompted an executive to request Hjorth to be conscious of his tone of voice when addressing the UTGSU’s staff. Hjorth said loudly that this was “not a point of order.” The executive agreed that this was a point of privilege, then repeated her request for Hjorth to settle down.

At the end of the meeting, after Hjorth had left, Internal Commissioner-elect Adam Hill moved to officially censure Hjorth, noting Hjorth’s alleged misconduct in the minutes.

External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal added that she believed Hjorth’s actions were in violation of the meeting’s equity statement, since they were out of decorum and infringed on members’ abilities to speak in an inclusive environment.

The UTGSU Executive Committee, which includes Jaimungal, declined to comment on a question by The Varsity on what specific parts of the equity statement Hjorth violated.

Jaimungal recommended to the Chair that should future violations occur, Hjorth should be “asked to leave immediately.”

Addressing his censure, Hjorth wrote to The Varsity, “I will admit that these discussions got heated at times, but tone-policing should always raise at least an eyebrow, particularly when it is lead by those who have been called out.”

He further wrote that he believed discussion on his censure acted as a distraction from addressing the union’s limited mental health coverage in its insurance plan.

Hjorth added that the intention behind his actions was to hold UTGSU representatives accountable “for what they do as much as for what they fail to do.” He continued, “I’ll try to do it a little more politely, so that we can stop having these kinds of petty discussions and move on to debating what’s really important.”

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: 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.”

Candidate Profile: Maryssa Barras

External Commissioner

Candidate Profile: Maryssa Barras

Maryssa Barras is a master’s student in archaeology running for External Commissioner.

Barras is also the incumbent UTGSU Executive-at-Large and recently took on the duties of Internal Commissioner late last year after the office was vacated by the General Council.

Much of Barras’ platform for External Commissioner centres around forging relationships between student levy groups amid the Ford government’s sweeping changes to postsecondary education funding.

“I think that currently, given the political climate and what’s going on with the student services, the main campaign that I would be pushing forward would be to reverse or stop the Ford cuts,” said Barras. She also wants to advocate for mental health initiatives by addressing factors that affect students’ mental health, such as finances.

On the topic of tuition reduction, Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) cuts, and levy opt-outs, Barras said that such changes ultimately disadvantage marginalized groups on campus that would otherwise not be able to access postsecondary education.

“Under the [OSAP] scheme put out by the previous government, there was an increase across the board in students from minorities and underprivileged groups accessing funds.”

Barras also pointed to the exclusion of international students from the tuition cut. “International students don’t have that 10 per cent cut so they’re likely to take on the financial burden.”

University officials have told The Varsity that they are not planning to increase international student tuition more than previously decided for the coming academic year.

When asked about the UTGSU’s relationship with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Barras acknowledged that while other students may have antagonistic feelings toward the CFS as a whole, the UTGSU ultimately pays to use CFS resources.

The CFS is a national organization representing student unions across Canada. In 2016, the UTGSU lost a lawsuit against the CFS after the former attempted to hold a referendum to defederate. Full-time graduate students currently pay $8.37 per session and part-time students pay $4.19 per session to the CFS.

“I understand that the University Toronto’s Graduate Students’ Union is not a pro-CFS environment… But I also recognize that we pay them money to have access to the resources,” Barras said.

“So long as we are part of the CFS, we should utilize the resources that they give us access to because otherwise it’s just money down the drain.”