Issues of transparency, club funding, mental health, and equity took centre stage at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) by-election executive candidates debate on April 11. Candidates for Vice-President Student Life, Vice-President Equity, Vice-President Professional Faculties, and Vice-President Operations competed for votes in a crowded election.
The debate was moderated by Board of Directors Chair Eric Bryce and began with a land acknowledgement and equity statement given by current Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin.
VP Student Life
The VP Student Life election is the most contested race of both the general and the by-election period, with four candidates running. The three candidates at the debate were Ameera Karim, Spencer Robertson, and Bhanu Priya Sharma. Miharu Ho was unable to attend due to an academic conflict.
Robertson also previously ran for Vice-President External Affairs in the general election, but ultimately lost to Innis College Director Lucas Granger. He also ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for VP Campus Life, which is now called Student Life.
Candidates were asked about the Student Choice Initiative — the provincial government’s mandate for an opt-out option for certain student fees starting September — and how they would make up for a loss in funding.
Sharma emphasized the importance of creating an open discussion between students and herself, suggesting that this could be a possible way to not have students opt out.
Karim suggested the possibility of holding training sessions for club leaders in order to help them gain corporate sponsorships. She also proposed holding drop-in hours at the UTSU office, helping clubs find cheaper alternatives for their needs, and making the Student Commons bookable for clubs.
The Student Commons is a planned student-run hub to be located at 230 College Street that is a decade in the making, whose much-delayed opening is set for June.
Robertson hopes to open the door to more constructive criticism from club leaders. He also wants to make the Student Commons bookable and reduce the amount of time that non-U of T clubs can use the space.
Candidates were also asked how they plan to better involve clubs and groups in orientation going forward.
Sharma plans to implement bimonthly video chats with club leaders. For orientation, she wants an action plan for emergencies, a water station, and a booth for international students to get help.
Karim wants the Clubs Carnival to feel like less like a “filler event.” She hopes to use this position to collaborate with colleges and to train them to make orientation feel more special.
Robertson described this year’s orientation as a “nightmare,” adding that he wants to create a space where students can give feedback and assess where orientation can improve.
One audience member asked if candidates would grant funding to anti-abortion groups, and all three adamantly said that they would not.
“The answer is a hard no,” said Robertson. “We shouldn’t fund clubs that take away the rights or safety of students.”
Karim agreed, stating that these clubs create an unsafe atmosphere on campus, and that the VP Student Life should listen to students concerns about these groups.
“There’s clearly a line between freedom of expression and hate speech,” she said.
Sharma concurred with both candidates as well, saying, “While every student has the freedom to voice their opinion, it would also be a hard no for me to give them funding or space at the Clubs Carnival in which they could promote a hurtful topic.”
Another audience member asked about corporate sponsorships and where the candidates would draw the line in allowing clubs to attain corporate sponsorships from controversial or socially irresponsible companies.
Robertson said that he hopes to be in a financial position where he could decline money from unethical companies, saying there are times when the UTSU needs to draw the line.
Karim said that she would not want to take money from any company that creates or promotes an unsafe environment, and hopes to work with club leaders to help them find money from ethical sources.
Sharma stated that while she would recommend that club leaders refuse funding from organizations that would “take away the rights” of students, the decision would ultimately be left up to the club leaders as to where they get their funding.
VP Professional Faculties
The candidates for VP Professional Faculties — Dermot Gordon O’Halloran and Muskan Sethi — took the stage shortly after to discuss how they would represent and bring attention to students in their constituencies. O’Halloran is a music student and Sethi is in Chemical Engineering.
Sethi wants to engage with professional faculty students by being open to feedback and finding out what type of support they need from the UTSU.
O’Halloran pointed out that many professional faculty students do not realize that they are even a part of the UTSU. He echoed Sethi’s point that the UTSU needs to be more open to feedback, and wants to implement more physical advertising for the UTSU, pointing out that he never saw any campaigning in the Faculty of Music.
Both candidates said that they did not know that the first election was even happening, and O’Halloran only found out about the by-election by reading The Varsity.
An audience member asked about U of T’s new mental health task force and how the candidates plan to lobby the administration to make sure pro fac students are better represented.
This task force was proposed by U of T President Meric Gertler in response to student protests against perceived inaction on mental health issues.
In response, Sethi said that she wants to make students’ voices heard at Governing Council meetings and use available channels to advocate for all students.
O’Halloran took issue with the fact that there are only three student representatives on the task force but said that making resources available would alleviate many of those concerns.
Arjun Kaul is running uncontested for the VP Operations, and as such, his portion of the debate was structured as a “fireside chat” moderated by Bryce.
Kaul believes that, as VP Operations, he would have to split his time between managing finances and enforcing the governmental structure of the UTSU.
In terms of funding, Kaul believes that he can cut through unnecessary features of the role to help students directly. He cited the $301,000 the UTSU spends on the help desk and questioned how much this actually supports student wellness.
Outgoing VP Operations Tyler Biswurm said that no one is fully prepared for the role and that there is a steep learning process. Kaul responded that he intends to read over the bylaws in detail and seek public testimonials.
For the final portion of the debate, candidates for VP Equity Michael Junior Samakayi and Hanya Wahdan took the stage.
When asked about the best way to tackle issues of equity on campus, Wahdan said that she hopes to understand how the UTSU can work with different faculties on campus and how they can produce a more positive image. She also wishes for the UTSU to have a seat within each faculty and train members to create a more positive environment.
Samakayi pointed out that there were issues of representation that need attention, citing the mental health task force as an example. He said that it is impossible to represent 50,000 students, as the UTSU currently does, without diverse representation. Samakayi also added that he wants people to start thinking more about accessibility, and he hopes for students to feel welcome and not marginalized.
As for how the UTSU can better respond to issues of inequity, Wahdan said that mental health is a major priority and that she wants to look closer into why “recent events” on campus are recurring.
Samakayi agreed with this assessment and said that a more diverse and representative body is a solution. Both candidates were adamant that empathy is a key attribute to the ideal candidate and that everyone should be comfortable to speak out on issues of inequity.
Voting ends today at 5:00 pm and students can cast their ballots at utsu.simplyvoting.com.