By: Zach Morgenstern
On Wednesday, members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) will have a third chance to pass reforms to the governance structure to comply with the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. The vote will happen at a meeting open to all full-time undergraduate and pro-faculty students at the St. George and Mississauga campuses at 5:30 p.m.
At a meeting back in October 2014, a board structure that had seats for various demographics, most notability marginalized and minority groups, but not for colleges and professional faculties, was defeated after failing to get a two-thirds majority vote.
At a subsequent meeting in October 2015, a proposal submitted by Grayce Slobodian that amended the previous year’s proposal to include partially restored college and pro-faculty representation was defeated by one submitted by Khrystyna Zhuk that maintains the current college/pro-faculty representation structure while introducing a number of general equity directors. It should be noted that this proposal was introduced after a new political tendency was elected to lead the UTSU.
When put to a final vote, however, Zhuk’s proposal could not get a two-thirds majority either. Thus a third general meeting has been called, this one to pass a slightly modified version of Zhuk’s proposal.
In a recent Varsity op-ed, UTSU President Ben Coleman calls on students to pass this structure so that the UTSU can spare students from tiring, stressful general meeting debates and focus on advocacy work. There is a reasonable chance, however, this plea will not be heard. While Coleman’s point is one that hopefully has support on both sides of the UTSU political aisle, the main partisan issue with this board proposal remains intact.
In 2014, the UTSU board should have known they were in for a fight when they introduced a proposal for an equity representation-based board. Right-wing students were bound to oppose the idea on principle, while UTSU critics of various stripes were able to portray it as a gerrymandering tactic—i.e., one that would supposedly favor a base that the UTSU was good at appealing to (equity-focused groups) at the expense of one it wasn’t (college governments).
The 2015 proposal, meanwhile, has made the same mistake from the other side of the UTSU political divide. It allows college and pro-faculty student societies to hold their own elections for their UTSU reps, rather than keeping those elections entirely under UTSU electoral jurisdiction.
Those looking to get the UTSU board issue finished for good cannot pretend this divide does not exist. Rather, they should openly analyze it. The UTSU divide has long had an ideological character to it, with critics of past UTSUs arguing the UTSU should not take “divisive” (i.e., left-wing) political opinions.
This right-leaning demographic is at least partially responsible for the pro-college, anti-UTSU rhetoric of past years—and it makes sense. College governments don’t often deal with political advocacy work, and thus don’t attract activist students to the same degree that the UTSU has. In other words, the right sees colleges as an avenue to de-radicalize the UTSU—to divert its attention towards event planning and away from protesting tuition fees.
Therefore it’s understandable why some students may want to vote down the current board of directors proposals. If it was legitimate to read the 2014 proposal as a means to advance the previous UTSU’s left-social-democratic agenda, it’s equally valid to read this proposal as a means to de-radicalize the union. And while that very well may not be the intention of many of its backers, there’s no doubt that the current proposal appeals to the goals of those future Bay St. lawyers of Trinity College and the Law Society, and future tech CEOs of the Engineering Society.
Some of the arguments made in favor of the Zhuk proposal didn’t help to ease tensions. Unlike the Slobodian model, which featured specific seats for racialized students issues, LGBT issues, etc., the Zhuk model introduces general equity positions. This alternative approach was defended on the grounds that students face intersectional oppressions that may affect multiple parts of their identity at once.
It’s hard not to read rhetoric like this as a careful attempt at appealing to both pro- and anti-equity students. A student with a mandate to be the racialized students’ issues director can still address gender issues, and issues of gender-race intersectionality. Unlike a general equity director, however, a student with a specific mandate has a way of knowing how to focus their work, and an understanding of what issues to go into depth on when not addressing specific constituent concerns. This appeal to intersectionality undermines the UTSU’s potential to have an effective team of equity directors through the shield of radical language.
There is no lack of ideological baggage in the board proposal that will voted on Nov. 18. That does not mean it should not pass, but it does mean that progressives who support it have to be willing to be diplomatic, to recognize the concerns of those who oppose the structure, and explain why they believe people with those concerns should still vote for this structure.
So let’s commit to honest, analytical rhetoric around and at this AGM. I for one do not believe college governments are the all-important moral bastions that their proponents make them out to be, and I believe some of them in fact have partially reactionary agendas. I also don’t believe board structures should be the focus of AGMs. Rather, I think AGMs should be chances for the UTSU to discuss its role in social movements like BDS and Drop Fees. So should you vote for it? Let’s hope you get to hear some solid, B.S.-free analysis at the meeting before making up your mind.
Zach Morgenstern is a recent University of Toronto graduate who studied Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Peace, Conflict & Justice Studies. He represented Victoria College on the University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) Board of Directors for the Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 semesters.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-opinion/morgenstern-utsu-board-progress-requires-honest-analysis/.