Much to the confusion of the leaders of major student groups on campus, UTMSU announced its withdrawal from U of T’s Undergraduate Student Societies Summit in a letter sent to clubs and academic societies on February 10.
The seven-page letter, signed by UTMSU’s VP external Melissa Theodore, mentions that UTMSU received “hundreds of petitions” requesting that the union end its participation at the Summit.
In an interview with the Medium, Theodore confirmed only that “the students who signed the petitions are members of UTMSU”. It remains unclear whether these were students directly involved with UTMSU—executives, volunteers, and board members—or regular fee-paying UTM students.
Among the complaints outlined in Theodore’s letter is that the Summit does not allow some major student groups to participate in its meetings, and cites the Muslim Students’ Association as a group “which spans both campuses, has more members, [and] has a larger budget than many of the student groups represented [at the summit]”.
“We received an email from UTMSU explaining why they had withdrawn, and that was the first we’d heard of it,” said Maryam Khattab, president of the MSA. “We’d certainly be interested in hearing more.”
At UTMSU’s open forum, held a few days after the announcement, Mariam Assaad, president of the Middle Eastern Students’ Association, demanded to know why students hadn’t been given enough information about the Summit.
“Why didn’t we know about this?” she asked. “Why didn’t students know about it?”
Theodore’s letter outlines the reasons—or “concerns”—behind the decision, including perceived racism.
“My comments were always received by smears, smirks, eye-rolling, and other obvious disrespectful gestures,” said Theodore during the interview. Theodore identified herself as a “racialized student” in her letter.
“I was also offended by how cultural groups were disparaged and the necessity for student societies to fund cultural groups was questioned,” she added.
The letter also complains that the purpose of the Summit was “vague”.
According to an invitation sent to student leaders by former vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak, the Summit was created to discuss how to democratically represent the concerns of “divisional societies”, mainly in the context of fee diversion, currently a hot issue at the St. George campus.
Last spring, several downtown student societies that are a part of UTSU held referenda to divert their fees from the larger student union in order to provide services themselves and distance themselves from the perceived misrepresentation by UTSU. The various referenda were overwhelmingly passed, but UTSU has fought their validity tooth and nail, prompting the university to create and arbitrate the Student Societies Summit.
In the letter, Theodore also wrote that university interference compromised the autonomy of student societies, but did not explain how.
According to the Governing Council’s Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, a student society is a group “on whose behalf the university collects a compulsory non-academic incidental fee, in which membership is automatic”.
The autonomy of such groups, Misak’s memo stated, is “subject to the requirement that [they] operate in ‘an open, accessible, and democratic fashion, following the terms of their constitutions’ ”, quoting the same policy document.
Theodore’s letter complains of not being privileged to bring up new points, saying, “If the purpose is to resolve issues that exist between some student societies, why are we here?”
Misak’s invitation, dated August 20, 2012, also calls other societies, including the UTMSU, to send up to two members to the Summit, “in order to broaden the group of student leaders providing input into the discussion”.
The same document states that updates on discussions at the summit would be provided to the provost and to the Governing Council. However, Dominic Ali, U of T’s issues and media relations officer, said reports from the summit are not available to the public.
Theodore wrote that UTMSU has spent “many hours” attending and preparing for summit meetings “and reporting to our membership” about them.
Nevertheless, said Assaad, “I did not know much about the summit before UTMSU’s withdrawal, and I still don’t.”
The letter implies that other current controversies, including complaints about UTSU’s proxy policy and restrictions on bringing new motions to an annual general meeting, are also on the table.
The fact that the summit included discussion regarding some societies who had not been invited to attend was also a source of contention for Theodore, who added, “Now that we are exiting this process, we expect your discussions about us to end.”
The full letter was shared with various campus media and can be read here.