By Alexandre Darveau-Morin
Context of the research
This research was conducted through an ethnographic fieldwork seminar with Prof. Tania Li seeking to understand how power flows and influence the life of people inside the University of Toronto.
This article argues that power flows within student governance through politically active social networks. The environment of social networks is shaped by the creation and solidification of friendships within groups which enable them to gain power through solidarity. Therefore, it undermines the power of those who are not part of these groups creating a lack of space for their voices in what happens. Within the most important event of student politics, the Annual General Meeting, relationships between politically active student networks are deconstructed and reconstructed determining new alliances amongst different groups.
This research was conducted through a seminar with the goal of practicing our ethnographic fieldwork skills as students of sociocultural anthropology. The field of study was to study something that is very personal to us: our own university. Prof. Tania Li shaped our research through the specific questioning of how power flows and influence the life of people inside the University of Toronto.
The research was conducted through weekly seminars where students gathered their findings and presented them in class. Instead of going through a traditional individual research framework, our class was framed as a collaboration where we shared our findings, established links between them and tried to benefit each other. Furthermore, I worked closely with Anna Shortly, my research partner as we both studied the topic of student governance through different lines of inquiry. Nevertheless, we often conducted participant observation as a team and engaged in constant exchanges in order to brainstorm on our findings.
Before starting any kind of fieldwork, I started questioning the idea of participation in student politics as I had often heard the idea that students were simply apathetic to the subject. In order to understand this phenomenon, I first looked at Cruikshank’s (1999) ideas surrounding democratic governance in liberal societies. She argues that for one to be a proper citizen, one has to be politically and actively engaged. Participation is both “voluntary and coercive.” In order for citizens to participate democratically they must be constructed as citizens of a certain, active kind. Only then can they act in their own self-interest within the limits and interests of the liberal state (Cruikshank 1999:4).
However, this idea of active democratic citizenship fits poorly with the actual workings of student governance, according to the collective imaginary of U of T students. At the beginning of my research, I first started questioning if students were actively encouraged by some form of power into not being democratically engaged. Was there a power rendering students apathetic to the democratic choices in which they might be expected to participate? Was it transmitted through U of T student culture? Was it a power exerted by larger institutions such as the university administration, or by the province so that they could limit student activism?
These questions lingered with me through weeks of fieldwork in the various union events that I attended. I was puzzled and did not really understand how student non-participation could be theorized with the theories of power that we had first studied in the seminar before starting our fieldwork. Considering the harsh criticism directed at the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) I heard all around me and in student newspapers against the union’s ideology and actions, I wondered if it was simply some anti-hegemonic discourse reproduced by student body to undermine the power of the UTSU. However, some students also agreed with UTSU’s ideals, but did not necessarily participate in student politics.
Throughout the weeks, I realized that most students who attended UTSU events seemed to know each other. Some faces became familiar to me. Oftentimes, the perceived seriousness of political environments gave way to a more relax and friendly atmosphere. I sometimes wondered if people were there to get engaged in the school or simply to hang out with their friends. Through some research I then stumbled upon theories about the relation between social networks and political participation that helped shed some light on my puzzle.
Within the University of Toronto, power and who has a say in what happens within student governance flows through social networks. The environment of social networks is shaped by the creation and solidification of friendships within groups which enable them to gain power through solidarity, therefore undermining the power of those who are not part of these groups. This became my working hypothesis to account for who does, and who does not, become active in student governance, and how power is exercised both through and against democratic structures.
First and foremost, I will describe theories of network and elaborate on how they are represented within my case study. Then, I will explore how students become involved and why they get involved within politically active networks. Afterwards, I will define the college and union system within the university. Ultimately, I will detail how the most important event in student governance, the Annual General Meeting, defines and solidifies groups within politically active student networks and how it directly affects the flow of power within student politics.
In recent years, various scholars have looked at network theories to account for how students come to be politicized. Students are part of a multitude of networks with everyone they know in their lives. These networks can be either loosely or closely connected to a person (Brooks et al. 2015). In student governance, one can influence students that they know through other networks to bring them into the politically active student network (Hensby 2014:94). The interconnectedness of students in different universities also plays an important role in this process. The more people in a politically active network know each other and the denser it is, the greater chance students related to this network are to become politically engaged. On the other hand, counter-networks are networks that are unfavorable to political action (Crossley and Ibrahim 2012:598). They can then prevent students from getting involved even if they have the interest, as they have no opportunities within their network, or have pressure from their closer networks to avoid getting involved in politically active ones (Hensby 2014:95). I draw on theorizations of social networks in universities in the United Kingdom (Brooks et al 2015, Crossley and Ibrahim 2012 and Hensby 2012) , to categorize of U of T students according to their involvement in student politics. However, to understand how students interact in student politics, the structure of undergraduate student unions at U of T must first be understood.
Participating groups in the context of my research are all student groups who are involved in the UTSU networks of student politics as active participants. They are linked together in various networks in order to form an umbrella under the larger network structure of the UTSU student politics. They firstly consist of the elected members who represent students on college and faculty unions (Brooks et al 2015:1209). Executives who have previously ran in student elections but failed to get elected are also part of this group. Then come students who are part of these groups as friends of members of the executive. Additionally, there are students from clubs or campus groups who have a specific interest in student politics.
This group is composed of students who are active on campus within clubs and campus groups, but not involved in student politics as they lack networks that are linked to student unions on campus (Brooks et al. 2015:1211). They also might feel that they have nothing to gain by getting involved in student governance. If they do decide to get involved, their counter-networks could pressure them to abandon student politics. They could either have no opportunities to get involved through their network or have pressure from their networks to not get involved (Hensby 2014: 95-96). Moreover, their ties to the student governance network might be too weak for them to be willing to stay within the network.
This group is composed of students who mostly spend their time on campus in order to study as they do not have the leeway to incorporate extracurricular activities in their studies due to other commitments (Brooks et al. 2015:1212).
According to an UTSU executive I interviewed, most U of T students are in this category as the majority of students commute to school, often from the suburbs. They often work a part-time job to pay for their studies, try to be on campus less often to avoid commuting and use it only as a place to study. To this observation, I would add that many out-of-town students who live nearby campus also have a hard time getting involved because of their various commitments and busy schedules. It means being self-sufficient in some aspects of their lives as they are away from their family such as taking on extra household chores, doing groceries, taking care of house problems and for others, also working part-time or full-time to pay for their tuition fees and basic needs. Moreover, these commitments undermine their social networks with other students and often makes them have very loose ties with their colleges and the UTSU as they cannot find time to get involved within the school. Because of that they are not really involved in student politics or any other activities within the school (Brooks et al. 2015:1212-1213).
How does one get involved?
So, how and why do students get involved in student politics? Some join because they were either formally or informally encouraged either by their closer or extended social networks to run for college unions (Brooks et al. 2015:1209). For instance, one of my informants from a college union “snowballed” from disconnected groups in order to end up in the participating group as a college executive. In his first year, he lived at his college student residence. He then got involved in various college groups in second and third year where he ended up meeting his college student leaders who were also involved in one of the groups at his college. As he ended up being friends with college student leaders, he was then also encouraged to run to become one. In other words, he was initially part of disconnected groups which overlapped with participating groups which lead him to its current position on the college union.
In contrast to what Brooks et al. observed at their university, at the University of Toronto, some students do join student unions prior to having any networks. Instead of going from disconnected groups to participating groups, some will directly make a step from weak to participating groups.
For example, an informant that I interviewed from the UTSU first got involved in her college in her second year as she did not have any friends. After starting to talk to the executives on her college union, she then decided to apply and was hired as a services and initiatives assistant since she thought it would provide her with experience for her future career. Things then “snowballed” for her too. She went to a fieldtrip where she made various friends. Then she got elected within her college union. From then on, she went to other college events, met people from various colleges and expanded her personal network. In the end, instead of joining because of a previous network that she was in, she used involvement in the union to create her network at the University of Toronto. She joined the participating groups without going through the disconnected groups, but directly from weak groups.
One’s personal trajectory can be different, but from the people that I interviewed and who my research partner surveyed, they were almost all motivated to get involved in unions from the same reason: friendship and the chance to socialize.
Socialization at union events
Socialization within the unions is exemplified by how I conceptualized the space to be in college and UTSU events. The majority of people who went to these events were already part of participating groups whereas those who were from disconnected or weak groups did not necessarily stay. For instance, at the beginning of my fieldwork, I went to a mock debate about the future of federal politics organized by a college union. What was very interesting to observe is that a lot of people left during the debate, but an even greater number left once the topic of the debate shifted to tuition fees. Moreover, when the moderator took questions from the public at the end of the debate, he knew all those who asked questions on a first name basis. This suggests that the majority of those who had a greater incentive to stay were part of the participating groups while the others were from the disconnected groups and did not feel that it would affect their network relations to leave in the middle of the event.
A similar pattern was evident at events organized by the UTSU itself. For instance, the UTSU organized an event for students to ask questions surrounding the practices of their union. In other words, I conceptualized the union as a ‘patron’ wanting to showcase its good workings to its ‘clients’. However, the event seemed mainly to be a place with various closed groups hanging out as they talked and laughed together. It looked like they knew each other already. I recognized the faces of different union executives. An executive talked to Anna and I and she was very friendly. Some other attendees briefly entered the room while grabbing some food offered by the UTSU and leaving while others looked at the entrance and then left. Did they feel the environment was intimidating?
People who went to these events seemed to already be part of a network of friends. They were motivated to attend because they were already part of participating groups. This observation suggests that student politics is a closed network in the sense that it is solidified by friendships. Seeing these already closed networks, outsiders might feel that it is hard to join participating groups. For instance, after I personally felt intimidated by these networks and took a big step to cross that boundary, members of the networks were really open to my presence and were curious about who I was. However, if one does not get past that initial boundary, it will discourage them from trying to join the networks if they have prior formal or friendship ties to them. Those who have closer ties will most likely find it easier to get in. As Hensby (2014) also observed, students who did not get involved in student politics were not necessarily uninterested, but they lacked the social networks to sustain this type of involvement.
A college union executive with whom I discussed these matters told me that her college has been accused of being too ‘cliquey’ by the student body as the executives are all close friends. Because of this issue, they had to impose rules in order to limit the usage of the union space for friendly behavior such as hanging out in the office or going there afterhours. Essentially, they wanted to crack down on any type of social activities potentially seen as cliquey. In this case, the college union office was not simply an office. It had become a place where this specific in-group of college union executives and friends was reproduced and solidified. This use of the space impeded participation by students from either disconnected or weak groups.
The events and places I have described in this section are the spaces where participating groups are formed, solidified and reproduced, making it harder for others to join them. As I will now show, the formation of these groups has a direct impact on larger decision making, such as that which takes place through the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the UTSU.
The college system and professional faculties
The University of Toronto is a collegial university. When students are admitted in the Faculty of Arts & Science, each undergraduate student is admitted into one of the seven colleges which have a unique history and tradition. The university has an overarching administration which has sub-bureaucratic structures in the form of colleges which administer various services for students such as student residence, social events, counselling, etc. Each college first welcome students through their own orientation weeks or Frosh weeks. For this point on, certain students come to feel a sense of belonging to their college and get further involved in its activities.
Undergraduate students who are not in the Faculty of Arts and Science will be admitted to one of the eleven professional faculties such as the Faculty of Music, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering or the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education. Similarly to colleges, the faculties offer specific services to suit the needs of their students.
Union and college representation
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) serves the interests of 50 000 full-time students split on both the campus of UTM and St. George. The union itself is composed of six elected executive members. There is also a board of directors for St. George campus illustrating the seven colleges, the arts and science at-large, the transitional year program, the eleven professional faculties and the professional faculties at-large. There are also directors representing the interests of UTM as a whole. Elections are held at the end of each academic year and students that run for a certain position must be part of the group they are seeking to represent. Furthermore, in addition to the representatives of colleges and faculties on the UTSU, these institutions also have their own unions and hold their own elections. The UTM campus also elects union executives through the UTMSU, the student union representing UTM alone as a whole.
The AGM and the reform of the board structure
The Annual General Meeting of the UTSU normally happens on a yearly basis. It is a long meeting lasting several hours, which permits the general student body to attend and express their concerns or ideas about what the UTSU should do in order to represent the interests of the students. The three AGMs that were held on October 28th 2014, October 7th 2015 and November 18th 2015 were largely centred on the reform of the board structure of the UTSU. The issue was that the CNCA (Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act) had a change in its rules forcing the UTSU to comply or their organization could be dissolved. The initial board proposal was very controversial as the colleges and professional faculties would have lost their representational seats in order to leave the space for 10 new directors mainly centered on issues of equity such as a LGBTQ, racialized, women, commuter or first year representatives. On the other hand UTM would have kept their seats. This proposal created a direct clash between the St. George colleges and faculties on one side, and UTM on the other. At the 2014 AGM, the board structure proposal could not reach a 2/3 vote ratification and was then voted down. Consultation went on for a year in order to propose a new board structure.
Fast tracking to 2015, two new board structures were proposed. The Zhuk/Singh board proposal endorsed by the St. George colleges maintained the board structure already in place while adding six equity directors selected by the board of directors of the UTSU. On the other hand, the Slobodian board structure proposal endorsed by UTM would have reduced the proportionality of the St. George colleges and professional faculties to one each while adding twelve equity directors. Moreover, UTM would have gained another seat. The same scenario which happened in 2014 was reproduced at the October 2015 AGM where great chaos ensued at the AGM in relation to the vote which dominated the 5 hours meeting. The whole AGM only went through 5 points on 17 points agenda. St. George attendees were trying to make the vote as slow as possible so that the students of UTM who had to commute to the St. George Campus to attend the AGM would have to leave before the vote. The Zhuk/Singh proposal was indeed approved by 607 votes against 529 for the Slobodian proposal. However, with 562 votes in favour and 455 opposed, the proposal was struck down by UTM students as it failed to receive the 2/3 of the votes needed for ratification.
A month later, the second vote took place in an AGM focused mainly on the board structure proposal. A witch hunt was created in order to recruit as many participants as possible to attend the meeting in order to represent the participating groups of St. George campus, but also obtain as many proxies as possible. Basically, a non-attending student is allowed to cede their vote to an attendee of the AGM, each of whom is allowed to have the voting power of 11 people. However, on the actual day of the meeting, UTM was nowhere to be found. They had asked the UTSU to vote by internet communication from their campus which the UTSU agreed to. Nonetheless, UTM could not find a room in time and was unable to attend the vote by internet or in person. With an overwhelmingly 2076 votes in favour, 44 opposed and 1 abstention, the new board structure passed.
The AGM as a ‘shit show’
Even if though it was heavily bureaucratized, and was also a place of formal democracy, the UTSU AGM was at the same time conceptualized by participating students as a place of amusement, a ‘shit show’ that defied the bureaucratic structure of a union meeting while staying within the limit of the acceptable. Apart from certain engineers, they knew that their behaviour would not cause them to be kicked out of the room against their will (Goffman 1961:179). This mixture of fun and democratic structures has a big impact on who has the deciding power.
Members of the group I sat with during the November 2015 meeting were having a lot of fun, so much that sometimes, I wondered if they were not missing out the actual details of the meeting. For instance, one asked another one if it would be acceptable to listen to a 18+ TV show during the meeting. Another member carefully put alcohol in her flask before the meeting started. During the whole meeting, they were passing around Timbits that they had bought for the whole group. Many students had their eyes glued to their computers.
Then again, many members expected the meeting to be a crazy place and were disappointed that their new ‘arch enemy’, UTM, could not attend the November meeting. One member of our group said that they missed UTM while another thought the AGM was not interesting if it wasn’t a ‘shit show’.
This atmosphere of discord and craziness was also present during the October 2015 meeting. As soon as the agenda was approved, an engineering band crashed the meeting to the cheers of the crowd. “Cease clapping folks and return to order . . .ORDER, ORDER, ORDER!”, screamed the annoyed chair of the meeting in order to try to restore formality. However, instances of disturbance kept happening during the meeting. Most attendees were playing the UTSU bingo, a normal bingo game based on whether particular phrases were uttered or actions occurred during the meeting such as “Someone orders a pizza”, “Chair threatens to kick someone out” or “Accusations of St. George Superiority”. The game poked fun at the bureaucratic rules meant to keep the meeting in place, and enacted expectations of a ‘shit show’. Out of the blue, someone ended up screaming “BINGO” to the chair who screamed back “ORDER” while the crowd laughed. The chair kept calling attendees to order for undesirable behaviour such as cheering, clapping or discussion, but the attendees seemed unbothered by his authority.
With intention, attendees continually reconstructed and questioned the procedures of the meeting. The AGM was still for the attendees a place of democratic participation, but also one of active amusement which went against the attempts of office holders of the UTSU to impose moral and behavioral restrictions. They redefined the AGM into a ‘shit show’ rather than a debate accompanied with civility and formality (Goffman 1961:182-187).
Furthermore, it was another event through which participating groups could feel solidarity with their group members and re-enact the solidity of their groups. The informant who informed me of the ‘cliquey-ness’ of their college union further told me that their group at the AGM was mainly composed of executives of their union or members that had failed to be elected in their union. The playful aspect of the event enabled them to feel stronger connections with each other through having fun. It reaffirmed the boundaries of their group and how they are close to each other.
Alienating non-participating groups
The group boundaries I have described had important effects on decision making within the UTSU. On one side, it can be observed that those who attended the AGM were very passionate and invested in the debate for the board structure. However, this created a context where the AGM was only centered around those who felt like they had a stake in being represented on the board, mainly being the college unions, the unions of professional faculties and UTM.
As a consequence of the strength of the union-based groups, those who were not part of these groups and were simply there to participate in the debate would have felt alienated. Quite likely, the AGM did not conform to their conception of what it ought to be. Only five points were discussed in the October 2015 AGM while completely ignoring the other issues that needed to be discussed such as a motion to fight for free education or another one to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The discussion of the AGM was then centered around those who dominated the discussion while also transforming it into a place of amusement which was no other than a structured chaos.
As a case in point, what if a student who participated had connections with the participating groups without being inherently part of it? One student I interviewed attended the UTSU AGM in 2014, when the topic of the board structure reform had first been debated. He had been personally invited by one of the executives of the UTSU who he knew, but he was not personally involved in student politics. He attended the event on his own. However, he was very displeased with the experience. He found that the event was so rowdy he vowed never to attend again. Because his network relations to student politics were too weak, he felt alienated by how the participating groups conceptualized and made the AGM what it currently is.
Gaining power through disconnected and weak groups
A major factor that impeded the fairness of the democratic process at the AGM was the proxy system that enabled participants to get power through gathering the votes of non-participating groups. A student who is unable to attend the AGM can entrust their vote to an attendee who will vote for them. Attendees are then allowed to vote for 10 other people including their own vote giving themselves a voting power of 11 votes.
At the October 2015 AGM, a lot of attendees had proxies but did they not necessarily go to the maximum of 10. However, at the November 2015 AGM, one had to sign-in according to whether they had proxies or not. I was able to bypass an hour long line because I did not hold any proxies, while everyone else in the line had at least one. I was soon presented with the fact that most people in the AGM had a voting power of 11 rendering my voice of 1 completely meaningless. One would assume that those who entrust their vote would mostly have a stake in what is happening and how it would affect them, though another picture must be drawn.
A college executive explained to me that to gain the maximum voting power of 11 proxies in the second AGM, she copy and pasted a text to all of her Facebook friends in order to have some people let her vote in her name. I asked her if the people she recruited from disconnected or weak groups cared about the vote and she said that most did not really have a stake or interest in student politics. The more one had a strong network of friends outside of their ‘participating group’, the greater chance that they could increase their voting power. However, the drive to collect these votes was done by participating groups who voted in clusters and collectively had a really high voting power as groups. In the end, every other voter in the room which who was not party of any participating groups was rendered powerless.
Power within participating groups
Examined more closely, the picture was more complicated than ‘participating groups’ having the greatest power, with their members unified under common knowledge of the structure and procedures of the agenda. People in groups felt pressured to vote in compliance with the ‘participating groups’ even if they personally did not agree with them. For instance, in the November 2015 AGM, one person sitting with us felt the need to mention to another member of his group that he felt bad about disagreeing with a certain policy being passed. The other member then reassured him that it was okay for him to not vote with the group members.
The power of group pressure reflects back to the initial problematic of Athenian democracy as voting members felt constrained in their voting power as votes were done through show of hands. As in the case of the AGM, papers are held which everyone can see. This pressure was also felt by me and Anna when we voted. Anna already had a closer relationship with our group. On my part, I felt the pressure mount considering that I was sitting within the group and was forming relationships with the members. Furthermore, the group pressure-problem showed through in the map we created showing where each college was positioned in the meeting room. From our observation, most members in the group almost always voted in compliance with the decision made by their group. Moreover, because of the closeness of the voting-group members, it became hard to publicly disagree with them, especially when they were sitting next to each other. The need for a person to vote with their group comes down to not disappointing them, as at the end of the day, they are more than partners, they are friends.
Power through knowledge
To further understand group voting dynamics, it is important to recall that one needs to understand the rules of the democratic structure and how to navigate them. Simply attending the AGM does not guarantee one’s ability to have their voice heard. Two powerful objects were also used to undermine individuals’ ability to utilize and understand the rules and procedures of the meeting. The chair of the meeting held a book named “Robert’s rules of order.” The copy of the book which dictates the rules for running the AGM has 716 pages. A glossary sheet of basic parliamentary language was given at the entrance of each AGM and the chair introduced a condensed version of the rules at the beginning of every meeting. However, it represented a limited jargon insufficient to guide a newcomer on how to navigate the space. At the October 2015 AGM, Anna and I could not really grasp what was going on and we only understood the basic processes at the November 2015 AGM.
Moreover, some of the members of the participating groups also lacked the necessary knowledge to handle the votes or the procedures of the AGM. This problem was exemplified in various moments during the meeting. As an illustration, at the beginning of the November 2015 meeting, one member asked why his motion on October 2015 for a referendum for free education had not been addressed. In response, the chair pointed out the member’s lack of knowledge of the processes of the union, as he did not understand that the motion had been shut down with the meeting in October. He also needed a petition to obtain this referendum. In other words, he lacked important knowledge about how motions are passed and put forward by the UTSU. By the same token, oftentimes the chair would confirm certain decisions which he himself was uncertain. Members with greater knowledge of the rules were able to refine how they acted in the space to push forward their own political agenda.
Finally, recall that the AGM was experienced as a ‘shit show’ and a place of fun. This meant that members were not necessarily giving their full attention to the meeting and the details of what people are voting on. Inattention was added to a lack of knowledge of what was going on and how to navigate the space to impact their decision making. For instance, in both AGMs, Anna and I did not always understand what we were voting on. We were not alone. Some group members confirmed that they just followed our group even though they held proxies representing 10 other people.
From my analysis, I can draw some conclusions about why students do not get involved in student politics at the University of Toronto. Participating groups are indeed groups that are created around democratic participation, but first and foremost, they are friendship groups. They represent one activity that certain students at the University of Toronto undertake in order to participate as members of the school. Then, because there is a certain ‘cliqueness’ to student governance within the university, it is not surprising that certain students would feel intimidated by these networks and would be discouraged from getting involved. On the other hand, disconnected groups might simply have other activities which they have decided to get involved in. For them, student governance is simply not part of their social networks. In others words, they could have just not thought about the idea of getting involved.
The result of these group dynamics is to concentrate the power of democratic decision making within the unions to those who are part of participating groups, leaving the disconnected and weak groups out of the picture. In fact, participating groups have reorganized the AGM as a ‘shit show’ a place of amusement mixed with democracy which goes against the formal democratic structure that the UTSU would like to impose. The production of a positive and fun collective experience at the AGM then affirms, reaffirms and bounds groups together. Then, even if disconnected and weak groups want to participate in the AGM, they will feel powerless because of the strong groups that already have set interests and ways to get greater democratic power within the voting process itself.
Nevertheless, even though they are group of friends, there are power dynamics within participating group themselves. Some group members have significant knowledge concerning decision making and how to navigate the spaces of the AGM. In contrast, other members are simply absorbed in the AGM as a ‘shit show’, and sometimes confused about the processes and rules that they can use, and how they can use the space to put forward their own political agendas. Power is then acquired by those who know the rule of the game best, and know how they can use them to their own advantage while gaining the vote of their own group.
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 The campus of the University of Toronto which is situated downtown.
 University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union