Two Solitudes No More

Two Solitudes No More

On Wednesday of this week I deliver my first annual report to the Collegium, the governing body that presides over the University. I will post the report for your review as soon as the Collegium has had a chance to receive and discuss it. The theme of the document is renewal.

One of the most important elements of the report, and a major focus of renewal efforts, is student life. Specifically, I will be reporting on work to create what I like to think of as a new constitution governing the University’s relationship with 3 important student organizations: the Saint Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU); our student newspaper, “The Mike”; and the St. Michael’s Residents Council (SMRC).

As you probably know, if anything needs renewal, it is the relationship between the University and SMCSU. On arrival last year, I was struck by the extent to which we had become two solitudes, occupying the same space but living very different lives.

The more I considered the question, the more worried I became about three things. First, I wanted to be reassured that, before we passed on to SMCSU the considerable funds generated by a levy on all St. Mike’s students, SMCSU actually had in place a system for managing these funds with due regard to probity, transparency and accountability. These worries grew as we dug deeper into things, and as students came forward to share serious concerns.

Second, I worried about disconnects between SMCSU’s program of activities and our mission as a Catholic University. Once known for its activism and social conscience, St. Mike’s has in recent years gained the reputation of being the University of Toronto’s party school. When I talk to my colleagues across campus, I am reminded that there is little inclination to compete with us for that dubious distinction, which has largely been earned through SMCSU’s focus on organizing large and highly remunerative club nights at venues downtown.

Other events and activities threatened to turn Brennan Hall, the centre for student life and student government, into unfriendly territory for all but a small group of insiders. I rarely completed a circuit of Brennan Hall without stopping to talk to students about inappropriate language and anti-social behaviour.

Finally, student government was, at its highest levels, embracing a closed, entitlement culture that actually parodied what good government is all about. As a former public servant who cares deeply about these things, it pained me to see SMCSU’s senior leadership adopt—and enforce—a lifestyle and practices that would be more suitable at a fraternity house.

As I reflected on things, I came to believe that what was happening was in part due to the fact that the University had at least in some respects lost touch with its students. I was struck by the number of events I had attended where I saw many staff and alumni, but at which students were largely absent. Similarly, SMCSU’s program of activities had almost nothing to do with the life of a Catholic intellectual community. We had indeed become two solitudes.

Members of the St. Mike’s “angel lab”

Although we have travelled a difficult road for the last 12 months, I really do believe that there is light on the horizon. We are beginning to ramp up a program of outreach to students that we began last year and that will grow steadily in the months ahead. Indeed, the launch last week of our St. Mike’s “Angel Lab,” in which students were invited to bring start-up culture to social justice issues, was inspiring.

We now have a great opportunity to re-imagine the relationship between the University and key institutions of student government. That’s the objective of the new constitution we will be introducing to the Collegium this week.

The new document is grounded in respectful recognition of the fact that SMCSU and other organizations are self-governing partners in our shared task of nurturing and supporting the life of our community.

Implicit in this is a warm welcome for debate and friendly disagreement. At the same time, we ask the student organizations that share our name to respect the Gospel values that our University stands for.

The new document formalizes our commitment to holding student organizations accountable for the funds that we transfer to them on behalf of all St. Mike’s students.

Finally, we commit ourselves to a process of accompaniment, meaning a commitment from the University to provide SMCSU and the others with training and formation in financial management, good governance and leadership, and to assign University representatives as advisers to SMCSU, SMRC and The Mike.

I am very optimistic that the road ahead will lead us beyond two solitudes to the kind of respectful collaboration that truly benefits the University and its students.


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