Serving our students

I was very pleased to read the results of the recent student-led project to re-imagine how their student union (SMCSU) operates. The report does a great job of harvesting ideas from the broader student community, and, in doing so, manages to address some of the major systemic problems identified by the recent audit of SMCSU’s finances.

The only request I made in accepting the student plan is that we delay holding elections until the Fall so that our community has the chance to draft a student code of conduct. In making this request, I was reacting not simply to the audit, but to what we are learning from interviews with students whose names appear in the audit document.

It is now clear to me that, in addition to having a money problem, SMCSU also had a people problem. Specifically, the student union has for some time embraced disrespectful and harmful behaviour, including hazing. This behaviour was common practice at fall and spring SMCSU retreats as a perverse form of initiation, and was concealed through a carefully maintained tradition of secrecy—a “what happens in SMCSU stays in SMCSU”-policy—that is the polar opposite of the transparency and accountability our students deserve.

Hazing was on my radar as a potential risk long before I had confirmation that it was actually happening. I have attached a letter that I wrote to the newly elected SMCSU administration a year ago in which I specifically refer to hazing as a potential threat associated with poorly managed off-campus retreats. My letter also talked about the importance of establishing and following a code of conduct. I later reviewed this letter, in its entirety, in a meeting with SMCSU’s council members.

I only recently learned that, despite this clear and unambiguous encouragement to embrace a healthier and safer organizational culture, hazing was part of both of last year’s retreats.

Questions have been raised about whether it is appropriate for the administration to intervene in the workings of a student society. In this case however, intervention was the only course open to us after SMCSU chose to disregard more traditional and collegial efforts to address potential safety issues.

Believe me, I would like us to get to a place where such intervention is not necessary. However, until student government leaders take responsibility for their actions and for the safety of those students —many of them young, inexperienced and susceptible to peer pressure— who come forward to serve our community, I firmly believe we have an obligation to intervene.

We need to break decisively with the negative practices of the past.

Having an effective code of conduct that encourages student leaders and, indeed, all students to think carefully about these issues is a helpful step in the right direction.

I am confident that, after consulting widely and carefully, our community can draft a document that represents best practice within the University of Toronto. Let’s aspire to create a document that will encourage the highest levels of honesty, transparency and faithful stewardship, that sets high standards for personal accountability and that promotes the health and safety of our students.

David Mulroney is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College and was Canada’s Ambassador to China from 2009 – 2012.