Praise and suggestions for U of T’ s most innovative college

During the Fight the Fees protests on campus earlier this year, the number of Innis College students visible among the crowd surprised me. Considering the demonstrations were composed of thousands of students, most of whom were from Mississauga and Scarborough, the visibility of students from the university’s smallest college was significant. Last week, while attending the annual elections of the university’s History Students’ Association, I again was impressed by the number of Innis College students present in the room. For a program often more informally associated with St. Michael’s and Victoria College, Innis was the most evidently represented among the history students. Even in the most recent UTSU election, Innis’ representation on the collegial stage was evident–two of the four presidential candidates in this year’ s election were Innis students.

Indeed, 52 years after Innis’ creation, the college is a well-respected part of the U of T community, defined by its student leaders, student spaces, and innovative programs and initiatives. The college that once had little more to show for itself than a portable on Hart House Circle nicknamed ‘ the biscuit box’ and an empty library, is now at the forefront of the university. Yet, to preserve these titles, Innis must continue to criticize and improve its facilities and governing bodies.

Innis students are notoriously engaged with their community as evident through their cross-campus representation, successful student societies, and the college’ s student-administration parity governance. Current UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike is an Innis student; the incoming presidents of the Math and History Student Unions are as well. Brianne Katz-Griffin, the current president of the Innis College Student Society (ICSS), led the UTSU’ s Orientation Week last year, and incoming ICSS president Yolanda Alfaro will take on that task this year.

In past years, Innis students like Kenneth Everett Stone, who ripped his degree in half at convocation in 1968, have been among the most politically engaged on campus. This political passion among Innis is still evident with students like Jeremiah Cashore, who co-founded the university’ s Leap Chapter in September last year, and André Fast, who founded the Free Tuition Coalition two years ago.

Moreover, when considering the challenges faced by other student societies this year, the ICSS functioned relatively smoothly. The St. Michael’ s College Student Union funded campus pro-life groups and was eventually prorogued, the executive of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council faced allegations of transphobia, the University College Literary and Athletic Society misplaced $7,500, and New College Student Council elections were stormed with protesters against their presidential nominee. The ICSS, on the other hand, ran dozens of events and passed a $105,000 budget without controversy.

Since 1970, the college’ s student-administration parity governance structure continues to be a model for other colleges on campus. Last year, elections for the Innis College Council (ICC), the embodiment of student parity governance, drew more candidates than any other recent election. Innis student leaders are evidently passionate, socially conscious, and competent, and the college’ s administration and structure reflects this.

Innis should also be proud of its facilities. The suite-style residence, constructed in 1993, remains, as Dean Tim Worgan likes to advertise, “the most popular on campus.” This year the college also hired a new librarian, Kate Johnson, who will be looking to improve the college’ s library. Noticeably run-down, small, and inadequately supplied, the college’s library is only the most recent facility to receive a facelift. The college also approved the reconstruction of the front lobby to create additional student space.

The administration’s commitment to community engagement is another distinctive and commendable feature of the college. The construction of Innis Town Hall has created a space for community events from Sunday morning church services to book launches and panel discussions. For the past two years, the administration has also been committed to ensuring the college leads the university in creating a positive environment during Orientation Week. Innis cheers have become increasingly positive, purged of words such as “frosh” or references to hazing.

Innis is not without challenges, however. Though I am one of the biggest fans of the aesthetically pleasing Victorian house attached to college, this aspect of its architecture continues to hinder accessibility for students. Despite incremental changes in the past years to improve accessibility, such as the installation of automated doors last fall, the fact that half of the college’s property is not accessible is unacceptable. Although in a privileged position myself, it should also be noted that representation of women and ethnic minority groups is deficient among both the college’s administration and student groups –the past and incoming executives of the ICSS are almost entirely white. Evidence of international students having a voice in numerous governing bodies is also non-existent.

Moreover, it remains unclear how serious Innis is taken by campus groups like the UTSU. Earlier this year, Innis was consulted months after other colleges about the UTSU You Decide campaign. There is also arguably a democratic deficit among Innis student groups. In the most recent elections of the ICSS and Innis Residence Council, the majority of positions were won uncontested, and— with the exception of this year— there is often little competition for positions on the ICC. This indicates not only a lack of student engagement by these councils, but a lack of accountability.

To address these challenges, it is time for Innis to return to its innovative and experimental roots that birthed ideas like the university’s writing centres, programs like Cinema and Urban Studies, and student-administrative parity. First, the college needs to expedite the reconstruction of the west wing. Despite the commendable attention paid by administration to student input over the past two years, the college needs to renovate this part of its campus if it wants to demonstrate it is serious about improving accessibility.

The ICSS should introduce an International Student Representative, similar to the Commuter and First Year Representatives, who could bring the concerns of these groups to council and organize events specific to this demographic. All councils should be seeking to ensure representation of minority groups among its appointed members as well. This is an extremely easy step already undertaken by student societies at Trinity College, riding associations for political parties nationally, and in the federal cabinet. I would even go so far as to say this should be a necessity for councils like the IRC, which is composed primarily of appointed members. Affirmative action programs need not wait until representation is an issue, but can be used as an important way to show all students their potential for leadership within the college. With the implementation of gender parity, international student representatives, and serious construction on the college’s inaccessible west wing, the college once again has the opportunity to prove to the university it’s unique in its innovative and experimental abilities.

I think it’s clear that Innis College should be very proud of the student leadership, space, programs, and institutions that have developed in its 52 year history. That being said, the college has to address numerous areas of concern related to representation. However, more than anything, these concerns should be an opportunity for the college to remain relevant on campus as an innovative leader in student governance.

Correction: (Par 3) An Innis student named Wilson Wu was also elected president of the U of T Physics Student Union (PhySU). 

Featured photo courtesy of Robert Patrick

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