Some Thoughts on the BoG Protest

Friday, April 15, 2005


Written by Luke Weiler

Before getting into this, I'll say right up front: I don't have major issues with the protest which occured last week.

I agree that it was ineffective - if effectiveness is to be gauged by decisions made by the Board of Governors (BoG). It did, however, focus both media and community attention on the university budget, university governance, and the issue of protest tactics. In this respect, the protest was highly effective; people are emotionally engaged on the issue and people are talking about it. Regardless of how one feels about the tactics used by the protesters (and it is worth noting that, of course, all attention has been focused on the single most radical tactic, to the exclusion of all the other work which has been done), the demonstrators did get our attention.

So let's talk about the issues.

It's been enlightening reading the letters sent in to thecannon.ca on this topic, both in support of and criticising the demonstrators. I can only imagine what the Ontarion letters section would look like, were it publishing this week. Because I know many of the people who were involved in the demonstration, I'm familiar with their perspective. For me, reading the thoughts of those who oppose the protest has been by far the more interesting part. Some people had some very thoughtful and useful things to say, while others chose to eschew constructive criticism for name-calling. I would like to highlight the former and suggest we disregard the latter.

I speak specifically of the letters written by John Las , "A student" , and JennyM . Las offers, atop a heap of personal abuse, the unhelpfulobservation that funding problems are a fact of life. Expressing an attitude that occurs in several other letters, this is hardly a fair treatment of the topic. The fact that our government underfunds universities and our administrators grimly accept it is only a fact of life because we do not change it. Las is entitled, of course, to refuse to do anything about unpleasant facts, but this should not serve as the basis for criticising those who do.

"A student" shares Las' opinion on cutbacks, and adds on the original thought that the CSA should support tuition increases so as to create more jobs. This is frankly irrelevant to the topic. JennyM contributes nothing, lambasting all U of G students as "selfish, immature and ignorant".

There is little to be gained from these sorts of criticisms. We in the university community - students, workers, faculty, administrators, and guelphites - all have something to gain from an increase in government funding. Our allies are people who acknowledge this simple fact, and those who are prepared to discuss ways of working towards it. The writers of the preceding three letters have nothing to offer, and there is nothing the CSA could do to please them aside from shutting up and ignoring the problem. If change is to occur in the funding model for universities, it will happen in spite of such people.

This is why I write to advise people to disregard such comments. Much fairer criticisms of the protest which have been voiced, and it is upon these that I suggest we focus.

Rich Appiah's letter stands out as a particularly useful contribution.

He understands (I think) the crisis facing post-secondary education in this province, and strongly endorses making our voices heard. He also contributes the valuable fact that there are people out there with an awareness of the problems we face who want to do something about it, but are alienated by radical protest. I don't think this closes the book on the use of disruptive protest, but it should stimulate people's imaginations about what other actions can be taken, and embolden our efforts to reach out into the community.

Appiah also invokes the non-violent traditions of MLKJ and Gandhi. While I agree that there are many things to be taken from the examples of these dramatic and effective leaders, I would point out that they were not afraid to stand up to authority when the need arose. I can think of times when Martin Luther King Jr found it necessary to disregard the orders of the police. If the university is going to use campus cops as hired strongmen to keep students out of the process, then there will likely be times when we too must disregard their instructions.

Matt Teeter makes some pragmatic observations, notably that it is unsurprising that the BoG didn't change their plans in the face of disruptive demonstrations. Also, in criticising the tactics of the protesters, Teeter cites the red herring of the consultative process. This is a commonly-held misconception I would like very much to address.

I do not believe there is anything that anyone could have said in any consultative channel which would have altered the decision of the BoG.

There is no email which could have been sent to , there is no comment which could have been made at the (effectively unpublicised) Senate meeting, and there is no concern which could have been raised by the Student Budget Advisory Group which would have swayed our Governors. I do not say this because I find it pleasant, but because it is true.

Year after year after year, different students try in different ways to express to the Board that their budget choices have ruinous impacts on the students who attend (not to mention those who cannot attend!) our university. Year after year, the BoG does not respond. The Board is an rubber-stamp assembly, over half of whom are current or former corporate executives, who view their role solely as to keep the university on an even financial keel. There have been budget meetings in the past where board members openly snickered at the students presenting their concerns. When I tried to challenge the wisdom of budget cuts last year, I had to endure the humiliation of old administrators and corporate execs confiding that they "understood" me because they were once young and radical, and that I could take lessons from them - some other time, of course.

More than twenty years running, the Board has sided against the students. For two decades straight, it passed annual tuition increases, and for the last two years, it has made considerable cuts to the operating budget. I can guarantee you that if the McGuinty government permits tuition increases next year, tuition will again go up. It is not fair to criticise students and workers for not using the channels which the administration provides, because there is simply no point. Such channels are created specifically (I believe) so that apologists for the admin can claim that consultation was held.

The Board only sees two levers in front of it: "Cut" and "Raise Tuition". This will not change until either the provincial and federal governments provide adequate funding, or the Board of Governors is reformed.

These are the sort of things which it is important that we discuss. The jury will continue to be out on whether or not the protesters were justified in taking the actions that they did, but it is easy to see that their actions are understandable. The consultative process at U of G is a joke, more than half our Governors are suits appointed by the provincial government, and the Board exhibits no signs of either creative thought or concern for the welfare of the students or workers here. Our post-secondary education system is certainly in a crisis, and people's educations and jobs are on the line.

This is a situation in which people understandably feel they need to do something. Based on many of the comments which have shown up on thecannon, the community agrees with the sentiment but disagrees with the tactics. What, then, should be done? How should we do it? There's another budget meeting in just 51 weeks, and it will be as terrible for our community as this one was. Let's plan now instead of criticising later.


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