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U of G's New Marketing Strategy: "Our Degrees Are FREE!"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Written by Scott Gilbert

From now on, prospective students will be told that they can attend classes at the University of Guelph and earn a degree without ever having to pay. This is the new marketing strategy that the university is set to unveil. Students from around the world will be lining up at our door. We will need to massively expand the facilities of this institution to accommodate the millions who will want to attend, but don’t worry, it won’t cost you a thing.

The fine print, which will not be published anywhere on the U of G website or in any of their promotional material, is that you do still need to pay at the beginning of each semester, buy books, pay to live in residence, and fund the plethora of other student fees to the athletic center, bus pass, dental plan, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The way the university gets around their policy requirements is that they honestly believe it is okay to say these things, so long as students don’t actually pay cash out of their pockets every time they enter a classroom. If you don’t pay when you walk into your 9am class, then isn’t it free?

Of course not, and the first two paragraphs in this article are entirely fictional. However it serves as a useful analogy to the case that follows. Something very much along these lines is happening right now on this campus, and it is being justified because it is not technically in violation of any U of G policy. Furthermore, there is no intent to create a policy that would object to such flagrant inaccuracies. In fact, if you protest against them, you may be banned from campus.

The story starts with the Fall 2006 Career Fair that happened last month. Every year the University of Guelph co-hosts a fair where students can learn about employers and consider future job opportunities. One of the companies represented is Bruce Power, Ontario’s premier nuclear power company. In the program for the career fair, Bruce Power claims to provide “emissions-free electricity” to Ontario residents. Emissions-free? Wow, that’s so much better than burning coal or natural gas. Hell, it’s even better than solar and wind power! Sound a little off? It is. It is misleading in the same way that saying you can attend school at the University of Guelph for free.

Although you don’t actually pay cash out of your pocket every time you attend a class, you still pay tuition at the beginning of each semester and the government of Ontario kicks in some (albeit not enough). Buildings need to be maintained, we need to pay for electricity, professors and other staff need wages, and overall the bill is very high. Plus the campus itself had to be built. Buildings like the Science Complex are not cheap.

But the same is true for the nuclear industry. Although a fission reactor is not a carbon emitter, an incredibly large amount of fossil fuels were consumed to construct the massive steel and concrete structure in the first place. Similarly, vast amounts of fossil fuels are required to keep it operating. Nuclear reactors fission uranium, which has to be mined, refined, transported to the reactor, and once it is used to generate electricity, it must again be transported again to a storage facility. Every nuclear power plant has a “life” of about 40 years, after which it becomes unfit for use and is too expensive to repair. The massive structure must then be dismantled, which is very difficult due to the highly radioactive material that it literally ingrained in it. All of these steps require large vehicles or huge factories, all of which consume immense amounts of fossil fuels to keep the lights on, make the machinery operate and turn the wheels. It is far from “emissions-free” and any informed person would realize this.

Unfortunately, calling the generation of electricity through the nuclear fission process “emissions-free” it is standard nuclear industry propaganda. It is designed to win popular support from the general public. Public support means less anti-nuclear protests as fossil fuel resources dwindle and more votes for politicians who will bring more “emissions-free” electricity online. Nuclear power generation is a multi-billion dollar industry and it wants to expand, particularly in Ontario. But at its core, claims of being “emissions-free” are simply a public relations campaign that cleverly disguises the truth, being that any nuclear power plant operation - from beginning to end - requires colossal inputs of fossil fuels to operate properly and is therefore anything but “emissions-free”.

At an academic institution such outright lies should not be permitted. Differing opinions is one thing, but factual inaccuracies paraded as truth is something entirely different. The fact that the University of Guelph will put their logo on a document that contains such falsehood is a testament to how we operate, and what we consider to be a valid part of a university experience. For me, the way the information is presented clearly says: “Endorsed by the University of Guelph”.

While university policy has no bearing on whether or not Bruce Power can operate in Ontario, or what marketing strategies they can pursue, university policy can be used in such a way as to require that the program for a career fair bearing the university logo must be factually accurate. To have these misleading statements pointed out to university administrators and have them come back and say they won’t do anything because they don’t have a policy to deal with it, violates the underlying premise of a university – a body that operates independent of private interests and whose goal it is to pursue truth and a better understanding the world in which we live. To not do so impedes on the fundamental principals of a university and to willingly permit the publishing of factual inaccuracies alongside the university logo is in my view negligence of the highest degree by the administration of this institution.

I spent the better part of most days during the previous academic year objecting to various aspects of the career fair program. This year, when the program contained even more objectionable material, I took it upon myself to deface as many of them as I could. I wrote statements on the programs such as “stop the nuclear industry propaganda”. My objective was two-fold. One was to encourage students to look deeper into the claims contained in the program, and two, to do something that both Career Services and the university administration would notice.

You may be asking, isn’t graffiti both legal and counterproductive? Well, maybe. I agree it certainly isn’t going to be the final solution, but it is a form of non-violent protest that does have several advantages. Initially it served the purpose of re-opening the debate and grabbing the attention of the administration. I have been writing letters, articles, and policy proposals on various aspects of the Career Fair program for over a year with no movement from the administration, so I saw this as another possible route to try that would at worst land me with a ticket.

A few weeks after I did this I received a letter from Brenda Whiteside (VP Student Affairs at the U of G) notifying me that the university was considering banning me from the UC for my actions. I responded outlining my concerns, and decided to write this article to put my arguments into context with the example in the first few paragraphs.

My fear is that if members of the university community do not object to the blatant misrepresentation of fact in a form that appears to be supported by this institution, that we will begin the decent down a slippery slope. Other companies will see what they can get away with outright lies that help their PR agenda in a context that could easily be perceived by impressionable students as supported by an academic institution. Although I may get banned from campus or get charged by the university’s police services for my actions, my hope is that it will raise the specter of this issue to a place where the contents of the career fair program is debated instead of me and my black marker.

In 1925 it was illegal to teach evolution in schools. John Scopes nevertheless decided to devote a few lessons in his class to the subject, thereby violating the laws of the time. Although it was technically illegal, it was a non-violent form of defiance against an administration that one hand purported to support the fundamental notions of education through meaningful thought and critical analysis, but on the other took actions against him when private interests outside the realm of education demanded so.

The court found Scopes guilty, which he was, of violating the strict interpretation of the written law. However his defiance served the larger purpose of standing fast in the face of wild claims that are not based on reason, fact and evidence. While I will not compare myself to John Scopes, I will parallel our non-violent acts defiance against an administration that willingly stands in the way of truth and accurate representation. For the same reason the university would (presumably) not attach its name to the literal interpretation of Creationist theory, it should also distance itself from the factually inaccurate claims of other private interests like the nuclear industry.

I highly doubt that the university will follow through with their threat to ban me from campus or the University Centre. Not because they want to turn a blind eye when someone like myself violates university policy by defacing pamphlets, but because the crime is so minimal and what will inevitably ensue is a more public debate about the legitimacy of allowing industry propaganda to appear alongside the university logo. As I wrote in my recent letter to Brenda Whiteside: ban me if you must, but don’t expect that to silence me or solve the problem. Such actions would most certainly make the pages of larger media outlets and the administration will have to answer more formally to the concerns I raise. I suspect they realize deep inside that their arguments would not stand up well to serious public questioning.

A much more constructive solution for both parties than this constant quibbling back and forth would be to form some sort of solution that we can both agree on. Disallowing Bruce Power the ability to recruit Guelph students for various employment opportunities is something that I admit probably goes to far. But somewhere in between would shut me up, and not put the university in any hard place (either financially of in terms of public image).

Simply requiring companies to convey only factually correct information in a university publication is not only reasonable, but in my view, should be mandatory. Policy to this effect is not difficult to draft. All Brenda Whiteside had to do when Earth Liberation Front flyers were found in the UC was write a letter to the UC board asking them to draft policy prohibiting such activities. Brenda has spent a considerable amount of time and energy dealing with my antics, and her time would better spent dealing appropriately with the real issue at hand. One simple change in policy to require companies to represent accurate information to students is all I ask. If honesty, fact checking and accurate representation is required of any student in writing even a 500 word essay, should the same standards not be required for multi-million dollar companies wishing to recruit our students?

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