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Is your university anti-democratic?

And what would it mean to say “yes,” anyway?


 

Twitter is proving to be an interesting conversation starter. And yes, I’m still promoting that (follow me, dammit) but it sure isn’t a conversation finisher. With only 140 characters per tweet, it’s rather hard to have an involved conversation. Though seriously, for those who lack restraint, it can be a fascinating exercise in concision. If anyone is really interested, the other side of the conversation is represented here.

My goal, in elaborating on my point, is not to flog the CFS for their policies or practices. I’m sure, in the wake of this meeting, there will plenty of criticism on that point. But I wasn’t there and the CFS isn’t my particular beat. My interest in this story is to answer the oft-repeated claim that campus and outside media have a particular hate-on for the CFS while ignoring similar problems in university administration.

My answer is simply this. The correlation between how an organization like the CFS should run and how a university administration should run is so thin that it might as well not exist. About the only thing they have in common are students. One is a voluntary organization (though there will be opinions about that shortly) devoted to lobbying and advocacy. The CFS is ostensibly member-based, with a democratic mandate, and designed to represent students. The other is a semi-private/public institution (universities are odd beasts in this sense) devoted to the delivery of education. Universities are in no sense democratic nor were they ever designed to be. They make efforts to meaningfully engage with stakeholders, yes, and this includes students. These efforts may be more or less successful and may be more or less sincere. But they shouldn’t be confused with democracy.

In an idealistic sense I think we can all agree it would be nice if stakeholders had more power. If, for example, people who lived in government housing had direct control over how that housing were run. Or if more corporations were genuine co-ops, where the employees were also the majority owners. I can agree with the ideal. But I also don’t confuse the ideal with reality. To suggest it’s a problem that something isn’t democratic when it never claimed to be is just tilting at windmills. You can advocate for change, if you really want and if you think your proposals are feasible, but to make the accusation like the system has somehow failed just suggests ignorance of how things work.

I make this point for two reasons. First, students are very often frustrated with their institutions. Often, that frustration is valid. But if you want to channel that frustration in an effective and tangible way it should be informed. To protest a lack of democracy in your institution is to court a very simple and direct dismissal. The answer of “so?” is entirely in order. Argue they are ignoring stakeholders and you may have a point. Argue bad policies or neglect of student interests and you may be right. But argue lack of democracy and you’re just asking to be ignored.

Second, too many student organizations (and I don’t single out the CFS here) beg off scrutiny of their policies and practices by pointing the finger back at the university itself. It may be valid to question the university’s practices, yes. But that’s an unrelated topic. The two have very little in common to begin with, and even if there were more in common it still wouldn’t be valid to claim that one party’s abuses are somehow mitigated by the fact that another party is doing the same thing elsewhere. That isn’t good reasoning – it’s just deflection.

If student media, in particular, is more critical of the CFS and other student-run organizations that may arguably be the product of some bias (as is frequently the accusation) or it may be bare pragmatism. Theoretically, students have direct control over the CFS and over their local unions and their other organizations. Some days you sure as hell wouldn’t know it, based on some decisions that are made and policies that are adopted, but the theory can never be dismissed. Universities, well, they may bow to lobbying pressure and the force of public opinion, but those are very abstract forces. Important, yes. But students don’t have the same degree of direct control nor will they ever.

Sadly, too many student organizations adopt a “with us or against us” attitude. They are convinced of their righteousness (and indeed, their goals may be just) but on that basis they perceive any criticism of their actions as support of their opponents. Therefore, any criticism of a student organization becomes a defacto defense of the establishment they oppose. And that is dangerous reasoning. Any organization can run off the rails. Just look at the Toronto Humane Society in recent news. It is the organizations that are most convinced of their fundamental correctness that are in the greatest danger of losing their way.

Of course the media (student and otherwise) needs to spread around the scrutiny. None would deny that. But “with us or against us” reasoning has got to end.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


 

Is your university anti-democratic?

  1. I don’t understand why you simply accept the premise that “Universities are in no sense democratic nor were they ever designed to be.”

    Public schools in Ontario are administered by democratically-elected trustees. Why is it so far-fetched to expect the same level of democracy for post-secondary institutions, instead of partisan appointees from the corporate sector who have no electoral accountability to the taxpayers and students who fund the universities?

    I think you’re also misrepresenting @becca_gl’s comments. She clearly said that all organizations, from university admins to student unions, deserve scrutiny. She didn’t say the student media should not concern itself with student unions, but that they should devote at least a fraction of that concern to the unelected governors of their universities — especially if their main hobby horse is campus democracy.

  2. As far as any misrepresentation is concerned, I’m aware of Twitter’s inherent limitations, which is why I linked to becca_gl’s own tweets and invited her here. The idea to take this off-line was hers, so I’m sure she’ll be by before long to speak for herself.

    As far as why I accept the premise that “universities are in no sense democratic nor were they ever designed to be” – I accept it because it’s the bare truth, as do you. What you’ve made is a second, and tangentially related claim, that universities _should_ be democratic. The inability to differentiate between these two statements is part of what makes the oft-repeated position so absurd.

    The rest of my reply, which got long, was a restatement of my original blog. I wouldn’t argue with the ideals you espouse, but arguing for reform in line with your ideals is a very different goal from the expectation that organizations live up to their already-real and existing obligations.

  3. So student media should only focus on democratic deficiencies in organizations that are democratic, but they should leave undemocratic organizations alone.

    Interesting…

  4. Not quite. I’ll certainly say that the deficiencies of one organization can never be answered by pointing at the deficiencies of another.

    But beyond that, I will add that media is not well positioned to act as an advocacy tool. Media is an effective watchdog. Media is good at asking “what’s supposed to be happening here?” and then reporting on whether or not that is actually happening. Your expectation seems to be that media should form its own independent ideas of how things should work and report as though that’s the truth. When media acts in this way, it discards any pretense of independence.

    There is a role for advocacy and a voice of reform. There is a place for an organization to say “screw how things currently work – let’s talk about how they SHOULD work!” That’s the role of a lobby organization. The CFS, local unions, etc. are perfectly in their rights when they take such a position. And good for them when they do! But to expect such a position from the media, in my opinion, is to mistake the media’s role entirely.

  5. No one has said that the student media should ignore deficiencies in student unions. That’s where I think you’re misrepresenting @becca_gl’s comments.

    For the record, she wrote to you on Twitter:

    “IF student papers spent a fraction of the time dedicated to critiquing CFS to covering lack of BOG democracy I’d mind less”

    “Students should question why universities aren’t governed democratically Admins,student union,lobbyists all merit scrutiny”

    If you’re not responding to her comments, please let me know whose you are responding to. Because I’ve never heard someone argue that student media should ignore democracy in student unions, just that they neglect to pay attention to democracy in university administrations.

    Your belief that the media should not report on lack of democracy in university administrations — just because they are fundamentally undemocratic institutions — displays an ignorance of the role of the press.

    It’s also hypocritical. The student media have been kicking up a big fuss lately about only one official CUP reporter being allowed to attend the recent national meeting, despite the fact that internal decision-making meetings of the CFS are not press events and were never designed to be. But the media still raise questions about this policy because they DO act as voices for reform and argue about how things SHOULD work.

  6. You’re right, @becca_gl didn’t suggest media should ignore deficiencies in student organizations. She’s said she’ll be by in a bit, so I’ll refrain from debating her in absentia at any greater length. She’s also said recently we don’t disagree very much. =)

    As far as who I’m replying to, the statement is rarely, if ever, made explicit. The narrative, however, runs something like this:

    – Campus media is hyper-critical of our student org (CFS or otherwise)
    – Wait, aren’t we the good guys? What’s their beef?!?
    – Campus media doesn’t agree with our policy positions or attack who we’d like them to attack enough
    – Campus media can’t be trusted, witness all of the above
    – Therefore, criticisms of our organization can be safely ignored

    To repeat one final time, my suggestion that campus media are not well positioned to critique a lack of democracy in institutions that are not (currently) designed to be democratic is an essential extension of what media does. It can’t assume its own policy positions on every issue, and then report on what things -aren’t- simply because the editor of the day thinks that things should be that. But it can certainly report on what things are, and if they are or are not living up to that.

    My feelings about your characterization of a meeting of hundreds of delegates as “internal” notwithstanding, I take this as one exception to the rule noted above. Media always has, and always will, have a policy position in favour of media access. No one else is going to advocate for them, after all. Now – if media were barred from general meetings of university governing bodies and said nothing about that, in favour of only attacking the CFS on the same issue – that would be a point of substance. But I’ve never known a Governing Board, for example, to exert anything near the kind of media freeze that the CFS attempts.

  7. This might not be *completely* on topic but…

    Another obvious difference between student associations and universities is that the former are accountable solely to their members while (public) universities are accountable to the government and by extension the citizens of that province. One consequence of this is that universities are (in some provinces, such as Ontario, BC, Quebec) covered until Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy acts, while student associations aren’t (although as corporations they are covered by other privacy acts as PIPEDA).

  8. I’d tend to agree than the media sometimes focuses on whatever news are more readily available, and this means less time to produce in-depth research that would be necessary for more complex issues. That’s why I tend to prefer weeklies to daily student papers… and use the web for topics necessitating more frequent updates.

    That said, some student papers perform very good investigative journalism directed at their university administrations (using tools such as freedom of information requests mentioned above).

    With the media diversity we see between campuses (and sometimes within a campus with multiple papers, such as Ottawa or McGill), I find generalizations about “the student media” to be unproductive. Also unproductive is the attitude of some** student politicians for whom any critical reporting of a student association somehow cancels the whole progressive record (e.g. McGill Daily).

    **(not all, see above point on generalizations)

  9. I’m bored already talking about the CFS in campus media. Can’t we just talk about what crazy shit people are overhearing on campus or how great then new Animal Collective EP is?

    Better yet, photo spreads dedicated to the hottest athletes on campus. EEK!

  10. Thanks to Jeff for writing this! Twitter often obscures meanings… Hilariously, I was trying to say that I think Jeff and I (possibly) agree on many underlying issues, but disagree in our conclusions. Yet in the twitterverse he read my message as saying the opposite (I was making a stir fry and watching Honduran elections coverage whilst typing in my defence ;)

    To be journalistic I will start with the contentious bits and then work back to commonalities in our arguments… in future posts.
    Re Jeff’s statement: (snip) ‘media is not well positioned to act as an advocacy tool. Media is an effective watchdog. Media is good at asking “what’s supposed to be happening here?” and then reporting on whether or not that is actually happening. Your expectation seems to be that media should form its own independent ideas of how things should work and report as though that’s the truth. When media acts in this way, it discards any pretense of independence.’

    That seems to be a pretty scathing critique of the Fourth Estate / Free Press. Media can and must be watch dogs, but that does not mean they don’t have a stake in their reader’s lives (see TeleSUR, Narco News, killingtrain, etc. for example of engaged, honest, non-corporate financed reporting). It behoves journalists to form independent ideas and to be critical analysts (which is why media activists are attracted to the term ‘independent media’…) When the media fails to speak out against injustices, they pacify readers into accepting the status quo.

    Every year students pay between $6,000 to $20,000 to universities, they pay what… $16 a term to the CFS? Yet based on the amount of coverage in many (but not all) campus papers, one would think that those ratios were reversed. Though the $16 is important, I’m somewhat curious as to where my other several grand ends up. There are at most a few student / faculty members on the governing boards of most universities. The people deciding critical issues around budgets/priorities of our schools are overwhelmingly not students, faculty or staff – but are rather dominated by CEOs of corporations. If students are universally in favour of the corporatization/ neoliberalization of their universities, perhaps the status quo is great… But this reality model is not uniformly true or accepted in all countries, and should be contested if a majority of students would like their institutions to be more democratically structured.
    During the York strike, it was fascinating to hear the narratives from undergrads, grad student, contract faculty, professors and staff – compared to statements issued by ‘York University’. Who is York University if not the students, staff and faculty that constitute the university? Why do dissenting student votes against tuition hikes get ignored on an annual basis by BOGs across the country? We do get to vote for student unions, we do not have any say over the major decisions our administrations make. If students are not upset about this, maybe its due to the failure of student journalists/unions to ask the right questions about how our educational institutions are run.

    Those who do not question this complete lack of democratic accountability in university governing structures tactically allow the status quo to continue. If you don’t think students can organize collectively to demand democracy in their schools, then you are not paying attention to what is happening across the rest of the Americas. Students should not be duped into believing that the CFS is the only structure that impacts their lives…

    This is not meant as an attack on campus press, there are many publications I admire. But if we folks are going to demand better from the CFS, I think it is reasonable for others to also demand more from campus media when it comes to defending student rights. As journalists we all know that the way stories are framed has a profound affect on the issues that students care about. I would like to see campus papers be better advocates for students, which is I suppose where our views diverge?! Or not… ;P

  11. In brief reply, since I’ve had more than my say already, I’ll suggest that I find your dollar comparisons pointed, but then I’m very tempted to reach immediately for the question of voice. It’s true, students are paying more for their education than for the CFS, but at least there are choices in the field for education while the CFS seems determined to maintain their near-monopoly (sorry CASA) on the national lobby front at all costs. So the special importance of the CFS is that if students don’t maintain their control over it they have no control at all.

    But then, I am persuaded (more than usual) by your idea that a university speaks on behalf of its students. I don’t think we can take that too far. Macdonalds doesn’t speak on behalf of its 12 billion served in the public consciousness, so we must view that claim with some skepticism, but it’s at least partly true of universities.

    My primary frustration with the CFS has never been about dollars. If it were only that, you are right, it would be hard to justify spending much time on the subject. It’s about the incredible potential of the organization (or a national student organization, at least) squandered on year after year after year of backbiting, controversy, and more lawsuits against student media and student unions than I can even track. It’s a familiar criticism, but still, it’s the one I’m most concerned with.

    It isn’t the dollars, it’s the student voice I’m worried about. But I take your point that even that voice, to a degree, may be located in the universities themselves.

  12. I don’t want my university to be run like Macdonalds is run… Macdonald’s crushes unionization attempts, butchers rainforests, intentionally makes people addicted to unhealthy food, etc.

    If we want universities to churn out questionable student-products in the same way corporations do, we will not have an ecologically sustainable or just society ever. People forget that democracy lies in their own hands… and that it is something that must be struggled for every day, not every four years.

    By cutting public education, universities are compelled to stack boards of governors with CEOs who have virtually no educational experience and who are inclined to run universities like businesses.

    Personally, I do not agree with this.

    I believe in democracy. I believe it should apply to studnent unions, media, the CFS, CASA, the CSA, governments, student unions, workplaces, etc.

    In virtually every Latin American election in the past decade, governments have been elected who actually listen to the citizens who elect them – radical concept up north… They are reforming their constitutions and empowering people to have greater control over their lives and workplaces. People struggle for these basic rights under repressive regimes. Canada’s government does not crackdown on people who disagree with them (overtly), yet there is still a lack of courage to push for change.

    Students want democracy, they have made this abundantly clear to the CFS who’s delegates are elected at all schools. But if we demand meaningful democracy, we cannot ignore the academic institutions who treat student input with contempt, as an afterthought.

    Students in California are occupying their educational spaces and demanding to be heard. I find this inspiring… given 35% fee hikes (death to affordable education by a thousand cuts is harder to mobilize around…)

    The CFS is not the chief culprit of repressing student voices in my experience. Like in any org, there are aspect I agree with, & there are those who fight passionately for students, even if a few are suspect. But when I was at a CASA school, I found the student union even more unresponsive to demands for the democratization of our schools. CASA doesn’t even bother with referendums to ask students if they should join… Perhaps we should broaden the parameters of the debate beyond what is by looking at what is possible. I believe students have incredible untapped power that we under-estimate.

  13. In reply to the comment about univerities filling administrative positions with business people as opposed to academics:

    My school tried that, they chose a president from a business background. He was effective at cutting costs quickly, by cutting people and programs without proper consultation. Actually he was so effective that after trying to eliminate some of our programs the faculty, students, and staff were sufficiently angry to have him sacked after just 1 year.

    The replacement was a person from an academic background whom is generally held in high esteem by both the faculty, and the students.

    In short academic institutions should be governed by academics with consultation of business folk, not run like an autocratic business by business people.

  14. The money argument (how much students pay in tuition vs. student union fees) is somewhat a sidetrack on this issue.

    The main different is that students should reasonably expect complete democratic control over their students’ union, more than they expect complete democratic control over the university (yes, universities should be more democratic, but this democracy would include not only students, but also faculty, staff, the general public, etc.).

    The legitimate question to ask about the CFS is whether it can better speak on behalf of the interests of 500,000 students from all over the country (which is what it claims to be about, right?). The arguments we hear, in essence, are that the accountability and transparency mechanisms within the CFS are not enough for this representation to be as accurate at it could and should be.

    And having been at most CFS meetings for 2 years, I am willing to accept this point. My main suggestion though is that a lot of these improvements have to occur locally first. How many local student unions have general meetings? How many have an open, transparent selection process for CFS delegations? How many have processes to mandate this delegation?

    The CFS referendum by-law reform that was much criticized over the weekend only passed by three votes. This means that if students opposed to the motion in only three locals (that includes small college/graduate unions) gave a mandate to their delegates to oppose it, it wouldn’t have passed.

  15. “The main different is that students should reasonably expect complete democratic control over their students’ union, more than they expect complete democratic control over the university”

    Why?

    If the CFS passed a motion declaring that they are not a democratic organization and do not claim to be, would student media stop scrutinizing their practices?

    If a student union abolished elections in favour of an appointment process by the university administration, would student media ignore that?

    Why do we allow universities to get away with using OUR money without any democratic accountability, just because they don’t claim to be democratic?

  16. At the risk of coming off as repetitive, I´ll repeat… :)

    Should student press care about whether the ways their universities are run are democractic?

    The level of hyperbolie on twitter was actually what caused me to initially tweet the message that propelled this blog. When people were asked to refrain from tweeting for one session, people started comparing the CFS to Mugabe, which is insane and offensive and what is fun about twitter… but makes it a horrifying substitute for in depth journalism.

    I was hoping Macleans/reporters could look seriously at issues around corporatization of campuses and the alarmingly unaccountable way universities are governed.

    I do not say this to deflect attention from the CFS, if people have intelligent, factually based critiques of them, fine. I have never attended a CFS AGM and cannot comment on their structural merits.

    But seriously.

    How much ink is spilled on CFS? Are they the most worthy targets?

    Board of Governor meetings don´t need to be closed to the public, they ensure student press coverage is minimalistic by making them as dry and boring as possible. Student union meetings are fun to cover! they are interesting! there is sparing and shouting and debate and dissent. The president does not put forward a motion and get consensus every time. How many university presidents put forward motions and get virtual consensus from CEOs? I have been to schools where they did not let student press take notes at BOG meetings. Did the student press raise a ruccus, no they accepted it… If student press actually cared about where thousands of dollars of student tuition goes a year, they would cover Board of Governor meetings as methodically as they do student union meetings.

    Like a boomerang the debate returns to the CFS… while we are all distracted, corporate BOGS rule our schools and we don´t care whether they do so by election or acclaim.

    I will not go to law school. I cannot afford the fees. They have been deregulated in Ontario… My brother is a refugee laywer, can he repay a hundred grand in student loans on pro bono work and legal aid? No, he best go to Bay St and fight for corporations (if he is ever to repay his loans)… The number of affordable law schools is dwindling, it is becoming the terrain of the elites or the indebted… Is the CFS responsible for my working multiple jobs to go to school¿ Are BOGs¿ CFS seaps up virtually all critical coverage, fine then board of governors do whatever you want…

    I do not believe that journalism should be glorified stenography. The journalist I admire most, Eduardo Galeano, Robert Fisk, Jose Marti… there writing is filled with beauty and rage and is not divorced from political struggle. I have attended CFS Skills and their Activist Assembely and left both feeling empowered. I have attended Canadian University Press conferences, and frankly felt the opposite. During the last plenary I attended they banned campaigning in CUP elections of national president and bureau chief. These same papers pretend CFS is Mugabe if they ask them not to twit distractingly during plenaries.

    I only had ten minutes to type before internet closes in Guate City, so this is likely full of typos…

    My grandparents were journalists, an AP editor in New York, founders of the Dartmouth Free Press and my father started a campus paper at U of T because he thought the existing ones were too complacent to report on administrative actions. They were journalists yes, but they were also socialists and anarchists, and did not see people´s struggles as seperate entities from the stories journalists covered. They would have loved to see Malalai Joya and Ralston Saul speak… but they would have had to go to a CFS, not a CUP conference to hear them. I don´t agree with everything the CFS does no. But when I see the work many student union reps do… while their grades plunge and their relationships disolve because they are so consumed with a desire to fight for students, I must say I admire it. I can critique their methodologies, but I do admire that passion. There are excellent campus journalists who do this, I love the work of the McGill Daily, the Trent Arthur and many other papers… I think they fight for students too in different ways. But to pretend CUP and campus press is above critique or questionable political prioritization is just as bizarre to me… You will criticize this post for making generalizations of campus, which is fine. But if you do not like it, then please refrain from constantly planting conspiracy theories about the CFS. If you have evidence I will listen. But when campus conservatives hold meetings at every school in the province saying they will destroy the CFS and OPIRGs and it goes largely unreported, I have to confess, I will be critical of campus press, just as so many vocally oppose the work of student advocates…

  17. Because it was never offered to you, and it was never in the cards. An education was offered to you, for a price, but there was never a promise that you would then get a say in how that money was spent.

  18. By attacking the lack of democracy in university institutions, we are refusing to dance around the root cause of many problems in education. Students have less representation within official decision-making processes than corporate partners. When we highlight the lack of democracy at universities, we are making fundamental connections between the increasing commercialization of campuses and a lack of student power. Universities do in fact pride themselves of adhering to democracy – why else bother with university councils and committees at all? To create an image of meaningful consultation and democracy.

    When we attack the lack of democracy on campuses, we are affirming our right to emancipatory education, the right to no longer be treated like prime markets for corporate greed, and the right to have our voices heard on a wide array of issues that directly effect us. We have a responsibility to challenge undemocratic institutional structures everywhere in society. The University campus is a great place to start.

  19. Nice to see a rousing discussion. To clarify one point, I was challenged by the Ryerson Free Press (on Twitter anyway, not sure who tweets for them though) on the point that some democracy does exist in university admin. It’s true, I neglected this topic, and others have since brought it up. It gets very complicated though. Some seats are elected to governing bodies while others are not. Students see the reps they elected swamped by the votes of those they did not and cry “non-democratic!” Senates are generally all elected, with few exceptions, but then most seats are reserved for faculty and they rarely take a radical stand. Students say “but wait, there are more of us then there are of them” and again, “non-democratic!”

    I’ll add, I’ve seen and experienced that students can have a significant degree of control within elected university governance. I held a prominent position myself for two years (within university structures, not student) and I know the student voice can be persuasive and effective. But that’s a long step shy of absolute control.

    To a degree, I agree with Sam. When the conversation revolves around insufficient representation there may be ground to gain. But “undemocratic” means so many things and is frequently married to unrealistic demands that make for great rhetoric but awful negotiating points. If students are serious about stepping it up and making gains, simplistic terms like “undemocratic” need to be adapted to sophisticated proposals for better representation. Otherwise, they’ll always just be demands that the university hand over the keys to the castle. And that, to be blunt, just isn’t in the cards.

  20. S.N.:

    Read my post again. I said that even in the ideal democratic university, students wouldn’t have all the control since there are other stakeholders.

  21. @Jeff Rybak Having trouble following narrative flow… =)

    QUOTE ¨I (JR) was challenged by the Ryerson Free Press (on Twitter anyway, not sure who tweets for them though) on the point that some democracy does exist in university admin. It’s true, I neglected this topic, and others have since brought it up. It gets very complicated though. Some seats are elected to governing bodies while others are not. Students see the reps they elected swamped by the votes of those they did not and cry “non-democratic!” Senates are generally all elected, with few exceptions, but then most seats are reserved for faculty and they rarely take a radical stand. Students say “but wait, there are more of us then there are of them” and again, “non-democratic!”

    I personally believe very strongly in democracy. The way Senates are structured are a lot more democratic, which is logical. The people affected by decisions have the right to be consulted/represented in the making of these decisions. There is no democracy without representation. I am not arguing that Senates have to make radical statements, only that they should be transparent and democratic in reflecting the people who´s lives they affect. Board of Governors I would argue are not democratic. They consist primarily of CEOs of corporations with only a few token seats given to students and faculty so that they don´t look completely anti-democratic. Students can name their student union presidents at most schools which is great. It shows the campus press is doing their jobs in reporting on them. Can they name a single member of their Board of Governors? Do they know what corporate heads make the huge financial decisions about how their schools are structured? If you think ideally universities should not be democratic then argue that. If you think ideally they should be democratically accountable to the students, staff and faculty who´s lives they affect on a daily basis – then reporting should reflect that. We all make choices in which stories we cover. In deflecting attention always to progressive student lobby groups I would argue that Macleans lets board of governors largely off the hook. That is a political decision. You can contest it obviously if you disagree.

    QUOTE from JR “I’ll add, I’ve seen and experienced that students can have a significant degree of control within elected university governance. I held a prominent position myself for two years (within university structures, not student) and I know the student voice can be persuasive and effective. But that’s a long step shy of absolute control.”

    I agree. Students, Profs and university employees can be incredibly effective advocates on their own behalfs. This is why I believe students should fight to see their institutions democratized. I don´t fight just for those who agree with my politics to have a voice… I believe students, profs, staff in all faculties should have a say over how their universities are governed. This is not a radical concept.

    Quote “To a degree, I agree with Sam. When the conversation revolves around insufficient representation there may be ground to gain. But “undemocratic” means so many things and is frequently married to unrealistic demands that make for great rhetoric but awful negotiating points. If students are serious about stepping it up and making gains, simplistic terms like “undemocratic” need to be adapted to sophisticated proposals for better representation. Otherwise, they’ll always just be demands that the university hand over the keys to the castle. And that, to be blunt, just isn’t in the cards.

    I always target my rhetoric to my audience. If I am debating National Post readers vs anarchists vs taxpayers associations I will target my arguments accordingly in language that resonates with them.

    Democracy is something I take seriously. It is a mirrage if the media allows it to be though. If we can agree that universities are not run democratically, the question becomes should they be. Because I support democracy, I think they should be, that is my stance. I think academics, students and university workers are capable of making their own decisions about the institutions they study work and teach in. I don´t think they are less competant than the heads of non-education related corporations in making governing decisions. If you think CEOs are better equipped to govern schools than the peole who actually constitute the university, then argue that. If you do not think that, then report accordingly. Do not just be Toto barking at the curtain, be Toto pulling the curtain back and revealing where the real power in our institutions lies…

    Okay have to pick up friends from airport soon, and then write rabble cfs piece tomorrow. i will link to it here when done!

    @Philippe Marchand ¿Can I interview you for an opinion piece I was asked to write by rabble.ca about CFS stuff? If so, please message me your phone number on fb! Honestly, I wasn´t debating your points, usually when I read macleans.ca I´m usually nodding my head when you post… ha.

  22. “Board of Governor meetings don´t need to be closed to the public, they ensure student press coverage is minimalistic by making them as dry and boring as possible. Student union meetings are fun to cover! they are interesting! there is sparing and shouting and debate and dissent. The president does not put forward a motion and get consensus every time. How many university presidents put forward motions and get virtual consensus from CEOs? I have been to schools where they did not let student press take notes at BOG meetings. Did the student press raise a ruccus, no they accepted it… If student press actually cared about where thousands of dollars of student tuition goes a year, they would cover Board of Governor meetings as methodically as they do student union meetings.”

    Just to show this is not the case everywhere, I would say that at the University of Ottawa during my time there the student media was present and reporting on BoG/Senate meetings, and there was a push from both journalists and activists (and “activist journalists”) for more transparency, with the result that now all BoG/Senate meetings are webcasted.

    The point though is that democratic reforms in one instance shouldn’t have to wait for democratic reforms elsewhere, i.e. we should push for as much as we can get anywhere.

  23. As much as the opinion I’m about to express is going to seem radically unpopular, I do think that elected students are less qualified to make long-term governance decisions than outside directors/governors – be they CEOs or otherwise. And to be clear, not all appointed directors/governors are from business, as has been repeatedly suggested. But let’s just concentrate on students.

    In order to fulfill the fiduciary duty that comes along with a governance role at the highest level, directors and governors have got to consider the long-term health of the institution itself. Not the interests or concerns of any one stakeholder group. Not even the interests and concerns of the people who are there right now. But the long-term interests of everyone that the institution serves, now and in the future.

    Students, much as everyone hates to admit this, have short-term views. They want their tuition lower right now. They want change right now. They want reform right now. They aren’t worried about where their demands will put things five years in the future, much less twenty. Yes, I know I’m over-simplifying and yes I know that some students have vision that can rise above this claim. But elected students, in particular, are at the mercy of their constituents. And so when you elect students by popular vote you are always, time and again, going to get short-term vision.

    The CFS, for all it’s rhetoric on other issues, has a curiously non-progressive stance on tuition. They say it should be free for everyone – rich and poor alike. Instead of a typical progressive position – one that advocates those who can pay should and those who can’t have access to more funding as a result – the CFS seems to reject taking money from the wealthy in order to fund the poor. Why is that? Because students from wealthy and middle class families are a huge portion of their member base. The CFS can’t rise above the biases of their members, and frankly I don’t blame them for that. If an organization represents a particular group of people it is, indeed, going to reflect their views. Students are not as unfailingly progressive as some would like to believe. They are just out for their own (short-term) interests like everyone else.

    So no. Students are not as qualified to make governance-level decisions as outsiders. In order to take responsibility for the institution, on a long-term basis, one needs to be as dispassionate as possible and as objective as possible. I would never argue that necessarily means CEOs. But that’s a completely invented parallel. The choice is not between either student-control on one hand or government-appointed CEOs on the other. I’ve seen a range of different folks appointed to governance. And perhaps that range could be wider than it now is. But we wouldn’t have more responsible governance if it were in the hands of students.

    I can dream along with the best of them. I believe students are potentially as capable as anyone. But they are more biased than most. And while I believe students may be as good as anyone, I don’t believe they are better. You don’t achieve good governance by leaving it in the hands of short-term, implicitly biased actors. For every student with long-term vision, there’s another who’ll promise their voter base free tuition and pony rides for all. And it’s the later who’ll be elected more often than not.

  24. Briefly (as I’m tired;)–you read McQuaig’s ‘The Wealthy Banker’s Wife’? We are supposed to have a progressive taxation system which funds social programs. You seem to be advocating a user-fee model with scholarships directed primarily at the deserving needy (charity). (sorry if I’m tiredly misreading this…) The majority of Canadians are middle class, not rich (if you look at statistics the tax base has shifted dramatically over the decades away from corporations, increasing the burden on the middle class…) The best way to destroy a public system is to defund social programs, thus creating a ‘crisis in the education system’ (as former Tory Education Minister Snobelon used to call it… This has the predictable affect of driving upper/middle class people into a private system as the quality of the public system declines (same applies to other programs like medicare.) Society as a whole extracts a wealth of social benefits by having an educated citizenry — it is not a progressive concept to shift the burden from the collective to the individual – it will make us all poorer in the long run… The myth of the wealthy banker’s wife is invoked to create hysteria that rich people are mooching of the system (sort of a ‘welfare deadbeats’ distortion in reverse) thus it exaggerates the total number of affluent people getting a supposedly free ride — if you have a genuinely progressive taxation system this does not happen. The rich pay more taxes as their means allow… but benefit from social programs in an equal way to the children of single mother, minimum wage households, which is actually very egalitarian. If the kids of the middle class are studying in the same conditions as the poor – they will protest when the quality of education declines because of insufficient programming (not just bail on the public system which they will then resent supporting through taxation if they get no direct benefits from it.) Targeted programs for the poor tend to be low quality, they are the anti-thesis of egalitarian…
    **
    Oddly you focus on student governance when in every reference I said that faculty, staff AND students should have some transparency/input in the institutions which they arguably have the biggest stakes in… Even if you don’t think the people who teach our classes, care for our physical space and invest ever larger and larger monetary sums to study in should be empowered to make decisions for themselves… can we at least agree that the way board of governors are currently governed is not the most democratic/consultative it could be. The structures themselves are not empowering… as stake holder participation tends to be tokenistic at best, and they get constantly out-voted. Also, who says the people currently sitting on our boards of governors are being impartial? There is nothing detached about the increasingly corporate governance models universities are compelled to follow as they become more and more dependent on scraps from private donors to fund their cash-strapped faltering educational institutions… To bed! ;)

  25. Why is wanting tuition lowered necessarily a short-term view? It is in the long term interests of all Canadians to have accessible higher education: lower tuition is an important part of this. What about wanting smaller class sizes and professors who can actually teach? These are in the interests of students, but also the entire point of the university. What is it about the demands of students, supposedly the entire point of the educational institution, that makes them less valuable than those of employers or those of professors? Students also have the long-term in mind, that’s why they have chosen to invest their time and money in their education.

    Students are only allowed to make decisions about things that don’t matter. It is the same with the public: the boards of directors are controlled by corporate people whose interests are not the same as those of the university, or those of the public at large. Since it is the public’s money funding these institution, the public, including the students, should be the ones who determine what those institutions are there for. Currently there is little to no accountability.

  26. (1)
    Under our system of capitalist democracy, the provincial government legally owns the public universities, just as it owns the hospitals, social service agencies, and government departments. Thus, according to this logic, said government has the right to determine how the university operates.

    Boards of Governors are therefore inherently bureaucratic entities; they have essentially the same status as Deputy Ministers or Associate Deputy Ministers. Political decisions regarding tuition fees, the number of students to admit, etc., are largely out of the hands of Boards of Governors. According to the capitalist democratic logic, this is perfectly normal and acceptable: the democratically elected provincial government SHOULD have the power to govern the universities on behalf of its citizens, whether directly (by deciding how much money to give the universities on an annual basis, regulating tuition fees, etc.) or indirectly (by appointing the majority of BoG members).

    Since Boards of Governors are purely bureaucratic entities, the public doesn’t blame the governors when things go wrong; rather, they blame the provincial politicians who are responsible for *appointing* the governors. According to this logic, blaming the Board of Governors for a tuition fee increase makes about as much sense as blaming an Associate Deputy Minister for some other type of government decision.

    Of course, this only describes the ideal scenario. In practice, university administrators do have their own interests that are separate from those of government.

    (2)
    Students’ unions are very different, because they are totally owned by the students. The leadership of students’ unions makes ‘political’ decisions that are similar to those decisions made by provincial and federal cabinet ministers and legislators, not purely bureaucratic decisions made by Boards of Governors (or Associate Deputy Ministers, for that matter). Therefore, a case can be made that students’ unions (and provincial and national student organizations) deserve the same level of scrutiny that provincial and federal *politicians* receive.

    In addition, students’ unions — unlike governments — spend a substantial amount of their time engaged in political advocacy. By its very nature, political advocacy is far more controversial than providing services, because students’ unions (purport to) speak on behalf of their constituents. Boards of Governors make bureaucratic decisions based on rational criteria, but students’ unions make decisions that are inherently “political.”

    Lastly, there appears to be substantial evidence that student politicians are far less competent in their administration of students’ unions than university administrators are in their administration of universities. This is not because students are dumb, but rather because they are inexperienced and often very partisan. Some students’ unions operate with very little institutional memory; in other students’ unions, the institutional memory is held by the staff, who wield an extraordinary amount of power over their students’ unions.

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