Despite being in the middle of writing exams, University of Ottawa students have mobilized against a proposed Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct. Over 500 students marched on campus Friday to oppose the code.
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The code, drafted by the office of the University Secretary, was circulated to senior administrators, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), and the Graduate Students’ Association earlier this month, seeking feedback. The contents of the code sparked an almost immediate response from students as the SFUO started a petition that now has over 1500 signatures from students. Online petitions have also started and a Facebook group has been set up, all opposing the code.
The two student associations are particularly concerned that the code could be used to stifle dissenting views about the university administration by restricting free expression, peaceful assembly and mobilization. Section 17b of the proposed code names it an offense to “knowingly create a condition” that, among other things, “threatens the damage or destruction of property, or the reputation of the university.”
Philippe Marchand of the GSA says that the section is “very vague,” adding that threatening the reputation of the university is legitimate under certain conditions. “What if the university does something unjust?” he asked.
The code, which applies only to conduct that occurs on campus, also contains provisions against activities that “… disrupt, obstruct or adversely affect any activity organized by the university, or any of its faculties, schools or departments.”
Violation of the code comes with sanctions that range from written warnings, to the revocation of student aid, to expulsion. Recently students protested outside a board of governors meeting, and when they were not let in, they banged on the doors and windows. Danika Brisson, vice-president student affairs for the SFUO, says the university should not have the authority to sanction such activity with academic penalties.
“I don’t think [students] should have their grades affected by their extracurricular activities,” she said, adding that she believes that having a university policy against disruption is unnecessary because of other avenues the university could use. “If there is a disruption, they can call the police, and if there was something to be done, the police would do it, and that is enough to deal with these conflicts,” she said.
Several Canadian universities have adopted similar documents, including the University of Toronto, McGill University and Dalhousie University.
In addition to the content students who are opposing the code say that an even greater concern is the structure. The university does not have an ombudsperson, and the hearing and appeal processes, critics argue, are not clearly defined.
For instance, the code does not specify who would sit on the hearing committee, leaving it to the discretion of the university president and/or faculty deans. The code also fails to specify who would sit on the appeals committee, leaving it to the discretion of the university’s administrative committee. “It’s not just the code itself, it’s the whole procedure that we don’t support,” said Brisson.
Bruce Feldthusen, vice-president of university affairs, says that they will be taking into consideration concerns the SFUO has raised regarding language that has been interpreted as stifling dissent, as well as the lack of clarity of how the code will be enforced. “That kind of feedback is very helpful for us . . . We certainly don’t have any intention of suppressing any legitimate exercises of free speech,” he said. “We want to have a credible hearing and appeals process, and we’re more than willing to discuss the particulars of that.”
According to Feldthusen it is necessary to have academic sanctions available for non-academic conduct. He cited violent activity that could warrant expulsion or some other penalty, in addition to police involvement. Feldthusen also emphasized that the document is a “first draft” that has not, as of yet, “been debated by management,” and they began the process by “inviting feedback.”
When asked whether students should be permitted to protest loudly outside a board of governors meeting, he said, “You have to allow people to enter and exit the room without physically intimidating them but, other than that, sure”
Federico Carvajal, GSA vice-president services, is skeptical about the university’s commitment to seeking feedback because the document was sent to the student government during exam period. “Most students are in exams and they look for comments on this proposal by the end of April, It’s not really an honest attempt at consultation,” he said.
Feldthusen concedes that the timing of the draft could have been better. “I think that wasn’t very bright of us, we weren’t very thoughtful and we realized it immediately when it was pointed out,” he said.
Carvajal says that trying to push through “controversial issues” when students are either busy or not on campus is becoming increasingly common. “Past tuition increases have either happened at the beginning of the summer, during exams, or during the Christmas holidays. This is the way they have operated for the past little while.”
The university has agreed to wait until the fall before presenting the Code to the senate and Board of Governors.
Marchand says the drafting of a code of conduct is “high schoolish” and that he would like to see students’ rights entrenched more thoroughly, similar to Carleton University’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Policy. The draft code does contain a provision against prohibiting “peaceful assemblies and demonstrations or lawful picketing” and “freedom of expression.” But Marchand says the provision is “weak” and appears to be subordinate to other sections of the code. He would also like to see the consultation process be extended to include a referendum.
Feldthusen says the university is open to any “reasoned suggestions” including drafting a document similar to the one that exists at Carleton, but argues that this process is simply the formalization of authority already possessed by the university.
When asked if the university would consider a referendum, Feldthusen dismissed the idea. “I doubt it. I wouldn’t consider sending it to the monks in Tibet either. It’s just not the way we’re governed. In fact, the consultation is not part of our requirement, though it is certainly a good idea, but we don’t govern the university by student referendum,” he said.