Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Year of the Student Code of Conduct

If college and university presidents had an annual dinner where they honoured the past year by naming it, 2007-08 would most certainly be the year of the Student Code of Conduct.

Of the dozens of stories written about codes of conduct, most have focused on key issues: the rights of students to engage in political discussion; surveillance of students while off school property; and the changing relationship between students and administration to one of policing by conduct officers .

Historically, disciplinary action by the college or university was limited to academic offences. Criminal matters were left to the police. The policing of students by Canadian post-secondary institutions has resulted in attacks on free speech and the criminalization of protest. The preference for discipline over dialog on campuses can be traced back to a 1998 meeting of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS). The meeting themed “the First National Conference on Student Discipline” was kicked off by a keynote speech by Peggy Patterson, who believed “…student discipline provides us one of the best teaching tools there are.” At the time it may have seemed unlikely that such a conservative model of learning could make a comeback from the days of corporal punishment. Patterson’s legacy lives on, however, through the less conspicuously titled conference “Canadian Conference on Student Judicial Affairs.” It has been held annually ever since.

This past year, Brock , Trent, Ryerson, the University of Ottawa and others have all dealt with issues regarding student codes of conduct. At Ryerson, students employed drawn out negotiations in order to delay the implementation. At the University of Ottawa, this fight is ongoing.

The most recent case of a code being applied to students is at the University of Toronto, where 14 students there were arrested for protesting increasing tuition fees and a 20 percent increase in their housing fees.

At a rally against these actions at the University of Toronto today, one speaker listed off incidents from the past where student occupations won significant gains: childcare on campus and no-sweat university apparel, for example. At these occupations, far more students participated but none faced mass arrests as has recently occurred with the case of the so-called Toronto-14.

It seems that colleges and universities are following in close step with the general trend towards a Canadian surveillance state. More and more, risk-averse administrators prefer to quash debate on campus than allow an empowered student body to grapple with important issues. Nevertheless, when organized and working in solidarity with each other and other campus stakeholders, students will do more than withstand the push to police the student body. They will more likely be the catalyst for important societal changes.

However, it may get worse before it gets better. More institutions are toughening codes of conduct while already high tuition fees continue to outpace inflation by 200 percent. Perhaps we’ll soon see a “First National Conference on Crushing Student Dissent” or, a “Council of Student Conduct Officers”. And we’ll likely see some students point fingers at each other while the reals culprits sit comfortably in their leather chairs far atop the ivory tower. But it seems inevitable that as this relatively sleepy generation of students begins to wake up, realise their collective power and join together, that these student codes of conduct will become as antiquated as the corporal punishment of yesteryear. One thing you can be sure of, either way, we at the Ryerson Free Press promise to continue the important political dialog that our campuses are so keen to quash.

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