Friday, May 23, 2008

Maclean's and its take on democracy

Carsen Jerema is a writer for the conservative virtual rag “Maclean’s On Campus” whose blog is focused “On education and the irrationality of university politics.” In “University Students: Ignorant, Apathetic Dolts?”, he argues that student democracy has never existed and that students’ unions are bastions of √©litism. Or something…it’s hard to fully comprehend or absorb this 1100 word rant. But the notion that students’ unions are somehow anti-democratic is factually inaccurate and not fair.

Most students’ unions, by their very nature are anything but anti-democratic—elections every year, annual general meetings open to all members, faculty-based council representation, committees that are open to all members, mechanisms for rank-and-file students to call general meetings and referenda, and a membership base that includes some of the most active and concerned people in the country. Painting all students’ unions with the same anti-democratic brush is as ridiculous as labeling the Canadian University Press (CUP) or any of its member-newspapers, a threat to free speech, because they survive on students’ money and sometimes write self-gratifying articles that few people might read.

Thousands of students regularly look to their students’ union to pick up their health and dental cheques, transit passes, or handbooks (and when mishaps occur, students express their opinions). At the very least, accessing these services suggests that students do participate in their students’ unions. Voter turn-out can always be improved and the responsibility for that rests as much on elected representatives and activists, as it does on student journalists. Student journalists have a responsibility to help inform and engage their readers.

Rather than fueling the neo-conservative onslaught against the unions students have built for themselves, student journalists, bloggers and professional journalists should think about writing less cynical, more constructive editorials. The press should be critical of students’ unions.

Perhaps hope for Jarema’s reform is unrealistic. He’s the same blogger who finished an article on April 18 that says “Call me an elitist but a higher education is not a right, and nor should it be.” As most students know, anyone who writes about post-secondary education with this level of bias and disregard for the complexities of the topic should be disregarded.

Indeed, Maclean's On Campus helps to reinforce its new raison-d’√™tre: sensationalizing complex issues, calling for the death to the public sector and the long life of a Eurocentric, neo-conservative, neo-liberal Canada.

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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Students to confront environmental problems at upcoming meeting

This weekend hundreds of college and university student representatives will gather to discuss issues such as fair trade mass purchasing programs, campus anti-racism initiatives, indigenous rights and how to protect education as a right in the face of market forces. Among these themes will be also be a debate on how to further students’ role in the environmental movement.

It has been barely a year since the students’ unions that comprise the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) vaulted their organization squarely on to Canada’s environmental scene. Since then, students have concentrated their efforts to contribute to the work of the David Suzuki Foundation, the Polaris Institute, the Sierra Youth Coalition and others.

This move could not have come too soon.

Consider that Canada’s oil sand reserves, which are on par with Venezuela as the largest known supply of crude in the world, just after Saudi Arabia[1], are under increasing pressure to triple their output in the next ten years, despite being one of the “dirtiest” sources of energy on the planet.

Consider that Canada’s fresh water reserves are under increasing pressure from the US cities[2] and private bottled water companies.

If students are going to translate local campaigns such as those designed to curb driving cultureand stopping the commodification of water, they must continue their collective work at the national level.

Other Links:

The Water Front Documentary—Trailer

Official energy statistics from the US government's e Energy Information Administration—International Petroleum (Oil) Production

[1] The US Government’s Geological Survey (USGS) says: “The two major sources of unconventional oil ... are the extra heavy oil in the Orinoco province of Venezuela and the ... tar sands in the Western Canada Basin. Taken together, these resource occurrences, in the Western Hemisphere, are approximately equal to the Identified Reserves of conventional crude oil accredited to the Middle East.” []

[2] Anderson, F. Richard, Brett Rosenberg and Judy Sheaham. 2005. National City Water Survey 2005. United States Conference of Mayors Urban Water Council. [].