Iâ€™m beginning to think major corporate interests really do dislike student activism.
While that may sound obvious to some, I was genuinely surprised last Wednesday night when eight Montreal police officers dragged me from a Concordia Student Union council meeting on the campus where Iâ€™m an elected student representative and attend school. Outside the university the police cuffed me, read me my rights and hauled me off to the police station.
Earlier in the day Concordiaâ€™s Rector, Frederick Lowy, sent me a letter suspending me from the University for this semester. Acting as judge, jury and executioner, he ruled that I had broken a previous suspension over the summer semester, a penalty imposed on me for speaking loudly in a crowd during last Septemberâ€™s thwarted visit to the university by former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
While I do not deny trying to make it unpleasant for people trying to enter university property to hear a speaker who spouts hate propaganda against Palestinians and against anti-Zionist Jews, my behavior was perfectly in keeping with â€œnormalâ€ Canadian picket line activities. My behavior was in a long tradition of anti-racist activists who have prevented neo-Nazis from speaking across Canada over many decades. My behavior was in fact much less aggressive than the activities of mostly Jewish students who blockaded streets and entrance to building in Canada during the early 1970s visit of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in their campaign to protest conditions of Soviet Jews. (My father was a witness to this as a student at Carleton University.)
The initial semester suspension itself was dubious. After my tribunal the deciding judge complained publicly that during the deliberations he was pressured by a representative of the university administration to suspend me. Instead he wanted to give me the much lighter sentence of community service hours.
Still, over the summer it is true that on numerous occasions I entered university premises. Under Quebecâ€™s student union accreditation law, elected members of student unions have the right to access student union meetings. In fact, this right was upheld two years ago when Concordiaâ€™s administration arbitrarily expelled Tom Keefer and Laith Marouf, both prominent activists on campus and elected student representatives. The courtâ€™s ultimately ruled their expulsions to be out of order and they were re-instated. It is important to note I attended no classes, even though I had originally planned to take at least one course.
In one sense the additional sanctions imposed on me by the administration didnâ€™t come as a surprise. In recent days, Concordiaâ€™s administration has come under increased pressure to clampdown on student activism at North Americaâ€™s most active campus. CanWest-Global, Canadaâ€™s biggest media conglomerate, owned by Izzy Asper, launched an offensive against an administration they consider to soft on activists. (The Asper foundation sponsored the Netanyahu visit to Concordia). The media assault began on September 4th with an opinion piece by Jonathan Kay, editorial editor for the far-right National Post. Kay called for the administration to get tough on activists. In addition to making veiled anti-Semitic comments (against Arabs) in the editorial, he actually named me personally, denouncing my suspension for the summer semester and (wrongfully) ridiculing my minimal course load for this semester. By coincidence, Kayâ€™s rant appeared the day before Rector Lowy informed me of his plans to suspend me for another semester.
Also last week, the Asper-owned Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and National Post again all ran editorials denouncing Concordiaâ€™s administration for not reprimanding more students for that dayâ€™s events (The administration, in fact, tried to punish a number of other students. Itâ€™s just that student judges continuously threw out the charges or gave minor penalties.) The Citizen bellowed that â€œviolence works in Canadaâ€ because the administration didnâ€™t punish students sufficiently for the Netanyahu affair.
Yet another of Asperâ€™s media holdings, Global Television, also got involved. For the third time in five months they ran a vehemently anti-Palestinian and anti-student activist â€œConfrontation at Concordiaâ€ a fairy tale that purports to be a documentary. Amongst other slanders, the program compares the Netanyahu protests to Kristalnacht in 1938. (The day considered the initiation of the Nazi Holocaust.) One could make a good case that this is tantamount to Holocaust-denial since this equates two broken university windows, a handful of anti-Semitic (including anti-Arab) slurs and a few people â€œroughed upâ€ to a day that marked the beginning of the deliberate murder of six million Jews and many millions of others.
Still, I am surprised, mostly at the fact the major corporate interests seem so offended by our student activism. I thought they would simply ignore us.
Clampdowns on student protests are not solely a Concordia phenomenon. They seem to be increasing at campuses across North America. During the winter semester of 2003 the administration at Torontoâ€™s York University repeatedly displayed a disdain for student protest. President Lorna Marsdene decided the best method to deal with anti-war protests was to call the police to break them up. A few months after leaving office in 2003 former McGill (Montrealâ€™s other English-language) principal, Bernard Shapiro, explained how he treated political protest at that university during his seven-year tenure. â€œI decided that there would be no political demonstrations of any kind for anybody â€” if you want to demonstrate, thatâ€™s fine, thereâ€™s the public streets, but nothing on campus.â€ (Hour 2003/05/29)
Last Thursday Rutgers University officials at the bequest of the Israeli apologist lobby trampled on students constitutional rights and muted free speech by canceling the Third National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, scheduled for mid October at Rutgers. Simultaneously Rutgers administration is supporting an overarching pro-Israel program called "Israel Inspires", organized by the likes of AIPAC and Hillel International along with others, which will be held at Rutgers to "neutralize the Palestinian movement".
More generally, in the U.S. there have been numerous reports about an increase of â€˜free speech zonesâ€™ on American campuses. According to the USA Today, â€œa growing number of campuses allow protests only in severely limited areas (May 27 2003).â€ These Orwellian termed zones effectively restrict protest to either small areas or parts of the campus far from student activity. The University of Central Floridaâ€™s student newspaper explains; â€œUCF's policy keeps law-abiding protesters and activists from reaching the majority of the campus (06/25/03 UCF Future). Furthermore the Boston Globe reports on a case at the El Paso campus where a student claims that â€œadministrators used intimidating tactics such as summoning campus police to supervise demonstrations and threatening administrative action against students who push the limits on speech.â€ (June 2, 2003)
Underlying these clampdowns is the uncomfortable fact that student activism is not popular with many wealthy donors. Often this activism threatens their interests directly. Or sometimes corporations and wealthy donors simply donâ€™t like the â€˜volatileâ€™ climate that student activism supposedly creates.
Another reason â€” aside from the resurgence of student activism in recent years â€” for increased crackdowns on student activism is how universities acquire funding. Over the past 15 years as public money, dried up as a percentage of budgets, universities increasingly rely on private donors. In the wake of the Netanyahu affair last year, at least one major donor backed out. At that time, this incident was cited as rationale for the subsequent clampdown on student rights. Marcel Dupuis, the universityâ€™s director of corporate and foundation giving, conceded to the Montreal Gazette that â€œdonors and alumni are saying, â€˜If you donâ€™t get things in order, weâ€™re pulling the funding.â€™â€ Later in the year, the rector further elaborated that there â€œhave been repercussions already on fundraising. (Jan 7 2003 Concordia Link)â€
Another pressure universities face is how to finance major building projects. About two years ago Canadian universities began buying bonds, following the example of U.S. universities. After the Netanyahu affair Concordiaâ€™s rector told me that had the university not made its 200 million dollar bond purchase prior to the bad publicity from the Netanyahu protest, the new buildings the money was to finance would have been in jeopardy. According to the rector, the Netanyahu events would have hurt Concordiaâ€™s investment rating in the eyes of private financiers. (If a protest can damage a universityâ€™s credit rating, then one should also assume that a universityâ€™s academic moves, such as investment in the business faculty over Fine Arts, or Engineering over Womenâ€™s Studies, could also improve (or worsen) a universityâ€™s investment possibilities? Or maybe a crackdown on student protest would improve a universityâ€™s desirability in the eyes of financiers.)
Another reason for the conservative and authoritarian nature of universities is their internal structures. The boards of governors at supposedly public institutions are almost without exception dominated by representatives from big business.
And the argument that corporate dominated boards are more inclined to take a dim view of student rights and activism is not idle speculation. Last year what at first appeared to be tension between Concordia student groups on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the Netanyahu affair quickly morphed into a battle over the privatization of education.
On one side stood the University Rector, Concordiaâ€™s corporate partners and the schoolâ€™s board of governors. On the other side stood the student union, the university senate and much of the faculty.
Last October, in a landmark decision, Concordiaâ€™s senate called upon the board of governors to lift the indefinite ban on campus free speech about the Israel/Palestine issue that they implemented in the aftermath of the Netanyahu protest. The Senateâ€™s vote was in direct opposition to an earlier resolution made by the Board of Governors to clamp down on student activity. How could the senate and the BoG diverge so widely? Well, the majority of the BoG seats are reserved for the â€œcommunity at large,â€ which, in practice, means members of Montrealâ€™s (big) business community. Nineteen out of 23 â€œcommunityâ€ members, plus the chancellor and 2 alumni representatives, of the highest decision-making body of the university, were from one community: the corporate world.
Only 12 of 39 seats on Concordiaâ€™s Board of Governors are filled with students, staff or faculty â€” while the vast majority of Senate seats are filled by elected Concordia faculty and students.
This is not unique to Concordia. According to the main student paper at McGill, â€œthe people who make the most important decisions at McGill arenâ€™t students or professors, or even administrators. No, the universityâ€™s highest decision-making body â€” its board of governors, which sets tuitions fees, hires and fires professors and principals, and constructs and demolishes buildings â€” is dominated by a Canadian corporate whoâ€™s whoâ€¦. the majority of the 45 voting positions are held by 26 â€˜members at largeâ€™ drawn mainly from the senior management of private-sector corporations. They come from companies with questionable attitude towards academia, companies that donate oodles of money to political parties that would cut (and have cut) billions of dollars from public-education funding.â€ (McGill Daily October 1, 2001)â€ Likewise, most U.S. universities have similar structures where the institutions are in effect controlled by representatives from the business community.
Of course university boards dominated by corporations are nothing new. Neither are attacks against students activists. Private interests started the first universities and funded them all the way back to feudal times. But, in a democracy, shouldnâ€™t we expect our institutions of higher learning to represent more than one narrow sector of interest?
yves engler was the vice president of the Concordia Student Union last year and currently sits on the CSU's council. Much of this article was adapted from a book on student activism he is currently writting. He can be reached at: email@example.com