I’m writing this from a hotel in California, so I can’t very easily tell you what’s going on inside James Admin. Luckily, you have other sources you can turn to for that. Instead, I want to focus on the issues that the occupiers are trying to highlight.
Why is a group of independent students occupying the McGill administration building over funding for a community radio station and a social and environmental justice collective on campus?
Of course, MARP says “to have a party” — and while I respect that, allow me to do the bourgeois professor thing and pontificate.
There are at least three issues at stake:
1. Campus governance. Are students allowed to collectively govern how their fees are allocated? I believe their should be, but that decisions like this need to be collective and not just thousands of individual choices. That’s why you have representative student government.
2. Who has the right to make decisions regarding the mechanics through which funds are allocated? Again, the students have shown themselves capable of self-governance on the issue. Let them decide.
3. Why are two progressive student groups being singled out for new mechanisms that effectively defund them? If I have to guess–and I confess that this is based only on reading behaviour and no evidence whatsoever–this looks to the untrained eye like this has something to do with donors or members of the Board of Governors. I can’t imagine the administration getting into a sustained fight with students for this long and using so many resources, unless a lot of money or institutional support was at stake. I can’t imagine another motivation and none has been offered.
The details as I understand them:
This all goes back to how these organizations are funded and basic issues of governance. As student organizations, both CKUT and QPIRG get a portion of student fees as the basis of their budgets (as with most community radio, you can also donate to CKUT on their website).
Unlike most other student organizations and fees–regardless of their ideological stripe–students have been able to opt out of paying their fees to these organizations. This is itself a curious situation. Students can opt out of these organizations on ideological grounds, they are not allowed to opt out of allowing their fees to go to other equally ideological student organizations, like campus groups tied to political parties, religions, nationalities, or for that matter, the athletics fee, and whatever portion of their money goes to support university athletics.*
In the past, opting out was done manually, by going in and requesting a refund. But, to quote a QPIRG press release:
The system of online opt-outs was imposed unilaterally by the McGill Administration in 2007, ignoring objections from campus groups regarding this violation of student autonomy. In 2007, a SSMU General Assembly motion and subsequent student referendum called upon the Administration to put an end to the online opt-out system. Both the motion and the referendum passed, but both results were ignored by the McGill Administration.
In other words, the elected bodies that represent students didn’t want the online opt-out. An email from Provost Tony Masi to all faculty, students, and staff claims this was in the name of “efficiency,” and it is true that it has made it much more efficient for people to opt out, but this is precisely the problem. Efficient for whom and on what basis? Who requires this “efficiency”?
This past November, the students held another referendum on whether the online opt-out should continue. Again, the students voted “no” overwhelmingly. Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson (who is the target of the occupation) has said repeatedly that the referendum question was unclear and that the administration will not recognize the result. From Masi’s email:
Here is the text of the November referendum question for CKUT; the QPIRG question used similar language:
Do you support CKUT continuing as a recognized student activity supported by a fee of $4.00 per semester for full-time undergraduate students, which is not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but is directly refundable through CKUT, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of all undergraduate funding to CKUT?
Thus, the question for each group asked two things at once:
1) Do you support the existence of the organization?
2) Do you support going back to back to the old system — to have the fee be “directly refundable” to the student from the organization (in person) and thus remove the option to opt-out online?
Yes, the referendum was on two questions at once. If the majority of a 200-student intro-level undergrad class can come to understand and make use of a morsel of Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory–a feat my undergraduates accomplish each fall–surely they can understand a clearly worded referendum on two inextricably related questions.
Today’s McGill Daily reports that the administration and CKUT have agree to a third referendum to decide the issue. But to call this a good thing is to lose the forest for the trees. The point is not that the administration has finally agreed to yet another referendum on an issue where students have already spoken clearly.
The issue is whether students should be able to govern themselves on issues like student fees and student organizations, which would include things like setting the terms by which collective decisions should be made.
I think they should.
*(To be clear, I don’t know if they should be allowed to opt out. It’s not like I can stop paying taxes just because I don’t like Charet or Harper’s policies (or for that matter Obama’s–since I pay in two countries). Student elect representatives to dole out the funds. That should be enough. But that’s a side issue.)