James Admin Occupation, Day 3: Should Student Government be Allowed to Govern Students?

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.)

10 replies on “James Admin Occupation, Day 3: Should Student Government be Allowed to Govern Students?”

  1. Great post, Jon. Once again I find myself thinking: “These people in charge of our university have no idea what a University is.” The first time I thought this was when they banned cycling on the main campus, for no reason. Then there were a whole bunch of times last semester, of course (including, to remind readers, the time they called in a high court injunction against picketing support staff, for no reason, and, yes, the time that they called in the Montreal riot police to beat up some students and professors protesting against tuition increases). And here, again: someone needs to tell the people running our university that good North American universities have campus radio stations, and have organisations like QPIRG. It’s part of what a university is.

  2. Here are the two questions wrapped into one:
    “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?”

    I support CKUT but I like having the choice of opting out on Minerva. In this case, what would be my answer to this question?

  3. Jon — you miss the point about the referendum question. It wasn’t a question of understanding it. I’m sure that most people understood it. Thing is, a referendum question MUST have the option of keeping the status quo in it. This question threw out the status quo purely by virtue of being asked. No matter what happened, once the referendum question was posed, online opt-outs would end, one way or the other. the mere act of submitting a referendum question shouldn’t have so much power.

    As well, I fail to see how your comparison between paying taxes and remaining opted-in is apt.

  4. Interesting points Jon,

    That being said, I think you have some of your facts mixed up. There are a whole host of organizations that can be opted out of, including non-political organizations like McGill Child Care and Reproductive Health Services (which might be political down South, but is as close as you can get to a non-partisan issue here). And while there are politically oriented organizations (like political parties) that ARE funded, I think that the obvious response is not “Well, let’s fund everyone then!”, but instead to have a firm and fast rule that allows students to opt out of any politically active organization on campus easily and anonymously through Minerva.

    On the referendum, the system that CKUT and QPIRG want to move back to is a hassle for busy students, and it is extremely uncomfortable and slightly embarrassing to have to walk into QPIRG’s offices and tell them that you want your 2.50$ back. As well, the two questions should not have been linked. I, for example, have not opted out of either organization, but I think that students have the right to easily and anonymously online. That being said, I think that they still should receive funding from SSMU. The referendum basically forced me into choosing between their existence and following the model of support that they want. The majority of people that I have talked to about the referendum complained about this as well. I think a fair referendum question would have had a third option, to vote for the continuation of the status quo. I hope to see that question on the next ballot.

    Finally, I would argue that we students have not shown ourselves capable of competent self-governance. One only needs to attend a meeting of the AUS GA to see the absurdity of our direct democratic system. Abraham Moussako wrote an excellent opinion piece about it in the McGill Tribune (http://www.mcgilltribune.com/opinion/student-democracy-the-agency-of-the-few-1.2768033#.TzU3Tphc83E). Our student “democracy” has been hijacked by far-left radicals, who have turned many of the rest of the student body, who are progressives but not revolutionaries, off of student politics altogether. This needs a change, whether it comes from creating a more representative-based system or by other reforms.

  5. First of all, the amount of fees that these clubs are likely to lose is negligible, as most students pay as much attention to their opt-outs as they did the initial referendum (zero attention paid). And second of all, why should I and other like-minded students (or better yet, our parents) have to pay for an organization that continually slanders Israel as well as pretty much every other cause I believe in. If McGill SHOULD have an organization like QPIRG, then enough students should be willing to fund it, it shouldn’t be on everyone to fund the dalliances of a few.

  6. A couple points to add: the separate set-aside plus opt-out mechanism is something that PIRGs have negotiated on multiple campuses, so the QPIRG situation (I can’t comment on CKUT) is one of their own design. Its an end-run around student government, which confers both benefits (they are not subject to the same accounting as other student groups) and drawbacks (they can more easily be singled out for defunding).

    Regarding the opt-out, you ask “efficient for whom and on what basis?” The answer here (though maybe not the one that Masi would give) is: efficient for the students who actually pay the fees. Opting out in person requires you to take time to show up at CKUT and QPIRG’s offices for refunds of approximately $4 each. That’s a pain in the ass, doubly so for someone with a disability or a full-time job. Opting out online requires a couple minutes and can be done from anywhere. There’s a ton of research that shows that the more difficult you make it to opt-out of something, the less likely people are to do it – not because they don’t want to opt out, but simply because its a pain in the ass. So by repeatedly insisting on separate funding, and refusing an online opt-out mechanism, QPIRG and CKUT are essentially saying “we do not want our funding to be based on either a collective student decision-making process, or the actual preferences of individual students.”

    Thus the problem with the referendum: it asked people to vote on two wholly separate questions: (1) do you support funding for the organization; and (2) do you want to terminate the opt-out mechanism. These may be inextricably linked, but you need to be a habitus scholar to recognize that one can answer ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second. The phrasing of the question thus held the second question hostage to the first – e.g. there is no way to say “i want the groups to continue to be funded, but with the online opt-out mechanism.”

    I agree with you that the administration has been typically heavy-handed in its approach, particularly in the unilateral imposition of the online opt-out (though I think it is a preferable mechanism). But it also seems that these two groups are using disingenuous methods – including an unnecessarily difficult opt-out mechanism and poorly-worded referenda – to maintain their privileged position as not being subject to student government, either collectively or as a collection of individual choices. I happen to support QPIRG’s politics, and campus radio is near and dear to my heart – but I also know that if a student group whose ideology I disagreed with was pulling this stuff, I’d be pretty pissed off.

  7. Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for the comments (this is apparently my coming out in public as “Jon,” which is kind of hilarious since only a few people who’ve met me as an adult call me that–Nick being one of them).

    I’m not going to get into a point-by-point internet debate, nor am I going to start bringing up other student organizations. Just a few replies:

    –> If students don’t like who’s governing them, they are responsible for changing that.

    –> Student politics, like all politics, are going to acrimonious and unpleasant and sometimes the “other side” is going to be in charge, make decisions, put in policies you don’t like. Part of politics is living with those uncomfortable realities, while working to change them, which was my point about taxes. I understand being uncomfortable with QPIRG’s politics given that they take controversial stands on controversial issues. I understand that it might be awkward to ask for your money in person. But the idea we should only pay money for things we use personally or believe in personally doesn’t rest well with how a country like Canada actually works, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the reality of how an organization like a university works. (PS I am “from south of the border” but I just took my citizenship exam and have a very good grasp of how “things” “work” “here.”).

    –> It’s clear that the occupiers don’t represent all students. I don’t take that as their point. And it certainly wasn’t mine.

    –> Carlos: the referendum “status quo” option is an interesting point (I wasn’t aware this was a rule for all referenda at McGill), but wouldn’t the status quo be the arrangement of fees before the administration unilaterally changed them? My reading of the referendum, and my impression from reading about CKUT and QPIRG is that both were hit very hard by the online opt out which would, in effect, mean the end of those groups. Of course, I could be wrong and so could you. This is a question of budget numbers, which someone out there might be able to provide, and then we wouldn’t be talking in hypotheticals.

    –> Finally, let me reiterate that my views here are my own, I don’t represent anybody, and I only really seriously educated myself on the issues when the occupation started.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. In classic blogosphere fashion, I rarely hear from people who disagree in this space, and nobody flamed me (apart from raising suspicions about my being a foreign agent), so it’s all good.

    Edit: Missed NickK and Mark’s point but I’ve got to run. I approved them so others can read and comment if they like.

  8. Alex L wrote: The referendum basically forced me into choosing between their existence and following the model of support that they want.

    Thats because those were the only two real options. As CKUT has explained in their last press release: the online opt-out system has dramatically increased the number of students choosing to withhold their fees. This has resulted in annual revenue reductions of tens of thousands of dollars, for groups that McGill students have consistently said they wish to remain vital parts of campus life. Additionally, during the opt-out period every term, these groups face organized online campaigns by anonymous organizations encouraging McGill students to opt out. These campaigns are not bound by the rules or procedures of Elections McGill. They typically involve misinformation and smears against the targeted groups and their supporters, and contesting them is a massive drain on the resources of the affected organizations, resources which would otherwise be spent serving McGill students.

    The administration has decided, for whatever reason, to negate *every* previous referendum on the existence of these groups, by changing the rules unilaterally in such a way that, *no matter how much support they get in the existence referendum* they will face dwindling finances and continuous misinformation and smear campaigns. Thats the issue. The question was not unclear — it presented students with exactly the choice they faced. The students chose. And the administration nullified the students decision. Thats whats going on here.

  9. Fuck u arts hippy. Why should I let those french bastard QPIRG ppl force me to pay them. Mcgill should get rid of arts profs like you and also the retarded arts students

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