Student Charged with, um, Activism

Student Charged with, um, Activism

Could cold, hard cash be the real reason behind Concordia universityıs hard line on student activism?

Radical Free Press
by David Bernans
October 17, 2002

Concordia student activist Yves Engler was removed from the universityıs downtown Montreal campus yesterday by police and charged with trespassing. Police were ready for trouble as riot squads waited nearby in the nineteen police vehicles sent to escort Engler from campus.

An elected student representative, Engler was informed that he could not set foot on Concordia property for the next twenty-four hours at minimum. Whether he will be expelled remains to be seen.

What did Engler do? As vice-president of communications for Concordiaıs Student Union, he was, well, doing his job. During the day yesterday, Engler distributed literature on campus about an Americas-wide anti-FTAA protest that will be taking place this Halloween as the hemisphere's leaders meet for the latest round of free-trade negotiations.

Englerıs actions violate a ban on free speech imposed by university rector Frederick Lowy in the wake of confrontations between police and protesters that forced the cancellation of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahuıs public address in September.

Although the aspect of the ban that has attracted the most attention has been the complete moratorium on all Middle-East-related speech, it has also meant the complete prohibition of the distribution of any kind of information in the busiest corridors on campus.

Englerıs goal was to inform and persuade students of the dangers posed by corporate globalization to public education. Ironically, the show of force by the university administration was a concrete example of how corporate power can silence debate.

* * *

What at first appeared to be an example of tension between Concordia student groups on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has now taken on the character of a debate over the privatization of education. On one side stand university rector Frederick Lowy, Concordiaıs corporate partners and the schoolıs Board of Governors. On the other, the Concordia Student Union, the University Senate and faculty.

In a recent landmark decision, the University Senate called on the Board of Governors to lift the indefinite ban in effect on campus. The October 4 Senate decision is in direct opposition to the September 18 resolution made by the universityıs Board of Governors. You see, the majority of Board of Governors seats are reserved for the ³community at large,² but almost all these community members come from Montrealıs business community. Most Senate seats are filled by elected Concordia faculty and students.

Although the Senate is the highest academic decision-making body in the university, it cannot repeal the decision of the governing board because the latter has the ultimate authority on university management.

On October 16, the morning before Englerıs arrest, the Board of Governors decided to ignore the advice of students and faculty. Extra-curricular discussions of the Middle-East and information distribution in the central Hall Building lobby would still be prohibited, while the rector would retain his power to summarily expel students who violate the extraordinary rules.

* * *

The battle of wills now pitting Concordiaıs corporate partners against teachers and students is a sign of the times. According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, almost twenty per cent of funding to Canadian universities now comes from private donations and the sale of services. If those corporate partners’ faith is shaken, a university has a lot to loose.

Money talks, and so it seems, at Concordia, students canıt.

It breaks down like this: When Rector Lowy declared the campus-wide ban, he explained the decision was motivated by concern for campus safety in the wake of the September confrontation between police and protesters. Under public scrutiny, however, another rationale for the ban has emerged. There may be a more basic, more vulgar and more believable motive for the universityıs drastic actions: cold, hard cash.

Concordia administrators have denied that any external forces have influenced the universityıs decision-making process. But Marcel Dupuis, the universityıs director of corporate and foundation giving, conceded in the Montreal Gazette that donors and alumni are saying, ³If you donıt get things in order, weıre pulling the funding.²

Two years of sustained activism for Palestinian human rights have taken their toll on corporate confidence in Concordiaıs profitability. Last year, students voted in a university-wide referendum to support U.N. condemnations of the state of Israelıs occupation of Palestinian lands; the student union produced a controversial agenda that criticized Israel, Colombia and other U.S. allies; students have criticized Concordiaıs corporate partner Pratt & Whitney for supplying F16 engines to the Israeli military; and there have been more large-scale demonstrations against Israeli aggression than most other universities have had on any issue.

The Netanyahu demonstration was only the last straw. Time to ³get things in order.²

While corporations have been putting pressure on Concordia’s pocket book, other off-campus forces have been tugging at the universityıs heartstrings. Rector Lowy has received hundreds of e-mails from around the world urging him not to abandon a core value of public education ³the tradition of free expression² including an official complaint from the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

Ironically enough, though perhaps not surprisingly, the decision to ban public discussion on the Middle East has made it the only thing that people at Concordia now talk about. Or, at least, it was the only thing people were talking about until Engler was charged.

The student union has been planning for several months to take part in the anti-FTAA action on October 31, but campus activists have been occupied by the internal dispute over freedom of speech on campus. Englerıs civil disobedience represents an attempt to bridge the gap between the two issues.

³Arresting me for exercising my right to free speech would look really bad on the university administration,² Engler told me just hours before his arrest.That afternoon, police had visited the activist as he sat at his information kiosk with dozens of students and a CBC camera operator looking on. No action was taken at the time.

Although Engler was happy to be a free man, he noted that, had the forces of order pushed their hand, ³it would create great publicity for our fight against the FTAA and for public education.²

After Engler packed up his kiosk, and after the 6 o’clock news, the forces of order pushed their hand. Police entered the student union offices to remove the vice-president from his place of work.

Although silencing debate may be good for attracting private funding, student union president Sabine Friesinger observes that it has had a ³negative impact on all student life.² Many students are worried about being disciplined under strict new rules. Friesinger hopes that the scramble to placate private donors will ultimately backfire on the administration, pushing students to mobilize against the FTAA and in favour of publicly funded education. ³If we had more public funds,² she says, ³we could have all the debates we wanted.²

Debates, on any issue, at a university? What a revolutionary idea. David Bernans is the researcher/archivist of the Concordia Student Union and a former faculty member in Concordiaıs political science department. He is also the author of Con U Inc.: Privatization, Marketization and Globalization at Concordia University (and beyond).


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