On March 22nd, Concordia Students joined tens of thousands of their counterparts from across the province to voice their objection to the Charest government’s policy on tuition. The march was well-organised, well-attended and peaceful. The University administration’s response to this, in their statement of March 23 “Notice: Obstruction of Campus Facilities and Classrooms,” has been interpreted by students and many within the University community to be an ill-timed and regrettably hostile gesture.
This Association is surprised to learn that the University administration is now choosing to exercise their authority over students boycotting classes by electing to lay charges under the Code of Rights and Responsibilities and increasing the use of Security. We believe such a tactical move will increase and escalate confrontations that can be avoided. Confrontation has been minimal for the last three weeks. The recent statement from the University administration is a provocation that will serve to create the opposite desired effect.
Additionally, this decision will serve to increase the level of stress currently being felt by both students and faculty alike. Our members in psychology have quickly pointed out that the University’s position will not deter certain behaviours. Either senior administrators have misread the situation or are demonstrating the same inflexibility as our government. They should be sitting down with student leaders to discuss solutions.
Why has the administration taken this move to increase filing complaints under the Code of Rights and Responsibilities and increase security?
There are not sufficient or enough compelling reasons for the University administration to justify this new sterner response. Over the last three weeks we have seen very few incidents. There has been no damage to University property, no one’s life was in peril and students have cleaned the areas where protest activities have taken place. Weighty and grave reasons have not been sufficiently provided to deny the right to peaceful assembly. Up until now we were pleased with the leadership taken by the University in not taking sides between one group of students over another group of students. We regret that they appear to be deviating from this stance.
As well, bear in mind Concordia is the only University that has handled the student “strike” in this manner. Nearly all other Quebec universities cancelled classes and avoided confrontation and violence on campus altogether. Their approach is one of prevention. Concordia’s approach is one of drawing the battle lines.
What about the rights of those students who are opposed to the “strike”?
Each week during the strike, the CSU and GSA have held special general assemblies, where the sole issue has been the passage and reaffirmation of their “strike.” These assemblies are well-publicized and run according to the appropriate Rules of Order. All students have had the opportunity to vote yes, no, or to abstain at each of these sessions. Students who choose not to come to vote are equivalent to someone who abstains from the vote. As long as the assemblies meet quorum, and obtain a “yes” vote on the question, then democratic principles must carry the day. Until this situation changes, the students have democratically voted to be “on strike.” Students bear the responsibility to respect their democratic choice. CUPFA cannot substitute another interpretation of student intent in place of their democratic expression. If the Students were to violate their own democratic principles, then -and only then- would we re-evaluate our position.
Who are the students and what is the position of students regarding the protest?
Good question. There are at least three categories of students at Concordia: those opposed to the boycotting of classes, those in favour, and those who support the “strike” but want to attend to their academic responsibilities. There is no simple composite type of student except to say that most and close to all students have behaved responsibly. As well, care should be taken to not equate Concordia students with those from other Universities. Concordia’s culture is not UQAM’s culture or that of the University de Montréal. While the majority of Quebec students are opposed to increased hikes in tuition, expression of any opposition has varied from one institution to the next. Observation of student demonstrators from the various colleges and universities on March 22nd reflected a portrait of different customs, signs, and forms of protests. All however remained peaceful. Independent actions of groups not connected to one particular institution (incidents on Champlain bridge and near offices of Loto Quebec) did not involve students from Concordia.
We hope this trend will continue. We remain disturbed that the recent action by senior administrators may fuel the situation. Should any violence result, the University must take its fair share of the responsibility. We are not strangers to how situations at Concordia are too often managed and then . . . escalate to violent confrontations, strikes, picketing, boycotting, and demonstrations.
How should PT faculty members behave with students?
The Association respects all students: those who have elected to support the “strike,” as well as those who have not. There is a multiplicity and diversity among our students and our Association’s position is to treat all students equally regardless of their position about the government’s educational policy Our obligation continues to be to teach our classes as best we can.
Part-time faculty have been working with undue stress that will no doubt escalate with the University’s new “law and order” position. The responsibility here, and any escalation to now provoke confrontation, must be borne by the University administration – they too must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
Should I now call Security if I cannot get into my class?
We continue to believe that in most situations, faculty and students can act in a responsible manner, even when they differ in their response to the “strike”. However, we must acknowledge that even tolerance can have its limits. Thus far, there have been thankfully very few serious incidents. We cannot predict the immediate impact of the administration’s most recent position. We sincerely hope that it will not contribute to or create new acrimonious circumstances. Only you can decide if the particular circumstances you face are sufficiently serious to warrant calling Security.
Know this: You must be permitted access to your class. Badgering, harassment, accusations, and aggressive behaviour cannot be tolerated. The Association has done everything possible to reach understandings with the various student associations.
Our greatest concern has come from Fine Arts. The Fine Arts Student Association here has clouded the student protest by their fiat of going out on “strike” in advance of the CSU vote (and date). This has been further complicated by the fracturing of their own centralized authority into a number of ad hoc groups (who variously claim to speak for the whole).
Student organisations in Fine Arts are battling among themselves and are not speaking as one voice. Misinformation and disinformation is rampant. Such divisions has marred the desired outcome by these students. It is not an accident that the few incidents members have experienced, are from a small group of dysfunctional students in the Faculty of Fine Arts.
Has the Association filed any complaints to defend faculty members who have been badgered and harassed in their classrooms?
Yes and No. The Association has not yet filed any formal complaint under the Code of Rights and Responsibilities. Thus far, we avoided this approach as a means to handling individual conflicts. The Association is spearheading a meeting with the student organisations in Fine Arts for an apology to the three members in Fine Arts who were harassed and badgered. We are respecting what the members involved wish the Association to do on their behalf. No one, at this stage, is interested in reprimanding students in any high-handed manner. This is what the members have each expressed and we are honouring their wishes. Our members have been courageous in light of what they continue to experience.
What about the unhealthy psychological climate of our working conditions?
The Association, is doing the best it can to handle our obligations, to deal with the stress of our faculty members, and to deal with the stress of our students. At some point, we will need to assess when the situation is no longer viable in terms of our working conditions for the health of faculty members. We do not know why the administration has taken a different approach to the student “strike” than those approaches taken by other Quebec universities but, the working environment is becoming more and more toxic.
How does academic freedom work during the student protest or after the school year is completed?
Academic freedom works in the same manner as it always has. While it does not involve “cancelling a class”, you have the right to use your discretion, to be fair and flexible with assignments: change assignment due dates, change the grade distribution, enter F/Inc grades, place notes or assignments on-line, provide take-home exams or assignments.
These are a few of the creative ways that part-time faculty have accommodated students after reaching a consensus with them. You can also elect not to be flexible, and maintain the obligations you have established. There is no one single answer.
As well, neither the University nor the Association can dictate how you should exercise your academic freedom except to say that you should use your better judgement and be responsible. No one answer fits all. Each course taught is unique. Group work and courses demanding class participation remain problematic and represent an undue challenge to our members.
Are there other concerns the Association has?
The student movement in Quebec conducted the March 22nd demonstration without incident. No one was arrested or windows broken. Communications with provincial student organisations reveal they are disappointed with Charest’s reaction to a peaceful demonstration. One of the main objectives of last week’s demonstration was to get a dialogue going. Regrettably many no longer believe that peaceful means will achieve desired results or provide opportunities for dialogue. Expect greater militancy with protests throughout the city in the coming weeks. There is a paradigm shift towards the politics of confrontation. Sadly, this will lead to the continued criminalisation of students by media and the general public.
Keep us Informed!
We continue to advise members to contact the Association with issues they are experiencing during this difficult period. The stress is affecting our working conditions. We remain paralysed on the one hand to fulfill our obligations to teach, with the need on the other hand, to respond to the stress and the unhealthy psychological effects being experienced by faculty and students alike.
Dr. David Douglas
Chair of Communications, CUPFA Executive