[Note: Much of the text was taken from a comment piece that the General Assembly organizing group submitted to The Varsity]
Let me open with two contrasting conceptions of the University of Toronto. In the first, the interests of students, staff, faculty and others on campus are intertwined. We work together to share and learn, to arrive at something better for ourselves and society. In this scenario, our interests may not immediately align. But together, we decide what and how to negotiate. We are the university. To not listen to or harm any group on campus is to act against the best interests of the university.
In our second conception of the university, it is run like a factory – a mechanized profit machine, and we are its gears and its products. We are not the University’s will, we are its clients and its labour. At this university, decisions become increasingly opaque and unaccountable. Its administrators are more invested in consulting with ‘captains of industry’ like Peter Munk, than with students, workers, and faculty. The familiarity of this scenario should indicate what kind of university we currently find ourselves at.
When students, faculty, and workers view our interests in isolation, we disempower ourselves and legitimize the bodies that manage us. These bodies, existing as various administrative groups and the Governing Council, are vested with power in order to further our collective interests. But recent events are enough to show that governing structures on campus undermine the needs of most of its members. Flat fees and poor classroom environments, the Faculty of Arts & Science Academic Plan and other program cuts, the G20 campus closure, space booking policies, and contracts with corporate sponsors that threaten academic freedom are familiar to us all. In each instance, though we came earnestly and in numbers, we were blocked from participating in decision-making.
The misbehaviors of our governing bodies are no accident. The Governing Council, for instance, is structurally predisposed to ignore student, staff, and faculty interests. Of the fifty Governing Council seats, only eight are reserved for students, 2 for staff, and 12 for faculty most of whom are administrators. 14 seats are for government appointees, most of whom are business leaders. If you’ve ever been to Governing Council you’ll quickly notice that it looks nothing like the University. Most of the governors are white men who make hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollar a year. The minority of students, staff, and faculty who actually teach on Governing Council cannot sway a group of CEOs to consider our needs.
Substantive change cannot come from cajoling the Governing Council – trust me, we have tried. It is time that we stop investing our power in Governing Council, and take governance into our own hands. Rather than hoping that these governing bodies will finally make one decision in our favour, we need to strengthen our relationships with each other, and reclaim our ability to make decisions for ourselves.
The crisis in education is not limited to UofT, and – of course – cannot be separated from broader political trends in Canada and around the world. These trends increasingly deny access to services and the chance at a good life for a majority of the people on our planet. The good news is – we are not alone in our struggle. Students in the US, Tunisia, the UK, Puerto Rico, Nepal, Italy, Martinique, and Quebec, have recently mobilized in unprecedented numbers to protests increasing privatization and decreasing access to education and other social goods.
Make no mistake – we are not here to talk or group hug. We want action. We want to build commonalities across issues and populations. We want to generate strategies to combat looming threats to our education, our liveliehoods, and our space. We want to empower many more students, workers, and faculty to participate. We want an entirely different university, where the power to govern is in all of our hands.