Silencing Dissent on Campus:

Is Money the only thing that talks?

Monday 4 November 2002, by David BERNANS

PHOTO: Benoît Aquin et Patrick Allen

Is Concordia’s ban on free speech simply a temporary measure to calm down a tense conflict between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions, or is it an attempt to silence points of view unpopular with the university’s corporate donors? If it is only about the Middle East conflict, then why the October 16th arrest of Concordia Student Union Vice President Yves Engler?

Engler was distributing literature 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. Anti-FTAA activists on campus have been warning students about the dangers of corporate globalization and the privatization of education. They claim that Engler’s arrest was a concrete example of how corporate power can silence debate.

Free Speech Ban

Although the ban on free speech at Concordia violated by Engler has been widely publicized and discussed across Canada, most people are under the impression that the prohibition only applies to Middle-East-related speech. While it is true that there is a complete ban on any extra-curricular discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is also the case that distributing literature on any topic in some areas of campus could get a student expelled. In fact, rector Frederick Lowy has been given new powers by the University’s Board of Governors to deal with such indiscretions. Students are no longer guaranteed a hearing before a Rights and Responsibilities panel since the September 9th confrontation between police and protesters that forced the cancellation of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public address.

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, Concordia1s corporate partners and the school1s Board of Governors. On the other, the Concordia Student Union, the University Senate and faculty. The Senate, a body mostly elected from the ranks of students and faculty, has called for a lifting of the ban and an end to the rector1s special disciplinary powers. The Board of Governors, with a majority of members appointed from Montreal1s business community, has steadfastly refused to budge, only slightly reducing the amount of space that is off-limits to free speech.

The Senate was swayed to call for an end to the ban and the rector’s special powers by student Senators like Rob McGuire who argued that the university ought to be a place where controversial ideas can be debated without fear from authoritarian reprisals. "Students believe they can be expelled if they speak out,"complains McGuire. "There are video cameras on the roof of the library building looking for trouble."

Board of Governors members like Alex Carpini (a managing partner at Greater Montreal Financial Services, Inc.), on the other hand, have argued that backing down on discipline would be "reacting to pressure" from off-campus groups like Amnesty International Canada (whose Secretary General has sent a letter to rector Lowy asking him to lift the ban).

The battle of wills now pitting Concordia’s corporate partners against teachers and students is a sign of the times. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is holding a conference from November 1-3 in Ottawa called "Disciplining Dissent: the curbing of free expression in academia and the media". The CAUT web site describes the conference as an exploration of post-911 "sweeping legislation that threatens civil liberties and handcuffs researchers and journalists" and the failure of governments "to adequately fund post-secondary education or confront the problem of media ownership concentration in ways that defend and promote the pulic interest." According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, while funding from government has declined from 69 per cent in 1990 to 55 per cent in 2000, almost 20 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

Money talks, and so it seems, at Concordia, students can’t.

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 - the desire to keep much needed private funding.

Concordia administrators have denied that any external forces have influenced the university’s decision-making process. But Marcel Dupuis, the university’s director of corporate and foundation giving, conceded in the Montreal Gazette that "donors and alumni are saying, "If you don’t get things in order, we1re pulling the funding."

Two years of sustained activism for Palestinian human rights have taken their toll on corporate confidence in Concordia’s profitability. Last year, students voted in a university-wide referendum to support U.N. condemnations of the state of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands; the student union produced a controversial agenda that criticized Israel, Colombia and other U.S. allies; students have criticized Concordia’s 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.

With more open defiance of the ban being promised by the student union, it seems that the next few months will determine whether it is possible for the Board of Governors to legislate an end to Concordia’s activist history.

The author is also the researcher/archivist of the Concordia Student Union and a former faculty member in Concordia’s political science department. He is also the author of Con U Inc.: Privatization, Marketization and Globalization at Concordia University (and beyond).

À propos de David BERNANS

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