Despite underwhelming promotion for this year’s MSU General Assembly, there are seven motions on the agenda for Wednesday's two-hour meeting in Burridge Gym. The General Assembly, held once a year in March, is the only venue for MSU members to submit motions whose votes are binding on the MSU if quorum is reached. It’s a way for full-time undergraduate students to directly affect change in the union they pay fees every year to be part of.

Quorum this year is 633, and the MSU would be hard-pressed to get that many students to fill Burridge Gym if reliant solely on a dismal promotional effort  leading up to the Assembly. But the first two motions on the agenda--the first arguing the MSU should “refrain from taking political and polarizing stances on international crises, conflicts and concerns” and the second requesting that students vote yes to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel--are likely to draw students to the event. Whether or not the polarizing debate will be enough to make quorum--and sustain it for two hours--is up in the air.

Motions on the agenda

Incoming SRA Social Science Sarah Jama introduced four motions on the agenda having to do with improved accessibility of the Pulse, priority clearing of ramps on campus, a proposed MSU survey to assess the Student Accessibility Service, and a proposed ramp in front of BSB.

The first motion listed on the agenda resolves that the MSU not take any stance on international crises, crises and conflicts “so as to remain a credible and representative voice of the entire student body.”

The McMaster BDS motion resolves that the MSU should endorse the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions global movement and “commit to identifying and divesting from companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression of Palestinians….” The BDS motion stands in opposition to the first motion.

The final motion on the agenda resolves that the MSU advocate and work with Hospitality Services for Bridges Cafe to offer Halal and Kosher food and adhere to other “major religious dietary laws.”

Contention around BDS at recent SRA meeting

At Sunday’s SRA meeting (full video available here), the contention surrounding the first two General Assembly motions set the tone for the four-hour meeting.

SRA Social Science Ryan Sparrow, an outspoken advocate of BDS, voiced concern about the order of the motions, saying the pro-BDS motion should be listed first because it was submitted first. A tense back-and-forth ensued, where MSU speaker Maria Daniel was asked numerous times to provide the order in which the motions were submitted. (The McMaster BDS motion was approved on March 11 and the other was approved on March 19.)

“The role of the speaker is to be neutral and impartial. The order of the agenda doesn’t seem to reflect that in that this motion was publicized to students prior to there being the second motion. ... I think the order of the agenda is a bit politicized in this regard,” Sparrow said.

Daniel said she felt it made sense to have the motions going from overarching to more specific, and said there was no rule that stated the motions had to be in order of submission date. She ruled that the order would stay the same unless participants in the General Assembly were to vote otherwise.

A separate motion was tabled at the beginning of the meeting by SRA Science Anser Abbas, requesting that MSU board of directors refrain from using their credentials to endorse a position on General Assembly motions before the event.

MSU VP Finance Jeffrey Doucet was singled out in the SRA’s discussion for endorsing the ‘Vote No to BDS’ position publicly as VP Finance. At one point, an observer at the SRA meeting demanded that Doucet “retract his statements” with his credentials attached.

Doucet defended his decision by saying he was “obligated” and had the right to share with students his position on an issue that would affect the MSU’s finances, though that was debated extensively by the SRA over the next hour.

Ultimately, the motion requesting MSU board of directors to refrain from using their credentials to endorse General Assembly motions failed.

Meeting Quorum

Getting more than 600 students to fill a gym to discuss motions they may or may not have read has been a challenge for the MSU historically.

The last time quorum was reached for the General Assembly was in 2012, when former MSU president Matthew Dillon-Leitch launched a spirited and in-your-face promotional campaign marketed as the ‘601’. But after quorum was reached and the first motion on the Welcome Week fee, initiated by Dillon-Leitch, was passed, students began to file out. The Assembly lost quorum and votes on subsequent motions were not binding on the MSU.

Before 2012, the quorum had not been reached since 1995.

Last year, attendance at the General Assembly peaked at 60 students, and most of those who voted were either MSU executives, SRA members or Silhouette staff covering the event. There was a sole motion on the agenda asking the MSU to advocate for the university’s divestment from fossil fuel companies, which was passed by a 14-7-7 vote but was not binding. The MSU currently does not advocate for institutional divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Last year’s low attendance sparked a debate about the way the MSU promotes the General Assembly, but this year’s promotional efforts have not been appreciably different.

In an e-mail, MSU speaker Daniel wrote: “In terms of promotional efforts, I, along with David Campbell, have worked with a number of staff and outlets to facilitate the promotion of GA. We've followed a comprehensive model used by MSU Services for event promotions, which includes large format printing, posters across campus, digital displays on screens across campus, rave cards, promo team distribution, social media strategies, and a web presence. Also, there has been a strong effort within the student body to promote GA.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, about 252 people were listed as ‘going’ to an MSU General Assembly event on Facebook.

This year’s General Assembly will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 26 at Burridge Gym. Eligible voters will need to validate their full-time status with their student ID cards. MSU members will be seated in front of the bleachers to ensure accurate counting of votes. The agenda for the event is available in full here.

Farzeen Foda 

Senior News Editor

Universities have undergone a drastic shift in recent years, much of which, most would argue, has been positive. Due to systematic mobilization of resources toward research and innovation, a greater influx of discoveries have been observed – a trend to which McMaster can certainly attest.

There are, however, negative shifts that have persisted. One of them is the transition of funding sources for universities from public to private.

Christopher Newfield, professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained at a McMaster Seminar on Higher Education on Nov. 21, that higher education is more frequently being seen “as a private right rather than a public good.”

The talk was hosted by the President’s Office and jointly funded by the Public Intellectuals Project.

Newfield spoke at length about the economic spiral that has led to the current state of universities, contending that the shift from public to private funding for post-secondary education has been sustained by the “American funding model cycle of decline,” which he referred to as the “Wheel of Death.”

Based on the model, the root of the increasing privatization of universities, in the United States specifically, stems from a reduction of state funding. In Canada, on the other hand, post-secondary education is largely regulated at the federal level.

Inferences made on the “Wheel of Death” suggest that reduced public funding is met by reluctance on the part of university faculty and administration to adapt to the change.

This stubbornness pushes the issue onto students, who are left with no choice but to comply with increasing tuition fees. In turn, the cycle ultimately facilitates the use of the student population as an “indispensable ATM machine” resulting in exponentially increasing levels of student debt. As noted by Newfield.

In discussing educational attainment, he noted that Canada fairs better in the proportion of individuals who complete their post-secondary degree or diploma, but those increasing numbers mean little when the substance of those credentials is consistently diminishing - a trend he has noticed in his own students who often reach the brink of graduation lacking basic skills and competencies. To rectify this, Newfield called for a simple process: “putting the content back into the credential.”

Astonishing to him as well was the increasing numbers of students who don’t quite know what they want out of their education.

To counter this, Newfield suggested a revitalized perspective to post-secondary education, focusing on essentials skills rather than instruction in the first and second year, leaving heavy instruction to the senior years of the university career. This would involve more student-professor interaction in the early years of university education.

These reasons compounded, argued Newfield, necessarily requires a shift in roles of universities and the ways in which they should be managed.

While Newfield discussed the state of the issue in the United States, a similar trend has unfolded in Canada as well.

Newfield noted the effects of the “Wheel of Death” are certainly reversible, but change will require strategic planning of educational goals, followed by seeing the funding for those goals.

While more graduates obtain decrees without substance, and funding for research constantly dwindles, whether or not this shift will occur remains to be seen.

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