The political role of universities
Last November, President Patrick Deane sat down with MSU President Teddy Saull to discuss the university’s role in international affairs and to promote the launch of a series of lectures and seminars entitled “Perspectives on Peace.”
They contemplated the role of the university in providing an academic platform to discuss national and international conflicts. In the video, Deane states that, “the university can’t just be passive.”
During the South African apartheid, Deane attended a university in Johannesburg known for its anti-apartheid activism. While Deane rarely mentions his experiences from the apartheid era in his McMaster speeches, in an interview with the Hamilton Spectator last spring he acknowledged the privileges afforded to him by an unfair system, and his view that a university has a responsibility to stand up for “values that are desirable in society and human activity.”
Despite his experiences and his attempts to encourage socially conscious dialogue at McMaster, this was still a refreshing and slightly unexpected sentiment to hear from our administration.
Too often, it is argued that universities and bodies within them should not be political places. While I agree, as I assume most people would, that university administrations should remain neutral and non-partisan during elections, universities and student unions should not be neutral on political events that impact our lives as citizens of Canada and the global community.
Taking a political stance doesn’t mean adopting a position that fits the agenda of a political party. It means making a statement about what is in the interest of a just, democratic, and sustainable society.
Universities are places of research, where the complexities of human life, societies, and the environment are studied and evaluated. A university has at its disposal educated people, with the tools to seek the truth and relay it to the public. Although research rarely points the way in black-and-white, it furthers human understanding of our own world – local, national or global.
Apart from the wealth of knowledge in our institutions, the structure and context of a university is inherently political. Political in the sense that who gets to be here, sit in our classes, is largely defined by socio-economic factors. There was a time when our university only accepted men – the inclusion, and struggle for the inclusion, of women was a political act. We see within our own walls the manifestation of class and income inequality issues. Universities are also a complex ground of labour issues – from research and teaching assistants to sessional faculty and custodial staff.
Given the university’s place in our cities and societies, it is important that its role as a place of progressive, educated thought is not left behind. We should not aim to create complacent and non-political student bodies and academic faculties. Student unions should continue (and in some cases, start) taking strong stances on fossil fuel divestment, climate change, income inequality, and other forms of inequality.
Our student union has a policy of mostly research-based advocacy. Every school term, they get together with other universities who belong to the Ontario Universities Student Alliance to draft policy papers on higher-education issues. While there have been major advancements through these methods, other methods shouldn’t be dismissed as futile modes of resistance.
For example, when Ryerson’s student union held a disruptive protest during a Ministry of Training and Colleges speech, media columnists and post-secondary education leaders largely condemned them. Many did not see what the “point” of such a tactic that had no clear policy outcomes was. They failed to recognize the courage to speak out against institutional decisions, or the attention it brought to unfair increases in tuition and the financial inaccessibility of education it creates.
Student bodies shouldn’t rely only on disruptive tactics, and sit-ins are probably not going to solve the lack of funding for mental health support, or the lack of financial aid. But they can send a message. They can bring people together for a shared goal.
Our student unions need both policy-based and action-based activism. And we shouldn’t be afraid to be “too” political. We have a role to play in pointing out the injustices and inadequacies of our social systems and norms. We should be speaking out against poverty at the national level, as well as our own campus.
Universities are political in every aspect of their existence. There is no point in pretending they aren’t, and it certainly won’t lead us towards progress. We have to use the full range of tools and opportunities provided to us to act on our social responsibility as an institution and stand up for those who are voiceless, whose struggles we study and dissect, and for ourselves.