By Jillian Terry
Since when does the students’ union have
the right to take an ideological position on my behalf?
Leave your ideology at home
Twentieth-century American educator Robert Maynard Hutchins was not only a defender of academic freedom and educational transparency, but also led the Commission on Freedom of the Press after the end of the Second World War. His insights into post-secondary life changed the face of many prominent American schools, including the University of Chicago where, as president, he opposed faculty loyalty oaths in the 1950s. With such a wealth of experience, it comes as no surprise that Hutchins made a profound declaration that continues to be discussed today: “Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching without these a university cannot exist.”
Earlier this month, the Memorial University Students’ Union board of directors voted to deny ratification to MUN for Life, a pro-life group on campus. While most of the debate before the vote centered on the issue of abortion, an even more concerning issue came out of the decision that begs the question since when does the students’ union have the right to take an ideological position on my behalf?
MUNSU identifies themselves as a pro-choice group, like its sister organization, the Canadian Federation of Students. But, regardless of the union’s own personal beliefs, their decision to not ratify a group at the university a distinction which is necessary for them to receive funding and meeting space should be one that considers our wellbeing as students above all else, including individual opinions.
A pro-life group, like most other groups on campus, spreads a particular message to the student community. That message is not always agreed upon by the entire Memorial population, nor should it be as Hutchins said in the last century, universities are meant to foster discussion and ideas. What a lacklustre discussion the university would be faced with without the presence of diametrically opposed opinions on every facet of society, including a woman’s right to abortion. Since the students’ union recognizes the diversity of the student body in so many other ways, why is it so opposed to a pro-life group on campus?
The union’s decision has left me with serious questions about the membership of the board of directors and exactly what the $40 in union fees I pay each semester is funding. The result of their vote encroaches on the rights of students to express their views at their own university, and goes against Hutchins’ relevant notion of freedom on campus.
Just as the ideals and messages promoted by Christian groups at Memorial may not be accepted by atheist, agnostic, or non-theist members of the student community, the position put forth by MUN for Life may not be the opinion of others. But it’s not being imposed on them no student is being forced to join or even listen to what MUN for Life has to say, which is exactly why their existence as a ratified group on campus is just as valid as that of any other club or society at Memorial.
That being said, the group’s co-operation is just as vital to the partnership as the student union’s. If MUN for Life, or any society on campus, were to negatively affect other students in a manner that would provide legitimate cause for complaint, MUNSU could investigate the nature of the group and determine whether or not it should continue to receive funding from the union. But to decide that simply because the stance taken by MUN for Life is not consistent with the personal opinions of union directors that the group should not be ratified is unjustified and contrary to the liberties afforded to us as Canadians living in a democracy.
Those democratic ideals of freedom and liberty should especially be adhered to in the university setting. After all, it is here where young adults begin to develop opinions on the world around them. Without an open environment in which to discuss and learn about different perspectives, how are we able to make educated decisions about the issues affecting us in our everyday lives?
The students’ union has thus far been adamant in its decision to deny ratification to MUN for Life. However, perhaps the union and its board of directors should at least re-consider the way in which they make decisions that affect the student body, and perhaps even read some of what Robert Hutchins had to say about the importance of freedom on campus, in both the academic and non-academic realms of post-secondary education. And in the future, MUNSU should leave their personal ideologies at the door when voting on policy, and recognize that their decisions impact many others besides just those sitting around the table.