November 10th, 2011
We had a bit of drama at the annual Canadian Association of Graduate Schools (CAGS) meetings in Vancouver last week. Beautiful Vancouver is a hot spot right now for protest and dissent, with colorful ‘Occupy’ movement tents spread out all over the art gallery lawn just a few blocks up from where we were all staying. I walked by them on my way to a store or restaurant a couple of times during the week, wondering how anyone could survive a night out in the damp cold that had settled in on the city. A woman died in those tents soon after we had left for home. If nothing else, you have to admire the tenacity of those who are camping out in that clammy miserable air, determined to make a statement.
Inside the hotel conference rooms things were a lot warmer—even heated, you might say. You see, it had been unanimously decided to remove the seat occupied by a student rep on the board of CAGS. The motion and discussion were to be put before the general meeting in Vancouver. For weeks in advance of the meeting the CAGS executive had been receiving angry letters from students—almost all from Toronto—protesting the motion. Our reasons were straightforward. There are dozens of graduate student associations in this country, the largest being the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The graduate arm of that group, the National Caucus, claims to represent all students but it clearly doesn’t. There are even provinces that refuse to join the CFS, and it’s fair to say that even those who are members are not always happy with the leadership or direction taken by the national office. I hear that a lot. CAGS has also heard from several other student groups over the years, unhappy without a voice at the board table, and defiantly not in line with the CFS.
About 200,000 graduate students are registered in Canadian universities. At best, the CFS can claim 80-90,000 of these. They are hardly representative. Another reason to remove the student rep from the board is that as a lobby group CAGS suffers from uneven or inconsistent messaging. It is hard to lobby on the Hill for our issues when we do not always agree with the positions taken by the student group. That kind of conflict of interest really undermines our ability to be credible advocates for higher education. For example, Quebec universities are pushing for higher tuition fees to pay their exorbitant institutional costs. This is directly opposite to the main CFS platform which aims at eliminating all tuition fees.
Finally, new federal not-for-profit legislation makes it really clear that we had to streamline our board—no ex officios hanging around, no Tri-Council membership, and no conflicts of interest. Increasingly, we have been moving to the US-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) model, which has wisely never entertained students on its board.
Anyhow, by the time we got to Vancouver the students were hopping mad and planning to sabotage what they could. This became clear quickly, as student after student walked up to the microphone at every panel. Perhaps they thought that by declaiming their point of view and challenging every speaker they would be demonstrating the importance of their contribution to CAGS. For the most part, the plan backfired. A too narrow view of each topic, a view centred on fees or some variation of student victimhood, wore out the audience and started to sound pretty quickly as a one-note anthem. Their credibility was undermined—by their own shrill and repetitive voices.
Not too many of my colleagues use social media and very few are familiar with Twitter, thinking it’s a useless diversion for the self-absorbed. But I am a huge fan and appreciate its potential. When I checked into the CAGS discussion on Twitter, I wasn’t entirely surprised to read a raging set of messages, all aimed at the dumb deans who, by the sounds of it, were essentially anti-student. Some of the posts were pretty rude and ignorant, if half-baked attempts at humour. An ugly picture of deans of graduate schools emerged, one that imaged us as patronizing haters. I might add that this was all generated by the removal of a seat for students on the board, replacing it, as we still hope to do, with annual roundtable discussions involving all legitimate reps of student organizations. Believe me, the other organizations are delighted with the opportunity to be at that table and said so a number of times.
I became somewhat obsessed with following the tweets and with making my own contributions to the drama as it unfolded in its imitable 140-character way. I yearned for an open conversation, not a subversive dialogue about but not including deans. That was way too much to ask. Emotional and, I think, politically naïve, the handful of students who were most dissenting and self-righteous dominated the messages, effectively silencing the others–ironically enough, since all they ever did was accuse us of silencing them. Privately, several students approached us to say they were not all singing from the same hymn book. We knew. You could see and feel it in the room.
Events were particularly enlivened when about 40 protesters barged into the room during the general assembly business meeting, placards in hand, ramped up by national union (CUPE) meetings next door. “Students and Workers United,” they chanted. What a timely and awkward intervention that was! Half of them looked as if they wanted to crawl under a rock.
Ultimately, the motion passed, with each and every Canadian dean endorsing it, and with the eligible student voters voting against it. That was a lot of noise and energy over very little, a demonstration of poor political judgment. Deans of graduate studies are actually advocates for students and their issues. The protesting voices would have done themselves and Canadian society a lot more good if they had joined the tents on the Vancouver art gallery lawn, instead of wasting all our time with weak grandstanding and amateur drama. Hell, if they don’t know we are actually on their side you have to wonder about what kind of education they’re getting!