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Can the U of T Be an Agent for Social Change?

Universities are often publicly perceived to be spaces for objective research and critical thinking to challenge the existing status quo and promote progressive social change in the society. Yet in practice campus campaigns which initiate progressive policies are more likely to be led not by higher administrators, but by organized student activism, with some participation by faculty and community allies.

A relatively recent example at the University of Toronto was the successful non-violent civil disobedience in “The Gate-Crash Debate” in 1967, where a group of four women, inspired by the mass mobilizations against racial discrimination in the States, held a sit-in at a men-only event to inspire the end to the men-only policy at Hart House. More recently, in the 1980’s, the “Divestment Committee” grew out of the African and Caribbean Students’ Associations to spread awareness and opposition to trade with the racist South African Apartheid regime, a campaign which eventually won U of T’s divestment from South Africa. These were quite impressive examples of action at a university promoting social change. But does the University’s bureaucratic structure embrace that role, or does it rather have primary allegiance to the neo-liberal agenda, and merely accept for PR purposes some scattered examples of modest progressive victories?

One can argue that in order for the University to remain a site of critical and free expression, it must preserve its autonomy from the private sector and partisan politics. Certainly the escalating number of industry-academia partnerships constitutes a clear threat of private interest contaminating the objectivity of research; such conflict of interest is especially serious in medical and pharmaceutical research where it poses a direct threat to the public. The 2005 historical case of Apotex’s pressure on Dr. Nancy Olivieri was one of the few incidents of such pressure becoming public; most researchers keep their complaints quiet, out of fear of reprisal and the lack of adequate whistle-blower protection policies at the institution.

Additionally, research ought to serve the public rather than any private sponsor, if the University is to uphold its historical institutional purpose: “The University of Toronto is dedicated to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice”1. The recent treatment of dissent and free expression is in clear contrast with this articulated ideal, and seems more designed to protect the material and ideological interests of elites. When the G20 met in downtown Toronto last June, the University Vice-President and Provost, Cheryl Misak, far from welcoming the many critical voices in academe and the surrounding society, closed the campus, putting the maximum chill on dialogue. When autonomous student unions carried out the moral responsibility of raising awareness and organizing peaceful actions during the week, they were attacked by riot police violently invading the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) office on the Sunday morning and arresting upwards of 200 peaceful demonstrators – this without seeking University permission. It is not known that Dr. Misak made any objection to this arrogant invasion of campus.

Similar stifling of dissent occurred in earlier months when students organizing against Israeli Apartheid through the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) were banned from booking rooms on the University campus for events and discussions during Israeli Apartheid week2, and when custodial staff members were ordered by the University administration to remove posters exposing the human rights atrocities carried by Barrick Gold3.

The current proposal for academic “restructuring” of the Faculty of Arts & Science was a unilateral decision from the Dean’s office; strong faculty protests have forced a general debate which in a democratic institution would have come first. It is unfortunate for an institution claiming to be a “community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish” to disregard the input of the top scholars and top students on which it prides itself. Some blame U of T’s “unicameral” governance structure, which dispenses with an intermediary academic senate giving binding power to faculty and students. Using the pretext of fiscal responsibility to justify program cuts4, Dean Meric Gertler blatantly declares that “in the course of the past two annual budget planning cycles, we began the transition from uniform, across-the-board budget reductions for all units to a more strategic and selective approach.” Many students’ fears that the cuts selected will deprive them of the quality of education they expected, and even the programs they chose, were articulated by Adam Awad, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union. The proposal, among other things, includes the disestablishment of ethno-cultural clusters such as East Asian Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilization (NMC), and establishes instead a comprehensive School of Languages, thus stripping these languages from their cultural and historical contexts. Isn’t this an expression of narrow Eurocentric norms and ideologies behind the systemic discrimination against aboriginals and immigrants? Is this really the way for U of T to serve as an agent of progressive social change?

The future of the institution and its responsibility to society are in dire need of critical reexamination. If it is irremediably committed to serving a destructive neo-liberal agenda, perhaps we will have to think not about how to reform it, but instead about creating novel and independent learning spaces for alternative ideologies that can freely challenge the status quo.


4 Arts and Science Academic Planning Document: ^

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