Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Lowry: Dissent is not destructive in no-confidence vote

Posted on April 30, 2012 in Perspectives
By Jacob Lowry

Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press

By now, you’re likely all too familiar with the controversy surrounding President Selma Botman and the faculty vote of no confidence. The controversy reached its less than thrilling conclusion Wednesday night, with 68 percent of the faculty who participated voting no confidence, but disagreements over how to interpret the results casts an uncertain shadow on its implications.

In the past month, there have been at least a dozen articles on the debacle in The Free Press alone. Although many different viewpoints have been expressed, one perspective shone through the rest, hitting me square in the cerebral cortex like a gamma ray of mind-numbingly bland managerial jargon.

Whose meaningless, “where’s-your-school-spirit,” rhetoric nearly caused involuntarily drooling as if I had just forcibly undergone a 48-hour Barney and Friends marathon, fastened to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange? 

Why, it was none other than the person who is able to claim he represents me: Student Body President Chris Camire.

If you think that the metaphoric imagery expressed above is over the top, you’re right. You’ve just read an exercise in grotesque hyperbole, a tactic that Chris Camire knows well. Upon addressing the faculty senate meeting last month, Camire likened the collective power of hardworking faculty to an armed insurrection. He actually referred to the vote as a “coup d’état,” while referencing the petition as an attempt to “behead” the school.  How reactionary, how reductive, how positively inane is that?

Reported by The Free Press in an article published April 6, Camire chastised professors, some of whom have been teaching at USM since he was in diapers. “I think you all should consider how much you’re tearing this university apart,” he said. “For those of you who signed this petition, please, please for the sake of our university, do something positive, not destructive.”

I take issue with this sort of mentality for a few different reasons, but I want to highlight what I see as the most damaging implication of all: Through his comments, the student body president is openly asserting that challenging authority is destructive and jeopardizes community.

Camire insists that the faculty’s actions have lost them the respect of the students and conflates the concern for the university’s future with a lack of community cohesion. It’s clear to me that his assertion by no means represents a consensus of the student body. In fact, I find that the students who have been following these events take the opposite stance. Numerous students expressed support for faculty and criticized administrative decisions at an Occupy USM rally last month. The conversation included a passionate exchange regarding Camire’s stance, which seems to have offended and alienated several active students.

Now, Camire is certainly entitled to his opinion, just like the rest of us. Although I resent the fact that he sided with the administration under the facade of popular student support by making blanket statements about “the students” diminishing respect for faculty. I’ll let it go (or try to).

What I will say is that Camire, whether he likes it or not, is wrong about what constitutes meaningful community. Sometimes it takes a crisis to transform the people you pass on the way to class into friends, partners, comrades. I believe this idea will prove to be one of the most important lessons for our generation.

For the past 12 weeks, college students in Montreal, Quebec have been on strike due to the neo-liberal policies of Premier Jean Charest that will raise post-secondary tuition rates by 75 percent over the next five years. (Notably, tuition rates with the proposed increase would still be less than American students pay.)

Although mainstream media in this country have little to no interest in the story, it’s hard to hide the hundreds of thousands of students just a few hours north who have been in the streets, disrupting business as usual nearly every day since late February. They have faced regular police repression in the form of teargas, batons and the shrapnel-spewing percussion bombs.

On April 25, negotiations broke down after a two-day truce when the government refused to meet with the more militant (yet peaceful) student union, CLASSE, which represents one of three major student groups in Montreal. That night, CLASSE called a rare nighttime demonstration that some 15,000 people showed up for.

In a poignant article I found through the Toronto Media Co-op, Toronto-based blogger Megan Kinch emphasizes an alternative vision of what it means to be a community. Kinch underscores the way in which dissent can force people from different backgrounds to find commonalities and to stand up for the greater good. It is my firm belief that the community discovered in social movements stands opposed to Camire’s implied suggestion that stepping outside one’s role to criticize  business as usual is barbaric guerrilla warfare and anti-community.

Kinch’s first-hand description of the nighttime Montreal demonstration conveys the authentic togetherness of the convergence when she describes how many different sorts of people joined the students, despite the threat of police repression — students, teachers, the very old, the very young and large segments of the workforce all marched “in solidarity with each other, in the dark.”

In Montreal, a meaningful, powerful community is being formed daily through political speech and political action. This version of community stands opposed to the vapid passivity of Camire’s managerial community, in which open dialog about real problems is squelched in favor of hollow appeals to not rock the proverbial boat, to keep it to oneself.

Furthermore, these viral student protests are all part of the same jigsaw puzzle of global capital that brought about the vote of no confidence in President Botman. The faculty’s loss of confidence in the administration is symptomatic of larger questions: What is the role of higher education in the 21st century and who is going to decide? Although this ideological battle has been going on for decades, the economic downturn has brought it to the forefront as college becomes a pipe dream for some, a pipeline for others and an all around dummed down version of its former self.

To a large extent, American public universities have already made the leap into privatization and inaccessibility that Quebec students are rejecting. Obviously President Botman’s administration cannot not bear the blame for this, but the corporatized “student-centered” policies of her administration is inextricable from the the tentacles of capitalism reaching ever deeper into the hallowed halls of learning. As government austerity and bank friendly policies block working class students from a future free from bottomless debt, college administrators are scrambling to listen to the market, which is more problematic than it sounds.

The Botman administration has embraced the market and its callous cost-benefit analysis.  Traditional universities are moving dangerously close to trendy, online schools like Kaplan University. Ironically, Botman’s analysts have talked up the need to listen to “student demand” by transforming our school to attract theoretical students, theoretically attending elsewhere. While catering to these hypothetical models, students who actually attend are being ignored. You cannot seriously claim to have a student-centered approach to learning while simultaneously closing campus childcare and slowly whittling humanities departments down to impersonal virtual classrooms.

The faculty is aware of the transformation that is taking place at USM (decreasing state support, corporatized education, administrative opulence, inevitable tuition hikes) even if some of us are not. I encourage students to talk to professors, find out what they think and see what happens. These sorts of honest conversations facilitate real, meaningful community — a community of struggle. You don’t even have to risk getting tear gassed (for now anyway).

Aside from Chris Camire, I have not heard from one student who views the collective voice of their professors as destructive, as something to be ashamed of. While people have disagreed with the petition, Camire’s position was little more than condescending pro-quo garbage.

The week after Camire’s piece appeared in The Free Press, Student Body President Elect TJ Williams wrote an article that also defended Botman, but in a much less vitriolic way. Although I disagree with his assessment, I respect him for actually giving a substantive opinion. Williams is also compiling student responses regarding the no confidence vote, which I commend him for doing.

I, for one, stand with the petitioning faculty. I believe we share a democratized vision of education in which the University promotes intellectual exploration by making teachers and academic programs its top priority. Their “destructive” actions have done more to promote an interconnected community at USM than anything I’ve seen the Botman administration or student government do in my time on campus.

I implore Chris Camire to reflect on the notion of community served to us by the upper echelons of society. It replaces collective interaction with the internalization of corporate jargon meant to inspire an illusory feeling of teamwork. “Working through tough times” shouldn’t mean accepting our pay cuts or tuition hikes with a smile, then promptly sitting down and shutting up, always trusting that the managerial class really has our best interests at heart.

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