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No perks for protestors
Students have the right to take to the barricades to protest against the forces of globalization if they so choose, but they can't expect the University to make it any easier for them to do it.
During last week's session of Senate, the most hotly debated issue concerned a motion put forward by graduate student representative Robert Sim. In its final form, Sim's motion called on Senate to request that the principal permit exam accommodations for students choosing to troop off to Quebec City in two months to take part in demonstrations at the Summit of the Americas. The summit will take place during the exam period for most students.
"We're not asking for an endorsement," Sim explained. "This wouldn't be a get-out-of-jail-free card." Students would still have to write their exams, Sim said, and the University would only be accommodating their right to behave "as concerned and active citizens."
He added that there was a precedent -- when students took part in a day of protests against funding cuts to universities, McGill made allowances for them.
Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier said she respected the rights of students to take political action and to protest, but argued against the request. Administratively, it would be a headache to apply -- how would students prove that they skipped their tests in order to protest, she wondered.
"This could undermine the integrity of our exam process," Jukier stated, adding that students are generally only given leeway for missing exam dates "for circumstances that are clearly beyond their control" -- illness or death in the family, for instance.
Jalaluddin Hussain, a representative of continuing education students, noted that Concordia University rector Frederick Lowy granted student protesters academic allowances to permit them to go to the Quebec City summit. "If Concordia can do it, we can do it."
"If we take such an extraordinary measure, we do sanction the protesters' cause," said Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger. "This is a grey issue on which reasonable people can disagree." While McGill did allow students time off from classes to take part in protests against funding cuts to universities, that cause was directly related to higher education and to McGill's well-being, Bélanger insisted.
"Quebec City isn't really all that far away. It's a three-hour bus trip," he added. If a student had an exam on one day during the summit, he would still be able to attend events in Quebec City for the other days.
Student senator Joe Marin argued that the timing of the summit to coincide with the final exams period at many universities was not coincidental. "This is a technique to muzzle the opposition," he said.
Associate Dean of Science Morton Mendelson noted that two days of the summit will occur on the weekend, when no exams are scheduled.
He worried that some students might abuse the privilege the Sim motion would offer them. Facing a tough exam they weren't prepared for, some students might just decide that protesting against globalization is a smart way to get an extension.
Political science professor Sam Noumoff spoke in favour of the Sim motion. To those who worried that passing the motion would set a troubling precedent, Noumoff responded, "A slippery slope only exists if we put soap on it. We can break it any time we want."
He said that the summit, a gathering of leaders and trade representatives from across the two American continents, represented a once in a lifetime opportunity for student protesters. "This isn't the sort of thing that happens every year."
Noumoff noted that Concordia's Lowy sanctioned student involvement in the protests not for their aims, necessarily, but "as part of a unique educational opportunity."
He added that missing even a day of the protests might prevent students from attending a valuable seminar or event.
Dean of Science Alan Shaver said he "had seen all this before, 25 years ago," but he was one of the protesters back then.
"What is a protest? To have any value, any meaning, you have to put something on the line." He encouraged students to fight for what they believed in, but added, "You can only earn respect for this" if students are willing to risk something as a consequence.
"For years and years many of us have been lamenting about the lack of social conscience" among students, noted education professor Anthony Paré. He said that protesters would pay a price by having to deal with a more complicated exam schedule "and the University itself can help pay that price," a notion that economics professor Myron Frankman agreed with.
Vice-Principal (Information Systems and Technology) Anthony Masi chided the protesters as someone who remembered manning the barricades himself. "Take the consequences. Grow up. Take your lives into your own hands. If you feel strongly, follow it through. If there are consequences, live with them."
Microbiology and therapeutics professor Michael DuBow recalled once flipping through his thick FBI file, a product of his student activism. He said he was uncomfortable about complicating the exams process, but agreed that the summit was unique. "This is a biggie. There will be tons of news media, lots of prime ministers and presidents." Given the stakes involved, he proclaimed his support for the motion.
Student senator Faiz Ahmad indicated that the motion had the backing of many student groups, including the Students' Society of McGill University and the Post-Graduate Students' Society.
The vote was called and, in an unusually tight vote, the motion was defeated.
Senate did support Senator Sim on another topic. It was decided previously that the rules guiding the awarding of honorary degrees were in need of modifications; it was deemed to be too easy to quash an honorary degree since only a handful of senators were needed to vote against it. What was proposed instead was that at least one-third of senators would have to oppose a candidate to scuttle the honorary degree.
Sim suggested that the onus should be placed on those supporting the degree, the rule should state that two-thirds of senate members present and able to vote must support a proposed honorary degree recipient for it to pass.
"We shouldn't confer honorary degrees lightly. They should be strong nominations."
Frankman decried the lack of information surrounding many proposed candidates. "Many of us don't have a proper opportunity to evaluate which way to vote."
Hussain said he was worried that many honorary degrees "seemed to be for obliging people who give McGill money."
Student senator Fred Sagel asked about the University's recent decision to stop offering guaranteed student housing to new students from outside Montreal. Only about 80 per cent will be accommodated from now on. "What about the other 20 per cent? Isn't this a disincentive for out-of-province students?"
Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky conceded that some students might not come to McGill as a result, but argued that the University couldn't make a promise it didn't have the housing resources to keep. "It's essential that we're honest."
He said that the staffing for McGill's off-campus housing service, which provides listings and advice to students, will be beefed up considerably to deal with increased demand from students. He also said that McGill was planning to create more residence spaces for students in the future.
Faiz Ahmad asked Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet about employment equity. Noting that McGill's efforts in this regard were sidetracked by a hiring freeze for several years, Ahmad wondered if employment equity would become a going concern now that McGill was hiring again.
Vinet responded that employment equity remained a priority and that it would be the subject of a Senate/Board of Governers workgroup being established. But the University was shying away from numerical goals. "Given the large labour pool we draw from, it's difficult to assess what candidates are available." McGill's primary goal "is to hire the best candidate available."
In response to a request from Noumoff to find out how well McGill stacks up to other universities on this front, Vinet promised to compare McGill's hiring patterns "to the situations at sister universities across Canada."
Finally, Associate Vice-Principal (Teaching Programs) Martha Crago introduced a three-year trial project involving a reformatted course questionnaire for graduate students.
The new questionnaire involves questions about how well students believe they are being served. But the questions won't be used to grade the performances of individual professors. Rather, they will be used to judge how well entire departments are performing.
If clear problems emerge in certain areas in certain units, Crago suggested that better practice workshops could be organized to improve the situation.
While some senators believed the questions were too subjective -- "I'm not sure what I would make of the answers," said Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard -- Crago said the questions weren't out of step with older questionnaires widely used in the U.S. and designed by education experts.