Let us open with two different conceptions of what the University of Toronto is. In the first, the interests of students, staff, faculty and others on campus are intertwined. We meet at this site to share and learn, to arrive at something better for ourselves and collectively, and perhaps more importantly – to facilitate this process. In this scenario, the interests of students may not immediately align with those of faculty or staff. But together, we decide what and how to negotiate. We are the University. To not listen to or account for any group on campus is to act against the best interests of the university.
In the second conception of what this university is, students elected onto the Governing Council are told to prioritize the long-term well-being of the institution above broadly articulated needs of students. We submit to an institution that manages the conflicting interests of students, staff, and faculty. We think that students can gain when others lose – and because of this, we are suspicious of demands for better working conditions, and resigned to program cuts. But somehow, our fees continue to climb amidst the underfunding of programs and increasing casualization of labour on campus. The familiarity of this scenario should indicate what kind of university we currently find ourselves inhabiting.
When students, faculty, and staff – and groups within which – detach our interests from each others’, we disempower ourselves and legitimize the presence of managing bodies. These bodies, existing as various administrative groups and the Governing Council, are vested with power in order to further our collective interests. But even recent events are enough to show that governing structures on campus undermine the needs of a majority. Many groups and individuals came together to oppose, most prominently, flat fees, the FAS proposed Academic Plan, the G20 campus closure, restrictions to space booking policies on campus, and contracts with corporate sponsors that threaten academic freedom. Unfortunately, though we come in numbers, our voices and bodies are usually blocked from the loci of decision-making.
The misbehaviour of our governing bodies are no accident. The Governing Council, for instance, is structurally predisposed to ignore student, staff, and faculty interests. Of the fifty GC seats, only eight are reserved for students; the majority are reserved for University and corporate appointees. The minority of students and faculty on GC can not sway a group of CEOs to consider the needs of a majority that we actually represent. The composition of GC hints at an answer to the question of if not us, who does governance at the university benefit?
Substantive change cannot come from cajoling the GC – trust me, we have tried. It is time that we stop investing our power in GC, and take governance into our own hands. It is time that we break from inhabiting a familiar conception of the university that does not benefit any of us. Rather than hoping that these governing bodies will finally make one decision in our favour, we need to reconceptualize our relationship to each other, and reclaim our ability to make decisions for ourselves.
The crisis in education is not limited to UofT, and – of course – cannot be separated from broader political trends in our province, country, and world that increasingly deny access to services and the chance at a good life from a majority of the people on our planet. The good news is – we are not alone in our revolutionary project. Students in the US, UK, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, and Quebec, have recently mobilized in unprecedented numbers to protest symptoms of the increasing privatization of, and the incumbent decreasing access to, education.
We have not yet seen such large-scale collective action in our province or at our university, which prompts us to ask why, given the magnitude of poor decision making at UofT. The most satisfactory answer that we have arrived at pins the blame on a default political register of disengagement and disconnection here – and by here, we mean particularly at UofT. It is more than a cliché to say that you feel like a number on this campus. That you somehow find it, or found it at one time, difficult to speak to your professors, TAs, or the people who you find yourself sitting beside in class. That you’re somehow very different, and have nothing in common with, from the people that you’re surrounded by. This sense of disconnect is precisely what both legitimizes our governing bodies and is their biggest accomplishment. We are disconnected from each other, so we trust a third party to mediate between us. This third party facilitates disconnection so that it would have a reason to exist.
Some have suggested that commonalities in ethnicity and a more coherent class identity contribute to why mobilizations in Europe, as well as at the City University of New York and the University of California, have been so much more powerful than seen elsewhere in North America. Whether true or not, we think that connecting to each other is both a part and the goal of governance reform at this university. To this end, a group of concerned students, staff and faculty have called for the first UofT General Assembly to happen on Wednesday January 19th, from 5-8 pm in the Multifaith Centre. This is a project that is both more mundane and radical than most others.
Make no mistake. The organizers do not just want to talk or group hug. We want action. We want to build and articulate commonalities across issues and populations. We want to generate strategies and campaigns to combat looming threats to our education and our space, and for as many people as possible to shape these. We also want something that may be less concretely measurable, which is an entirely different university, where the power to govern is in all of our hands.