University in ruins

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When the two women co-presidents of a campus club conducting an event in the Toyota Solarium were recently confronted by a uniformed senior member of the campus police and told to take down a poster he deemed to be hate speech, they refused, so he took it down himself. This happened here, at this university, in broad daylight, and was reported in The Cord (March 21). While awaiting the University’s response to this prima facie violation of the students’ right to freedom of speech and expression, it is worth reflecting on what about WLU’s culture makes such an occurrence possible. I argue that it’s because the University is failing as a university. It’s become a commercial enterprise, not an inquiry-driven, educational one.

First, Canadian universities are terrorized by the Israel Lobby consisting of (members of) organizations, such as Israel on Campus, that promote the interests of Israel in Canada. See No Debate: The Israel Lobby and Free Speech at Canadian Universities by Jon Thompson (2011) and “‘Israel is the New Jew:’ The Canadian Israeli Lobby Today” by Reg Whitaker (Studies in Political Economy 74, Autumn 2004, 191-213). Whenever the issue of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians through ethnic cleansing, denial of the right of self-determination, war crimes, other breaches of international law including the 4th Geneva Convention, failure to comply with UN resolutions, massive and ongoing human rights violations, apartheid measures of separation and segregation, extrajudicial execution, torture, administrative detention, endless humiliating assaults on the dignity of Palestinians, decimation of the Palestinian economy, theft of their water and so on – all documented by the major human rights organizations, including Israeli ones – is raised on campus, the Lobby’s immediate response is to shut it down by whatever means possible. Spurious appeals to public safety, hate speech or an “uncomfortable environment” are underpinned by the claim, tacit or expressed, that criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Semitism. (Dialogue is often suggested instead of justice.) Such intellectual terrorism is transparent and self-evident. However, its obvious presence is not my principal point.

Secondly, what really bothers me is the University’s complicity in it. When I protested against the Israeli assault on Gaza in January 2009 the University tried to stop me, contacted the hate crimes unit of the Waterloo Regional Police and permitted a baseless complaint against me to be followed up by the (then) Harassment Office. During Israeli Apartheid Week in February 2009 then Dean of Students David McMurray decided that a poster depicting an Israeli helicopter gunship firing a missile at a Palestinian child standing on “Gaza” was to be banned on campus (beyond a single information booth). This was just after such atrocities had occurred in Gaza a month earlier, reported in the press and subsequently documented in the Goldstone Report. Regarding the co-presidents of L4P, campus police were evidently authorized to invoke and arbitrarily apply the hate speech law to several posters, including the helicopter gunship one and one likening Palestine to a Nazi concentration camp. Yet Gaza, to which Israel has laid merciless siege since 2007, has been likened repeatedly in commentary to a concentration camp or the earth’s biggest open-air prison. Read the damn accounts. Find out for yourselves. Then ask what has happened to this so-called university, with its motto, veritas omnia vincit.

Thirdly, like universities generally, WLU has become more like a corporation than a special place devoted to free, independent, critical inquiry in pursuit of truth. Numerous works have sounded the alarm from Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (1996) to James Cote and Anton Allahar, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011). Consider the special attention devoted to image and reputation, not least the branding of the place, as if it is a commodity (the slogan – “Inspiring Lives of Leadership and Purpose” – being paradoxically reminiscent of some 1984 announcement from Orwell’s Big Brother or contemporary North Korea). Fresh off the presses is the Brand Standards Guide. As Gavin Brocket noted (The Cord, Feb. 29), the University allocated “$1.4 million for centennial celebrations and another $1 million” for advertising, and has pledged $2.5 million for a velodrome in Milton. While making surpluses it budgets deficits. Students are called “customers,” courses “product offerings.” Until thwarted by WLUFA it wanted up to one quarter of full-time faculty positions to be teachers only. It would have more than the current 35% of teaching done by grotesquely exploited, precariously employed contract academic faculty. It would have more online delivery and a higher student-faculty ratio. It would have poorer pensions and benefits. It is currently courting censure for paying obeisance to Jim Balsillie’s millions by allowing the capitalist’s private think-tank (CIGI) veto power over the academic decision-making at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (Judy Bates and Kathy Cameron, Letter, Record, Mar. 24).

Fourthly, as Robert Kerr noted (The Cord, Letter, Feb. 29), this is happening because the University’s $115 million corporate bond means it is beholden to the market and the bond rating agencies that enforce the market’s dictates. It must continually cut costs since the market’s only value is maximizing return on investment, for which “stability” is a pre-requisite. Stability means not rocking the boat. But this is the opposite of the ideal of the university as a place of free, independent, critical inquiry. In the words of the University of Toronto’s statement of institutional purpose: “Within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of research … These rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.”

Thus it is that when the University’s alleged commitment to the ideal expressed in its motto is put to the test, it fails so miserably. The female co-presidents of a campus student organization are humiliated, their rights trampled; a 65-year catastrophe of dispossession and human suffering is mocked or erased; the complainants (from Hillel, the “centre for Jewish campus life in Waterloo,” in this case) have their feelings most peculiarly attended to; the administration sends in the troops; the faculty and student body look on; and another nail is driven into the coffin of the university, as the Wilfrid Laurier Knowledge Corporation comes of age.

-Peter Eglin, Professor of Sociology at WLU

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