There was a time when University represented a venue for the exchange of ideas, regardless of how contentious they were. Students were encouraged to challenge the faculty and administration, and debate flourished. However, with the proliferation and commodification of higher education, these ideals seem to be lacking. Looking at the University of Alberta as a litmus test of sorts, the state of student debate and involvement is troubling. The ignorance and arrogance shown by the administration in the application of new rules pertaining to Lister Hall is only the most recent, and perhaps most publicized instance.
Before school ended for the summer, events surrounding the Occupy protests on campus, as well as the awarding of an honorary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, suggested that there was an increasing will of the administration to suppress controversy on campus. Regardless of the resonance of these movements, do they not deserve the right to engage with students? If this trend continues, or worsens, it could lead to the complete irrelevance of the student voice at the University of Alberta.
Even more concerning is the manner in which the University has quelled debate on campus. When the Occupy protesters moved on campus, the University invoked trespassing laws to prevent the movement of non-students through campus. While legal, this set a certain precedent, and in the author’s opinion, had a chilling effect on discourse over the issue. At the time, many of the students I spoke with supported the Administration’s actions, saying that they disagreed with Occupy, and therefore did not want to be bothered with their chanting. Admittedly, I shared this view; however, further reflection on the issue has changed my mind. As annoying their antics may have been, it is unclear to me when, or how, the University gained the power to selectively disallow debate.
This selective engagement became apparent when the University went ahead with substantial changes to Lister Hall, without any formal consultation with the Students’ Union. Adding insult to injury, this lack of consultation is not only ignorant, but runs directly contradictory to a memorandum of understanding signed between the LHSA and the administration.
Clearly, changes need to be made to the manner in which the University deals with dissent. Political engagement among students is shifting, as more and more students are becoming involved with niche issues and operating outside traditionally understood boundaries of political action. If the University really wants us to “unleash our inner radical,” as encouraged in a March 2012 speech, officials cannot limit the way in which students choose to project their radical. Within reason, dissent must be encouraged, accepted and heard.