Part 2. OPEN FORUM of 30 January 2014 (6:30 – 8:15 pm) [see the separate post for the Open SESSION earlier that day]
Attendance by members of the Carleton University Board of Governors at the Open Forum was extremely limited: three community members, two faculty members, one staff member, one graduate student member, and the university president.
But nonetheless this was a great event, one that should be held twice per year: once per year during the evening (as we just did) and once per year during the regular workday (maybe at 2 pm, before a regular Board meeting) so that different constituency can attend and present. There is apparently no need for a quorum of Board members, so scheduling can be flexible.
We heard seven bona fide presentations plus three infomercials. However, all ten presentations were done professionally and passionately.
First I will discuss the three infomercials, which should never have occurred at this Open Forum. These three individuals described Carleton University’s (1) Community Service Learning program, (2) Co-op and Career Service, and (3) the Learning Log. All three of these programs are under the auspices of the associate vice-president of students and enrolment. The first two of these were presented by passionate students working in their respective offices. The co-op student, who is in his third-year as an undergraduate in engineering, told the Board of Governors how helpful he and is colleagues can be at helping us compose our résumés and cover letters. Most people on the Board are sufficiently successful in their careers that they really don’t need that help. The third presenter freely announced that she is a paid employee of Carleton University’s associate vice president for students and enrolment. None of these three infomercial presenters asked the Board to consider anything or to take any actions. Given that the associate vice president for students and enrolment can have her staff present such dog-and-pony-shows at regular board meetings, this seemed to be a waste of time at an Open Forum, although this should not be construed as an indictment of the presenters, who each did a fine job.
Those attending the Open Forum did, however, hear important information about another infomercial, namely the Confucius Institute at Carleton University. This presenter was almost choked up as she spoke of well-known problems with the Confucius Institute, such as Jim Turk’s words accompanying the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censure. Carleton management probably should have expected this critique after debacles with Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and Preston Manning’s polarizing and highly partisan influence over the Clayton Riddell graduate program in political management at Carleton. We also heard that the Confucius Institute teaches fourth-year classes exclusively in English in our School of Linguistics and Language Studies (SLALS), courses that cover Chinese culture and business, but ironically not language or linguistics.
But I wish to raise a different concern about the Confucius Institute classes at Carleton University. We heard that these for-credit classes about Chinese business and culture are run by volunteers. Doesn’t this contravene collective agreements, not paying people for their work teaching, even if that work is to disseminate propaganda? Isn’t lack of pay a human rights violation?
Tripping over a capstone
On a very different, but still frightening note, we heard about a capstone experience in mechanical and aerospace engineering from one of its fourth-year students. This annual project is to build a racing car, which is a ‘sport’ for only the wealthiest people, where participants and even spectators occasionally meet fiery deaths. The annual budget for this capstone project is $45,000-$50,000. For that amount, the fourth-year engineering students could instead do something socially responsible. Not being an engineer, I do not have great specific alternatives, but some might include building better pumps for drinking water or 3-D printers for educational centers. Building racing cars seems to be the antithesis of the university’s goals of promoting health, sustainability, and the environment. Auto racing also has a sexist stigma.
We heard a convoluted but interesting plea from a graduate student, who was representing himself, trying to get better dissemination of information to graduate students. I may have some details wrong, but the scenario that he described seemed to be as follows. All graduate students at Carleton are forced to pay dues to the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and to have Supplementary Health Coverage (SHC). A delay arose with the GSA’s insurance broker processing information regarding SHC plan members’ dependents, and GSA had no way of informing all its members of this problem [NB: I modified this sentence on 5 February 2014 based on updated details about the nature of the GSA problem with supplemental health coverage]. Therefore, this student was asking for ways to fix this information gap. This seems like a fixable problem, one that seemed very appropriate to be aired in this Open Forum.
Carleton University’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) presented information on many events and activities that they host, but said virtually nothing about what they want the Board to do, albeit with two important exceptions. First, they asked for GSA to be given e-mail addresses for all graduate students. This would obviate the problems enumerated in the previous paragraph, but would probably violate the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act (FIPPA). GSA also emphasized how students who are all-but-dissertation (ABD) should be entitled to reduced tuition. Carleton’s Graduate Association of Social Work made the same point, but more emphatically, saying that they should also be entitled to reduced tuition during their community placement. Variants on these arguments go back to before I was a graduate student, with the quintessential solution being graduate student tuition waivers. Reducing graduate tuition is a big problem, one that may require creative solutions and something that is certainly worthy of discussion by the full Board of Governors at a regular session.
But here I want to discuss how the above complaints about graduate student tuition seem to be at loggerheads with Carleton University’s plans for the next residence building. Carleton is hoping to build a fancier residence, aimed at upper-year and graduate students, with “apartment-style” units. The problem is that these units will have 12-month leases. The hope is that graduate students will build a year-round sense of community in this new residence. This is utterly misguided insofar as most graduate students flee Carleton in summer because of our regressive summer tuition policies. Graduate students are currently required to pay the same tuition in summer as they do in fall and winter. However, our graduate students on teaching assistantships only get paid during fall and winter terms. They therefore are in abject poverty during summers, so usually justifiably flee to work forty hours or more per week elsewhere (off-campus) each summer. Students with wealthy parents might be willing to pay for 12-month residence leases, but that just adds inequities to our system. I feel that Carleton needs to keep residence leases at 8-months or eliminate summer tuition for graduate students, possibly by waiving all graduate student tuition. Length of residence leases is completely in control of the university; tuition is largely a provincial matter.
What should a university be and how should it be governed?
Campus United, an umbrella group representing all unions on campus, described their mission and activities. Their representative at the forum did an extraordinary job at being inclusive – in fact, better than I have ever heard – representing all of their constituencies. But two things were even more striking in this presentation: emphasis on Carleton University being a public university and on shared governance.
Too often we forget that our university is a public good meant to help the community. That was the reason for Carleton’s founding in 1942 and still continues to be our mission. As the last speaker of the evening (an MA student) also emphasized, Carleton University is NOT a for-profit business, but we often act as one. Board meetings are dominated by discussion of finance, new buildings (unfortunately, not maintenance of existing buildings), fund raising, and public relations. While all these are important, we seem to forget that what matters most is education. [Many thanks to another board member for pointing this out]. Maybe I am being utopian, but public higher education should be a right, not a privilege. Therefore Carleton University’s business model should be as a public good (much as Maude Barlow argues that clean water should be a universal right) or as a social business (as Muhammad Yunus advocates for with many institutions).
When the representative from Campus United spoke about shared governance, she seemed to be referring to students, unions, and management. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires at the other meetings across campus, where shared governance refers to the Board of Governors and University Senate. As this evening’s Open Forum nicely highlighted, even the three infomercials, there is much more to Carleton University than the Board of Governors and University Senate (and university president’s office). We are a community and really should be judged by the least fortunate and least privileged members of our community.
Thank you very much to everybody who took the time to present and listen at this Open Forum, which was very thought-provoking. You provided many ideas worthy of discussion at regular Board meetings. I am proud to be part of a university that encourages such open dialogue. If I have misstated any factual matters, please contact me so that I can correct those details in this blog. And, as always, I truly welcome any of your feedback.
Please continue reading for information on the open session of the Board that occurred earlier the same evening.