Last Friday, in Tory Lecture 11, almost 500 people gathered for the inaugural meeting of CAPSE (Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education). CAPSE aims to bring together students, staff, and faculty not only from the University of Alberta but from postsecondary institutions across the province to respond to the Government of Alberta’s 7 March 2013 budget. The budget has declared devastating cuts of 6.8–7.2% to all of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. After speeches from representatives of various University organizations such as the Association of Academic Staff (for whom President Donna Wilson spoke) and the Students’ Union (represented by President Colten Yagamishi), the audience broke into thirteen small groups for half-an-hour brainstorming sessions. The groups included “Cross-University Outreach,” “Media Campaigns,” “Teach-Ins,” “Coalition Structuring,” and “Indigenous Alliances.” Professor Cressida Heyes (Philosophy) offers a few words here about the group dedicated to “Changing the Conversation Around the Cuts at the U of A.”
Cressida Heyes: It was a stirring sight on Friday. One of the most impressive things to my mind was the fact that “dialogue” had finally become reciprocal and deliberative. (For god’s sake, no more Town Hall Meetings where besuited administrators present powerpoints of the obvious for fifty minutes and then hangdog faculty line up for ten to raise the usual objections! No more blogs with a tiny box into which one types one’s anonymous comments, only to have them disappear into a jumble of others!)
I was part of the breakout group discussing “changing the conversation at U of A.” I can only speak for myself here, but part of the perennial frustration of working at this university is its top-down, authoritarian governance structure. This has enabled central administration for some time now to set the terms in which we’ll be allowed to discuss austerity: Go forth and discuss how to move the university on-line. Tell us how you’ll attract venture capital. Whatever kernels of positive innovation such debates contained, they have now been overshadowed (and maybe unmasked) by a swingeing and immediate cut to the bone. But instead of asking, “how can we fight back?” the deliberative task becomes, “send us your ideas for how to save $100,000.” The only thing more disheartening than this craven politics is the rush among university employees to point fingers in response: “Do it to Julia!” as one commentator rather apocalyptically described it.
In that context it was inspiring to hear the range of ideas in our group. What if, instead of “divide and conquer” among the rank and file, some of these things happened instead?
- Hundreds of faculty, staff, and students posted to Colloquy that we refuse this ersatz consultation, and instead we demand a face-to-face mass deliberative exercise in which we debate together what kind of resistance and response we can muster. (Some of us are experts at organizing such things!)
- We publish a glossary of terms, recasting the debate away from “efficiencies” and “vertical cuts,” to “neoliberalism,” and “corporatization.” We know what these words mean, but many Albertans don’t. (I imagine something like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, myself.)
- We produce a series of video shorts in which students and faculty creatively and quirkily present to the Alberta public what their degree means to them. (Already I’ve been offered video filming and editing skills, and the possibilities for showcasing the kinds of learning we do are endless.)
Along with the more conventional but equally necessary strategies such as petitions, writing outraged letters to politicians (and maybe taking your MLA for coffee and singing the praises of U of A), these ideas and the micro-process of which they were a part speak to a passionate desire for a new and better way of talking among ourselves and with Albertans about the value of a comprehensive public university.