At the beginning of last term, I wrote that this year would—hopefully—be free of the sort of acrimonious student politics that characterized 2011-2012 at McGill. Recent events have put the lie to that hope. While much of the attention on campus is currently centred around The Daily’s fee referendum, a more important set of controversies goes directly to what sort of education we will have as this university moves forward.
In December, the Parti Québécois (PQ) government suddenly announced a retroactive $124 million budget cut to provincial universities. The province-wide cut will take about $19 million out of McGill’s annual budget, and is reportedly just the first of several more cuts. The announcement of these cuts prompted vague, generalized outrage from the student body, with some of those more receptive to the proposed tuition increases—which the governing PQ rolled back—launching into full ‘told-you-so’ mode. What was most interesting to watch was the reaction of the one group that can be counted on to have a strong opinion about any issue inside the Roddick Gates, regardless of importance: the so-called “campus radicals.”
To their credit, they were similarly outraged by the cuts, but oddly enough, they targeted this outrage not at the PQ government, but at the James Administrative building, staging a largely satirical protest asking Heather Munroe-Blum and the rest of the McGill administration to go on a general strike to protest the cuts. The protest, which as usual involved an attempt to enter the Board of Governors meeting underway at the time, can only be described as profoundly non-constructive. Participants quoted in media accounts admitted that the real purpose was to make some sort of high-concept ironic observation on structures of pedagogical authority—or something like that.
Even looking past the satirical conceit, the campus Left had no new ideas to offer in response to this highly unexpected cut. The usual slogans abounded; re-evaluating priorities, something about how caring about the university’s global reputation is bad, and some other oblique thing about cutting the salaries of a certain administrative bogeyman—or in this case, woman. Formal student and campus organizations thankfully responded with more coherent expressions of dismay.
Just as students returning from winter break were coming to terms with this budget ‘adjustment’—if they had spent even a moment during break thinking about anything related to the university aside from exams and marks—the administration announced another set of cuts: this time to 100 courses, all small selections in the Faculty of Arts. Here the outrage was similarly swift, sharp, and seemingly justified. The Dean of Arts claims that these cuts are completely unrelated to the reduction in the annual budget from the province, which is likely true only because the alternative involves the administration telling a lie that would make it look far worse, from a PR perspective, than the truth.
These cuts, which would reduce the number of upper-level courses available to students, are undeniably troubling. Again, they provoked a predictably nonconstructive response from the campus left. Arts Senator Jimmy Gutman, for example, alleged that these cuts were to “punish” course lecturers for forming a union. This accusation was not actually substantiated by anything, but was accompanied by the claim that the cuts were a step down the road to the elimination of any personalized education at the university.
As we move forward, we’ll see whether or not there is anything that can be done to avert the negative effects of either set of cuts. The arts cuts, if truly unrelated to the provincial budget reduction, are a stunning example of administrative incompetence from both a quality of education and public relations perspective. The provincial budget cut, however, speaks to many things; the shortsightedness of most of the tuition protesters, the duplicity of the PQ, and a broken clock moment for those in the student movement who shrank back from the support of Marois and decided to continue fantasizing about the total smashing of the state. Their rigid ideological consistency, for once, resulted in nothing more substantial than the very smug, very satisfying ability to say, “told you so.” Unfortunately, it seems that this is the most substantive thing anyone has contributed to this debate.