The following article was originally published in Openwide Volume 15, Issue 1 and online here. It discusses student reactions to the University’s new Strategic Plan and the #purpleandpoor revelations. It was in Openwide’s Frosh issue for the 2014-15 academic year.
It hasn’t been all quiet on the Western front like some would hope. Over the past year, students have been voicing their dissatisfaction with what has been going on in the university. It might be hard to read in the frosh issue that the school you have just chosen is far from perfect, but as you read through this article you will see that it is the dedication we have to Western that gives us the courage to make it better.
Throughout your time in FIMS, or more broadly, higher education you will learn how to think critically. Everything you know will be challenged, some of which will make you feel uncomfortable. However – nothing is free from critique, not even the university. Is it working for us? It’s hard to believe that it isn’t given the price we pay for it. We want to believe university is a safe investment, so we’re less likely to question it. Take off those purple-coloured glasses and critically experience your university. Do not be passive consumers of your education. It might seem a bit unfair to burden you with the problems of the past – but the truth is, some of these battles are just beginning.
FIMSSC Open Letter
It was late October last year when some members of the FIMSSC (FIMS Student Council) published an open letter outlining several issues with Western’s new strategic plan, Going Global: Achieving Excellence on the World Stage. Similar to a mission statement, the strategic plan is a document that acts as a guideline for upcoming years. Western’s signature brand of “best student experience” was to be replaced with “excellence.” The plan was a response to the ongoing reduction in public funding for universities. Western’s solution was to seek alternative streams of revenue, mainly private investment from corporations. The open letter called out administrators on certain aspects of the plan while tackling the bigger picture of the commodification of education. The letter is best summarized by its final line: “’Going Global: Achieving Excellence on the World Stage’ reads like an excellent business plan, but falls short in its commitment to students.”
The letter serves as a great example of when students actively challenged the administration in a respectful, yet critical manner. Throughout your time in FIMS, you will learn that what is not said is just as important as what is. The vague language used in the plan made it seem like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) faculties, those with easily commodifiable research, would receive more funding than the arts. This would mean an increase in class sizes and fewer course offerings for other faculties such as FIMS. The open letter does not pit the humanities against the sciences but rather brings attention to the possible negative interpretations of the plan. Where the money is going is not specified. The language of the document leaves room for interpretation – good or bad.
On Friday, January 24th, 2014, words became actions as a silent protest was held outside a meeting of the university senate. The meeting gathered administrators, faculty, and student representatives to discuss and vote on the Strategic Plan. As discussions carried on, there were almost 70 students lining the back of the room holding signs of protest. For a school not known for its activism, the turnout exceeded expectations. The signs continued to echo the thoughts in the letter.
What happened next was nothing short of disappointing. The plan was passed, but the real disappointment was the lack of acknowledgement of protesters by our very own USC (University Students’ Council) president, who serves to represent undergraduate students here at Western. Even the president of Western, Amit Chakma who took the brunt of the criticism, took time to read signs before entering the meeting room. It should be noted that the silent protesters were not the only ones opposed to the plan and some members of the senate did speak in opposition to its implementation – however our USC president was not one of them.
Shortly following the silent protest, a letter critiquing the USC president was published demanding answers as to why he did not speak up for those he claimed to represent. The letter also questioned to what extent the student body was consulted during the drafting of the plan. The USC president responded with a letter of his own on Concrete Speech – a USC sanctioned website that promotes free speech.
In his letter, he explained that the Strategic Plan is a visioning document and by its very nature, allowed to be broad. He was optimistic that the room left for interpretation was a space that students could be actively engaged in. The president stated that as students we now have a responsibility to get involved in how the plan is interpreted, and “to ensure that the decisions and funding are following the best interpretation for students.” In a way, the response envisioned the best case scenario where students get involved with the plan to make sure it accurately reflects what they want out of an institution. However his response does not have to be dismissed as blind idealism.
This is where you come in. Apathy is easy, action is not. It’s as simple as educating oneself on the structures of the university and communicating with your representatives. It’s hard to stay updated on university politics in the midst of midterms, but it’s also hard to be faced with tuition increases every year. We have to put in the effort to be engaged with how this plan will unfold.
As this was all happening, it paralleled another struggle. This time it wasn’t the students but the staff that were speaking out. On March 7th, 2014 some members of the FIMS faculty crashed Western’s Founder’s Day celebrations on Twitter. They used the Founder’s Day hashtags, #since1878 and #purpleandproud, to share stories of exploitation. Their tweets revealed the low wages and lack of job security that part-time professors, teaching assistants, and sessional instructors face. Things were not adding up, tuition and enrollment was rising but salaries were stagnant? Two of the professors involved, Warren Steele and Eric Lohman, penned an article for Openwide last year (Purple and Poor: The Real Western Experience) that eloquently exposed the unethical behaviour that Western engages in. Reading it will give you a taste of what isn’t featured on our university pamphlets.
For too long have people been trying to win battles behind administrative doors – it isn’t working. Some might argue that Twitter wasn’t the most professional medium, but it garnered widespread attention for the issue, even among mainstream media outlets. Among the red tape, there are always pockets of opportunity. This defiance was strategic and happened to fall around the same time as contract negotiations dealing with the compensation of university members. Some members of the FIMS General Assembly wrote a letter of solidarity in support of UWOFA (University of Western Ontario Faculty Association)’s proposed contract goals for part-time members. The letter aimed to add leverage to those negotiating for fair compensation, and served as another example of something small students can do to impact what goes on.
This is not a recount of rebellion, this is a challenge. A challenge to every student out there to get involved instead of remaining passive consumers of education. To highlight the importance of critique and accountability. Reflect critically on the university throughout your time here and hold your student representatives accountable. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that four years is not enough time to make a difference. If anything, you should be embracing the relentless idealism of your youth and going for it – after all you only have a limited time here.
Your university experience is what you make of it. Be courageous. Contrary to popular belief, the administration cares what you think. Too many failed student feedback attempts have given the administration the impression that students don’t care. Prove them wrong. And when you do speak up and ruin the atmosphere of apathy they were so comfortable in, don’t let them silence you. There are some of us who wish we would have stirred the pot sooner.