Posts tagged "education"

Democracy and education: they go together, except when the government doesn’t like it?

(originally posted at – see here)

The recent controversy over the Vancouver School Board’s budget situation has been a bit of an interesting story to follow.  Much like every other school board in the province, the VSB has been wrangling with a considerable problem: the costs of providing a high-quality public education continuously increase, while the funding that comes from the provincial government doesn’t keep pace.

This isn’t a problem that only the elementary, middle, and high schools face; indeed, every public educational institution in this province, from the Vancouver School Board to Simon Fraser University must somehow find a way to balance their budgets in the face of increasing costs and stagnant levels of funding.  I’m certainly not an accountant, but the financial problem that all school boards — and our colleges and universities — face is a substantial one.  When costs increase and funding doesn’t match, then cuts to education need to be made because the provincial government has legally required all school boards, colleges, and universities to submit balanced budgets.   To repeat: all school boards, colleges, universities, and public educational institutions are required, by law, to submit balanced budgets.  This is a feat that even the provincial government itself couldn’t accomplish, instead, they amended their balanced budget law giving themselves a pass.

But the legally required balanced budgets aren’t the crux of this issue.  The true centre of the controversy was the fact that the Vancouver School Board stood up and spoke out about their financial issues.  They publicly called upon the provincial government to fairly fund education.  They postponed approving their budget because the legally required balanced budget would have meant substantial cuts to education and school closures.  They acted as advocates for education.

It seems that this was something that the province didn’t want the VSB to do.  The minister of education commissioned the comptroller general to investigate the school board’s management practices and report back with recommendations on how the budget could be balanced.  The submitted report essentially branded the VSB trustees as incompetent; apparently, they spent too much time discussing the impacts of underfunding on the school district, they spent too much time discussing how they could best advocate for education, and they didn’t spent nearly enough time just dealing with it and cutting education.  Of course, the issue of provincial funding was out-of-bounds for the comptroller general’s report.

It’s interesting to note what wasn’t out-of-bounds, though: the entire principle of elected school boards.  The report from the comptroller general noted that elected school trustees, for some entirely incomprehensible reason, felt that their job was to advocate for education.  And because education actually needs a lot of advocacy under the BC Liberals, the trustees had been engaging in advocacy.  So, the comptroller general suggested that the government should re-consider the ‘co-governance’ model of education.  Reconsider having elected school boards.

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“Do not simply, passively, only just think of the world. Change it too.”


Many people have asked me to share the text of my remarks to convocation today. You’ll find them below.

But first – I really, truly, and strongly believe that all of our experiences from our adventures at university have been influenced by the people that we’ve been lucky to go through them with. All of you — from my closest friends to those of us who really just wave ‘hi’ in the hallway — have been a part of my experiences at SFU, and you all have contributed in some way.

When I started writing these remarks, I wanted to think of some way that we could all be a part of the event. In the end, much of what I wrote and said has a connection to many of you – my friends – because I have been influenced by you, because you are all amazing people, and because we’ve managed to somehow spend some part of the past five years together. There are a number of references in the speech that I meant to be associated with specific people.

So many of you are not letting the world ‘just be’. You are not passively ‘thinking of the world.’ You are all, truly amazing.

Thank you for sharing yourselves with me during our adventures so far, and I’m looking forward to the ones to come.

with love and solidarity and all the best wishes,



Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor, faculty, staff, guests, and friends and family,

Thank you all for coming together, here at this [rarely sunny / often dreary] concrete campus, to celebrate the graduation of this class of Simon Fraser students.

While it is next to impossible to speak for such a diverse body of students, I would like, on their behalf, to offer a very sincere and very heartfelt thank you to the staff of the university who make sure it works, to the faculty who help us learn, and to our friends and family who have supported us in many ways. And, of course, my most heartfelt congratulations to all of us who are graduating today.

Today is a day of celebration. We are graduating with BAs, MAs, or PhDs, in subjects that vary from Anthropology to Women’s Studies. Our graduation marks our successful completion of programs of study in what many term to be an institution of enlightenment – the university. Our experiences here, despite the all too common fog, rain, stairs, and concrete, have brought light into our lives. That the university is an institution of enlightenment is uncontroversial.

But today is also a day of reflection. And on reflection, I want to suggest something that is perhaps a bit controversial. The parchment that each of us is receiving today may not be worth anything at all.

To understand this, we need look no further than the university’s corporate slogan, emblazoned on every business card, letterhead, and program in this space.

What does it say? “Thinking of the world.” This is what we proclaim we do here. It is a slogan that seems worthy of greeting cards. It is not enough.

When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we understand exploitation, but we may not do anything to change the fact that there are more slaves today than at any time in human history.

When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we think of the value of the university as a place where conventional knowledge can be challenged, but we might tolerate actions that chill debate and dissent in the academy, turning it into a place that reinforces the dominant ways that harm so many.

When we are just thinking of the world, we may say we see the value of a public education, but we may not challenge the creeping corporatization that sees publicly funded research as something to be privately sold for private profit, that sees the workers at the university as costs to be managed and minimized, and students as products to be produced as quickly and plentifully as possible.

To twist a philosopher’s words, we have hitherto merely thought of the world. The point, however, is to change it.

Paulo Freire has said that “true reflection leads to action.” We must do the same. We, as SFU graduates, have thought a lot about the world. We must now start to change it.

It seems absurd to stand here and extol the virtues of education and of the university; this supposed institution of enlightenment. The light that is education and the university, as a way to see past the way things are now to see how things ought to beis powerful and empowering. It is passion and compassion. It is so much more. With it, we can transcend thinking of the world and go from here and change it. But a terrifying darkness is encroaching.

A good friend of mine stood in this place and told a different graduating class the story of how his family witnessed the destruction of the Old City Library in Sarajevo, as they were forced to leave. He told his graduating class that his family wept, because as they watched the library burn, they knew that their and other lives were about to slip into a blinding darkness without freedom, beauty, justice, or the prospect of things to come. This is the darkness.

War is with us. For now. Oppression is with us. For now. Exploitation is with us. For now. The creeping corporatization of the university is with us. For now. Surely we have thought so much about the world that this is obvious. The darkness is encroaching. For now.

This does not have to be the case. We have been thinking of the world, now it is time to change it.

It seems both impossible and terrifying to challenge you to change the world. How can we do this? How can we change the world? Live this question, live the change. Ignore the supposed impossibility of changing the world and do it – and then, after we have done it, we can check back to see if it was so impossible.

Some of us are already doing this. Students from SFU are building schools in Ghana and around the world. They are working for non-profit organisations in Canada, working to erase poverty, bring education and equality to disadvantaged populations, to save the environment from destruction. Some of us are researching cures to diseases, on more just ways of organizing society, and some are fighting for public education. Whether it be fundraising or researching or standing up for what they believe in, they are working to change the world.

We have a variety of skills that we have learned in our various classes. We can change the world. Some of us are already actively working at this. The rest of us can start today. To repeat Paul Hawken: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.

We who are graduating today have a particular challenge. We are receiving congratulations, but we also receive a responsibility. We have been given a gift, a gift of light. We must now protect it, we must guard it, we must cherish it, and we must share it.

Without this light, in the darkness, the parchments that we have are worthless.

Therefore, I have a simple message; one that I ask you, that I beg you, that I plead with you, to take to heart. Do not just, simply, passively, only think of the world. Change it too. Guard and share the light. Think of the world. Reflect on it. Change it.

It is our responsibility. We can change the world. Nous sommes prêts. We are ready. Let’s change the world.

Thank you and congratulations.

guelph action / activism elsewhere

71cfe5dd4abdb7ba02524cc4f36f-1So, a bit of a break from my roughly 20k-words worth of papers is due, in my estimation.  I’ve come across some evidence of another university going through similar budgetary difficulties as SFU has recently — at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

Apparently, as part of a budgetary review sparked by a “budgetary crisis,” the university has proposed axing the Women’s Studies program.  According to the university admin, this isn’t being done because of any political views or disagreements with the content of the program, but because it simply isn’t fiscally feasible to provide the program.

Here’s a quote from the administration, courtesy of the Ontarion, the university’s student newspaper:

“It’s not about women’s studies. The university is in a serious financial crisis,” said associate vice-president academic and psychology professor Serge Desmarais. “Given the budgetary issues that are going on, the deans decided to look at what had low enrolment. We must ask whether certain programs are worth sustaining.”

This quote is quite similar to the one used at Simon Fraser University when the administration suspended the Canadian Studies program — closing off its admissions and cutting funding.  Here, the administration pointed to a low enrolment in the program and argued that this was proof that the program was unsustainable.

According to a Guelph local newspaper, faculty and students aren’t just letting the program die quietly.  Faculty and students have sent letters and protested the closure to the media.   Recently, over 100 students, faculty, and staff banded together and marched on the administration building to protest the closure of the program.

One student noted that

“(U of G president Alastair) Summerlee got a raise for an amount over and above what it costs to run the women’s studies program,” Anastasia Zavarella added. “That’s just galling.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting quotes out of Guelph is from a former director of the program:

Helen Hoy, the former co-ordinator of the women’s studies program who now teaches two courses in the program, said it’s chronic underfunding that has kept enrolment numbers low and not lack of popularity.

She said the program has grown since 1995 to include not just feminism but race, sexual orientation, age and social justice issues.

“Yes it’s a time of financial difficulty, but this panicked talk is to encourage us to fold. This is not the time to back away,” she said.

According to Hoy, chronic underfunding is the reason for the low enrolment numbers.  This makes sense to me, in a very real sense; program underunding often prevents programs from being able to offer enough courses to draw students in and allow them to complete their degrees in a timely manner.  If programs and courses aren’t available due to low funding, and thus infrequent offerings, students quite simply won’t take them.

We just saw a similar thing happen to Canadian Studies.  The most interesting quote out of the final public lecture from Canadian Studies was by Mel Watkins, who, according to The Peak:

[…] made a similar argument in a more provocative manner, suggesting “only half facetiously” that the funding should be transferred from Economics and Business departments, since the dominant theories of those disciplines are partially responsible for the recession.