Opinions

Public only by name

written by Jake Schabas
November 6, 2009 1:52 pm

It may come as a surprise to hear that Dalhousie University is public in name only. As Angela Potvin, a member of the Social Activist Law Student Association, put it, “as a property they are the same as a mall.”

But wait – aren’t malls the exact opposite of public spaces? In malls, security guards won’t hesitate to tell a teenager to “put your hood down,” and codes of conduct often dictate who uses the space. It’s no coincidence you rarely see street people in malls. It has nothing to do with where they’re choosing to shop. In spaces like these, individual interests – not collective interests – dominate the use of space.

Those interests can’t be the same at Dal, can they?

Well, no, not exactly. But there are striking parallels. For instance, like in malls, when we are on Dal property a special code of conduct applies, which we are assumed to know.

While this protects the University against vandalism or threatening behaviour, it also means that if you don’t have your Dalcard or, for hired workers, proof of employment on you, a security guard can ask you to leave campus.

Likewise, while basic freedoms still apply to students on campus, such as the right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate, lawfully picket and freedom of speech, the Dal code of conduct adds caveats preventing you from disrupting “or adversely affecting any activity organized by Dalhousie University.”

Again, although seemingly reasonable, it’s easy to see how any unwanted form of the former could be made to fit the broad description of the latter.

So why do we call Dal a ‘public’ university? Well, mostly because public funding makes up the majority of the university’s revenue. Despite the fact that the public is footing the bill, the moment you leave the sidewalk or the paved surface of the street, you have left the public world behind.

This fact affects campus life more than one might expect. For instance, Dal’s food and beverage exclusivity contracts with Sodexo and Pepsi – contracts that make it difficult if not impossible for other food businesses, like cheaper or local options, to sell or even give away food on campus – are the reason why the Dawgfather’s hot dog stand is set up on the sidewalk. There, he is on public land and only needs a permit from the city rather than a contract with the Dal Student Union or Dal administration.

That’s something to chew on next time you spend a buck at the Killam on a shitty apple imported from who knows where.

Similar rules that govern food also apply to advertising on campus, especially in the Student Union Building. Anyone who’s used the washrooms in the Killam has a sense of the many national and multi-national corporations like Rogers and Kia that spend their advertising dollars at Dal.

Yet what about in the SUB – the most student-controlled building on campus? While there are plenty of posters on the SUB walls, if you look closely they all have a small DSU insignia on them, meaning that they all stem directly from the DSU. These are the posters taped onto the walls on the stairway, or on the bulletin boards locked behind glass.

You will only find posters not connected to the DSU in select spots in the SUB. These properly ‘public’ wall spaces where pretty much anything can be posted are the bulletin boards tucked into the basement or near the main floor washrooms behind the bank machines. These are places you have to search out.

Ironically, in terms of posters, no building is less public than the SUB.

Not to be overly critical or anything, since there are some legitimate reasons to be weary of letting just any kind of advertising or poster on campus. But you’d think the DSU Executive and staff would be more willing to publicize student events and organizations, rather than just wing nights at the Grawood.

Every year, we see more TVs going up on campus, advertising Grawood night after Grawood night, ad nauseam. Just last week, a new electronic board was installed above the outside front entrance of the SUB, flashing more drink deals and themed nights at – you guessed it – the Grawood.

Space on Dal campus may not be public, but it shouldn’t be treated like a billboard for a select few private interests, and that includes the DSU-run Grawood. With voter turnout for the DSU elections at an abysmal 15.9 per cent and extra-curricular involvement plagued by widespread student apathy, the DSU should be using the communications resources that students fund to promote student interests, not just the bar.

Why not let student societies, groups or teams publicize their events on the TVs and walls all over campus? Isn’t the SUB, the students’ building, paid for by us, and for us? Shouldn’t we be able to put up posters on its walls like we do in all other university buildings?

Just because Dalhousie is privately run doesn’t mean it can’t operate far more publicly. While some codes governing personal conduct, sales and publicity are hardly avoidable, they need to be far more accessible and should be in place for the benefit of students, not faceless multi-national corporations such as Sodexo.

The DSU needs to start actively pursuing greater student involvement. Once students are more plugged into what’s happening on campus, they’ll be more inclined to vote in DSU elections. Only then will we be able to raise voter turnout to a level where the DSU could legitimately claim to represent the interests of the majority of the student body.

It starts with making what’s private on campus more public. This means allowing more freedom to groups who want to organize or hand out leaflets on campus. This means making food contracts more public, so students can have a say in what they eat rather than letting corporations decide. This means making communications resources on campus useful for students who want to display events and subjects that matter – not just advertise Grawood wings.

Editor’s note: Angela Potvin of the Social Activist Law Student society provided information, not advice, for this article.

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