Understanding the barred BoG meeting

Students' feelings of disenfranchisement from budget consultations made it a necessity to interrupt BOG meeting

Yesterday, amidst the protests of the BAC Report and the tuition fee increases it recommended, the Dalhousie Board of Governors was brought to a standstill. The students, interrupting the meeting by shaking boxes of KD emblazoned with the bright #rejectthereset campaign stickers, and chanting, would not calm down.

The Chair of the Board of Governors, Lawrence Stordy, would ask them to stop three times. Each time the students got louder. Eventually, realizing that order would not be reestablished, the Board stood up and left the room, under the direction of the chair, and reconvened in the Lord Dalhousie room, where students (including the Dalhousie Gazette) were prohibited to enter.

What needs to be further understood within the context of Dalhousie though, is how this action is understood. The local commentariat would see the action in many different lights, from rude to necessary.

Given the situation, the choice to move does have sense. As Chair Lawrence Stordy would say in a statement provided to the Dalhousie Gazette: “However, as we made clear to all in attendance at the start of yesterday’s proceedings, it is still a meeting, one with an agenda to complete. When it became clear that attendees were determined to disrupt the meeting and not allow our work to continue, we had no choice but to relocate the meeting to complete our agenda.”

Specific reference was also made to the elements of the Dalhousie Board of Governors’ By-Laws which define this process: 6.1.iii – “Subject to the Act and sections 6.13.1, 6.13.2 and 6.13.3 hereof, all meetings of the Board normally shall be open to the public and no person shall be excluded there from except for improper conduct provided, however, that admission to persons who are not Members or resource persons will be on a first come, first admitted basis subject to the limitations of available space.”

The interrupting students were most certainly guilty of “improper conduct provided.” This is not the first time which students have acted in protest like this in recent memory. In November of 2014, when the Board of Governors released their final report regarding divestment, a similar action was taken by Divest Dal in protest.

However, there is notable difference: with Divest Dal, the students assembled in protest, and would begin to chant, but did so while leaving the space and then would continue their protests on the outside – they were not a lasting disruption to the space, as was the case on Apr. 19. Given this, the move to the new meeting location makes sense – the Board of Governors had their business to conduct as the legally responsible agent they are within university governance, and it was untenable to kick all of the protesting students out of University Hall. In practice though, this was a problem. No differentiation was made of the students who were protesting and those not by Dalhousie Security at the doors of the Lord Dalhousie room while university staff and other non-student observers were allowed in during the meeting. The meeting itself didn’t transfer to an In Camera meeting until much later in the afternoon, where those individuals would be asked to leave the space.

Given this, why did the students at Dalhousie feel as though they needed to protest the Board’s decision making? Why did they see it important to do this, even though it limits their ability to be publicly present at the Board meetings? This, according to Dan Nicholson, Dalhousie Student Union President and one of the students sitting on the Board of Governors, is based in the fact that for the largest part that the students haven’t felt that they were ever made a valid part of the Budget Advisory Committee’s (BAC) process to begin with.

“It’s a matter of what those consultations mean to the university. And it’s very obvious. It points to the low turnout numbers overall. Agriculture filled out a full auditorium. But then, if you’re talking about the consultations up here [in Halifax], you see the numbers are lower. Maybe it goes to show that the public, and the students, and the faculty see the consultations as more tokenistic than productive.”

Students, since the release of the initial BAC process and throughout this, felt as though they weren’t being given adequate part of the process. Four BAC Consultations were held, one each for the programs of Agriculture, Pharmacy, and Engineering, and the DSU hosted its own meeting to discuss BAC’s proposals. But at each of these consultations (and at the presentations which were made at University Senate and the Board of Governors), Dr. Carolyn Watters, Vice President Academic and Provost, gave largely the same report, detailing the budget in a larger sense and not providing a level of detail which appealed to the students as a whole. At the Engineering consultation on Feb. 29, for example, a student would call out to Dr. Watters from the crowd: “Why are we talking about Arts student issues at the Engineering Consultation?”

Other devices were also employed besides the consultations  was a  “BACgrounder” informative webpage, which had been prepared for students to address their concerns, as well as an adjustable budget calculator for students to try their own hand at making their own budget work out. The university also sustained advertising via social media and other reporting presences of the university to discuss BAC (something which this author has misgivings about the reported efficacy of, considering the sheer amount of content which the university produces and advertises – but that is something to kvetch about at another time).

Through the various media for BAC, the changes to BAC were made clear from the initial report to the final report. While the initial report had asked for tuition adjustments of 5%, 5%, and 6.3% for Engineering, Pharmacy, and Agriculture per year for three years, the Final report would be 3.3%, 4%, and 5.8%. Also, some bursary support was to be given for students currently enrolled in the programs for these changes.

These aren’t big or substantive changes to the university, but they are very meaningful for those students who will be paying these fees next year. When the DSU was asking for the BAC process (and the Board of Governors) to consider students’ ability to actually pay and live with these tuition increases in practice, this wasn’t demonstrated to a capacity which they found satisfactory. This frustration with communication carries over to the Board, as well, in how they present to the public and the students their information.

As Nicholson puts it: “You keep saying ‘No, you’re wrong, No, you’re wrong, no you’re wrong.’ But you’re not giving any alternative. You’re not saying this is why you’re wrong, this is the actual picture of things. It’s all just been that we’re going to put up a wall, and not provide any clarity.”

In this case, the perception is that within the capacity of the information and input which the students had, they did not feel as though they had a meaningful say. This resulted in protests. And such protests will continue, as long as this perception – whether these are realized or not – will continue.

Morally, this issue is nuanced to many levels. The students, following their mandate, feel as though the only appropriate choice to them is to register protest outside of the democratic process which they feel disenfranchised in. The Board of Governors, following their mandate, feel that they must create a sustainable university – which they perceive (rightfully or wrongfully) would be done through tuition hikes at this time. And the Nova Scotia Legislature, following their mandate (to the people of Nova Scotia), as they announced with their provincial budget, which was also released on Apr.19, has chosen to give no new supports to the university budgets as a whole.

Each are correct to some degree, and from some specific worldview. I personally know what viewpoint I personally agree with. But in many ways, what is more important than any individual’s perspective is to try blend these together and see plans and thoughts which appreciate each for their own presence – something which only made more difficult when any specific population is locked out of the specific context and framework to appropriately appreciate the information needed to understand a perspective. A locked out population doesn’t appreciate it when you state that you’re acting on their best interests – they want to be able to confirm that you are.

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