Is your university anti-democratic?

And what would it mean to say “yes,” anyway?

Twitter is proving to be an interesting conversation starter. And yes, I’m still promoting that (follow me, dammit) but it sure isn’t a conversation finisher. With only 140 characters per tweet, it’s rather hard to have an involved conversation. Though seriously, for those who lack restraint, it can be a fascinating exercise in concision. If anyone is really interested, the other side of the conversation is represented here.

My goal, in elaborating on my point, is not to flog the CFS for their policies or practices. I’m sure, in the wake of this meeting, there will plenty of criticism on that point. But I wasn’t there and the CFS isn’t my particular beat. My interest in this story is to answer the oft-repeated claim that campus and outside media have a particular hate-on for the CFS while ignoring similar problems in university administration.

My answer is simply this. The correlation between how an organization like the CFS should run and how a university administration should run is so thin that it might as well not exist. About the only thing they have in common are students. One is a voluntary organization (though there will be opinions about that shortly) devoted to lobbying and advocacy. The CFS is ostensibly member-based, with a democratic mandate, and designed to represent students. The other is a semi-private/public institution (universities are odd beasts in this sense) devoted to the delivery of education. Universities are in no sense democratic nor were they ever designed to be. They make efforts to meaningfully engage with stakeholders, yes, and this includes students. These efforts may be more or less successful and may be more or less sincere. But they shouldn’t be confused with democracy.

In an idealistic sense I think we can all agree it would be nice if stakeholders had more power. If, for example, people who lived in government housing had direct control over how that housing were run. Or if more corporations were genuine co-ops, where the employees were also the majority owners. I can agree with the ideal. But I also don’t confuse the ideal with reality. To suggest it’s a problem that something isn’t democratic when it never claimed to be is just tilting at windmills. You can advocate for change, if you really want and if you think your proposals are feasible, but to make the accusation like the system has somehow failed just suggests ignorance of how things work.

I make this point for two reasons. First, students are very often frustrated with their institutions. Often, that frustration is valid. But if you want to channel that frustration in an effective and tangible way it should be informed. To protest a lack of democracy in your institution is to court a very simple and direct dismissal. The answer of “so?” is entirely in order. Argue they are ignoring stakeholders and you may have a point. Argue bad policies or neglect of student interests and you may be right. But argue lack of democracy and you’re just asking to be ignored.

Second, too many student organizations (and I don’t single out the CFS here) beg off scrutiny of their policies and practices by pointing the finger back at the university itself. It may be valid to question the university’s practices, yes. But that’s an unrelated topic. The two have very little in common to begin with, and even if there were more in common it still wouldn’t be valid to claim that one party’s abuses are somehow mitigated by the fact that another party is doing the same thing elsewhere. That isn’t good reasoning – it’s just deflection.

If student media, in particular, is more critical of the CFS and other student-run organizations that may arguably be the product of some bias (as is frequently the accusation) or it may be bare pragmatism. Theoretically, students have direct control over the CFS and over their local unions and their other organizations. Some days you sure as hell wouldn’t know it, based on some decisions that are made and policies that are adopted, but the theory can never be dismissed. Universities, well, they may bow to lobbying pressure and the force of public opinion, but those are very abstract forces. Important, yes. But students don’t have the same degree of direct control nor will they ever.

Sadly, too many student organizations adopt a “with us or against us” attitude. They are convinced of their righteousness (and indeed, their goals may be just) but on that basis they perceive any criticism of their actions as support of their opponents. Therefore, any criticism of a student organization becomes a defacto defense of the establishment they oppose. And that is dangerous reasoning. Any organization can run off the rails. Just look at the Toronto Humane Society in recent news. It is the organizations that are most convinced of their fundamental correctness that are in the greatest danger of losing their way.

Of course the media (student and otherwise) needs to spread around the scrutiny. None would deny that. But “with us or against us” reasoning has got to end.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.