Everyone in Edmonton knows what happened yesterday at the University of Alberta — or everyone thinks they know what happened. Everyone thinks that members of Occupy Edmonton were prevented from walking onto the University of Alberta campus to set up “encampments” there. But this is a complex story, and many of those who were on the ground have quite different things to report about what unfolded than the position taken formally by the University’s administration here: http://www.ualbertablog.ca/.
Amongst other things, Occupy Edmonton media spokesperson Katie Nelson confirms that no decision about whether there was to be an encampment had as yet been taken by Occupy Edmonton. Yes, Occupy Edmonton had announced its “occupation” of the University of Alberta. But “occupation” means many things. Occupy Edmonton intended to take its decision about what its relationship with the University of Alberta might be at a General Assembly to be held on campus late yesterday afternoon. And Occupy Edmonton had invited members of the University’s administration to join them at this Assembly.
As all decisions made by Occupy Edmonton are taken by consensus by those present at their General Assemblies the University’s administrators could have been present to influence the decision. What an interesting event that would have been! What a wonderful opportunity it would have been for the University to demonstrate what an enlightened institution this is.
Occupy Edmonton has already held at least one other General Assembly at the University of Alberta — on a quiet Sunday in November, right in front of University Hall.
Rather, however, than welcoming members of the public to join U of A students, if they wished, at a student rally against tuition fees, the University of Alberta “Risk Management” team arranged for the City of Edmonton police to block the entry of students and Occupy Edmonton members onto campus.
Students claim that they were turned back not because they wished to be part of any encampment, but because they wished to be part of a rally. See, for example, this statement issued by students who wished to be part of the rally because of their concern about cuts to the Faculty of Arts: https://www.facebook.com/groups/staffsolidarity/.
Hopefully Edmonton’s journalists will be able to get to the truth of the matter by talking directly to the students who were kept from walking onto campus yesterday. Edmonton’s journalists have an important role to play here in ensuring that the public understands what was actually said in exchanges between police, University spokespeople, students, and members of the peaceful protest movement Occupy Edmonton. Presumably the University administration also wants the truth to be told. The University’s motto is, after all, “Quaecumque Vera” (“All Things That Are True”).
More recently, the University has been using the “tag” “Uplifting the whole people.” The phrase is drawn by a speech by the University’s founder, Henry Marshall Tory, in 1908. Tory said “The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves . . . . The people demand that knowledge shall not be the concern of scholars alone. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.” Whatever the University may now be claiming about the status of the land on which its buildings sit, the fact remains that the University of Alberta is a public university founded at the “demand” of “the people,” for the betterment of their interests. The rhetoric is certainly old-fashioned, but it should translate into something urgently important, still: as a public university, the University of Alberta should be a place where all Albertans can gather, if they wish, to discuss whatever they social issues they deem important to them.
Here post-doctoral scholar Marija Cetinic responds to a policeman’s claim that the University is a “big house” that belongs to the University, who can’t just have any old body sitting down in a chair on its lawn. If the University is a “big house,” Cetinic noted, it is one that belongs to the people. The whole people.
The “whole people” includes “Raging Grannies” and people playfully wearing masks.
It also includes graduate students of social theory who wish to put their learning to work to address pressing inequities in the culture and transform society.
And let’s not forget that it includes people currently without jobs because of the irrational and unjust ways in which we manage the earth’s resources and its wealth.
And, yes, amongst the “whole people” are also those who work full-time as activists because they wish to use their many talents to bring into being a better world, whether or not anyone else deems them “productive.”
The official University statement says that “Occupy” is a “subject of interest” for the University community. With its actions yesterday, the University has suggested that it it may study protest movements important to “the whole people,” without actually welcoming their members to the University so that members of the University community may engage with them. With this decision, the University sadly reinforces perceptions that, despite its proximity to Edmonton’s downtown, and despite the fact that it is a public institution, it is a secluded place whose researchers are cut-off from “the whole people” who must be held off at their “gates.”
As a result, a somewhat farcical scene unfolded yesterday, in which University students had to walk off campus in order to join other students and members of the public who wanted to join them in a conversation about an important social issue, how we fund post-secondary education.
The University is supposed to be the place for free assembly, free speech, and the free circulation of ideas. The primary responsibility of the University’s administrators is to advance the interests of the University. (This differs crucially from “selling” the University.) Couldn’t the University have made a choice yesterday that would have seen it advancing the interests of the University and “the whole people” by demonstrating to Edmontonians, Albertans, Canadians — indeed, the world — that it puts the principles of higher education, along with rights to free speech and free assembly, above other concerns? Is this not in fact part of its duty as an education of higher learning? And surely, in fulfillment of that duty, it would not dream of suggesting that anyone who wishes to participate in the free circulation of ideas can be, at its demand, arrested “without warrant”?