Dr. Dawg

This is what democracy looks like--at Carleton University

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Not a great day for the old alma mater.

Readers may remember that a motion was passed at the last Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) meeting that the university pursue a strategy of ethical investment. It wasn’t everything that the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) had been hoping for, but it was still a victory: it contained “illegal occupation” as one of the grounds for divesting, even if specific companies weren’t named.

But the original motion from SAIA, which named those companies after considerable research on their part, had received support from 25 campus clubs, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), and CUPE Local 4600, representing teaching assistants and contract instructors. 1000 petition signatures had been received by the time the motion came to CUSA, and over 2000 letters in favour had been written to CUSA councillors.

That’s not inconsiderable support. A student representative on the Board of Governors (BOG) duly forwarded the SAIA motion to the BOG Executive Committee, asking to have it placed upon the agenda at its meeting today.

SAIA was, needless to say, happy about that:

Next Tuesday, March 29th SAIA and its allies will be taking the divestment campaign to the Carleton Board of Governors. We invite you to join us at 3 PM in the University Centre Atrium for a rally. Together, we’ll head over to the Senate Room in the 6th Floor of Robertson Hall for the Board of Governors meeting at 4 PM where we hope to present our motion and hold our administration accountable. Everyone is free to attend the rally and meeting, which is open to all members of the Carleton and external community.

But this proved to be a case of premature democracy. The Executive Committee—President Roseann Runte (about whom more below) and the other BOG table officers decided that the item would simply not be placed upon the agenda. When SAIA was informed that the motion would be disallowed, they were told they could make a presentation to the Vice-President (Finance and Administration) Duncan Watt if they wanted. They declined.

It gets worse. From a SAIA spokesperson:

SAIA was asked to meet with the Director of University Safety on Friday and were told that the whole sixth floor of Robertson Hall (where the meeting is slated for) would be locked down, three of the elevators in the building would be shut down, and only pre-approved people would even be allowed in the meeting or on the sixth floor. “Security” will be at every entrance and will be patrolling the crowd.

Blocking access to this BOG meeting becomes even more surprising considering the fact that at this same meeting, the BOG will be deciding whether or not to raise tuition fees. I can’t say for sure, but can only assume that by promising so much “security,” the University will be bringing police on campus to keep students, staff, faculty, and alumni away from scrutinizing the BOG in action.

In other words, a meeting of the Board of a public institution would be closed to the public, not because there were in camera matters to discuss, but because the Executive Committee had decided that preemptive measures should be undertaken after hearing that there would be a rally in the atrium. Democracy is a messy business, and can obstruct the smooth flow of a formal, stage-managed meeting.

The University, however, issued a press release today hotly denying a statement by the Graduate Students’ Association that the meeting was locking people out. The language of the release is telling:

[T]he Board of Governors has been advised that ‘hundreds’ of students planned to attend and ‘disrupt’ the meeting as part of the campaign to force the university to divest its pension fund from companies doing business with Israel.

To allow interested parties to attend the public portion of the meeting, the Board has asked those parties to identify representatives and seats will be reserved for them.

The Board of Governors’ membership includes students, staff, and faculty. In addition, the Carleton community is welcome to communicate with members of the university’s Board of Governors at any time.

(Please note that the scare-quotes in the first graf are not mine.)

From a public meeting, then, to a pre-screening of a selected handful of “representatives.” This is what (Carleton University) democracy looks like.

And take note of this: “the Carleton community is welcome to communicate with members of the university’s Board of Governors at any time.” Yet the President of the GSA, Kimalee Phillip, herself a member of the Board, was admonished by University counsel when she dared to send a note on this matter to all Board members.

Somebody’s lying.

I went over to Carleton to check things out for myself. One good reason to do so was the grossly biased coverage of the CUSA meeting by the Ottawa Citizen’s Robert Sibley. The Citizen did follow up, after protests, with a far more balanced article. Here is what happened to it.

A Citizen article today, written before this afternoon’s events took place, is admittedly not too bad. But this section needs scrutiny:

Carleton spokesman Jason MacDonald said campus safety officials will be on-hand to deal with potential crowds and ensure the meeting is not disrupted.

“No one has an issue with debating or discussing or people having different points of view, whatever the issue may be,” he said. “But when you get to the point where you have groups of students telling the administration, ‘We intend to disrupt your operations,’ that’s frustrating because it interferes with people’s efforts to focus their energies on making Carleton the best place it can be for students.”

That sort of bafflegab is familiar to readers. The alleged threat to disrupt the meeting is never sourced, but always present. In fact, as BOG student representative Austin Miller told me, the intention had been to get the motion in under New Business when the meeting was convened, a move permitted under BOG procedural rules. That seems somewhat at odds with the Carleton University administration’s contention.

The truth? The BOG Executive Committee didn’t want debate. President Roseann Runte has been the beneficiary of at least one paid trip to Israel. She banned an Israeli Apartheid Week poster from the campus in 2009, and sent a letter of warning to all students (including myself). She fired Hassan Diab, a lecturer in my own department, virtually in mid-class, after B’nai Brith contacted her. She is, to put it bluntly, parti pris on Middle East Affairs.

The University press release proceeds to give “background information” on the pension fund divestment issue. Take it with a big grain of salt. It claims to have modified its pension investment strategy in the direction of socially responsible investing, while stating at the same time that there were “legal reasons” underpinning the Pension Fund Committee’s decision not to divest.

What those come down to is the Committee’s fiduciary duty to get the best rate of return possible on its investments. “Imposing constraints on portfolio investments could undermine the committee’s ability to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities.”

Got that? It’s boilerplate, and I speak as a former member of the federal public service’s pension advisory committee. The problem with that argument is that it implicitly assumes that SRI portfolios don’t perform well. There is considerable evidence, however, that this is simply not the case.

But the press release goes on:

In 2009-‘10, the Pension Fund Committee undertook a review of responsible investing that included an analysis of policies at other institutions, a review of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing (UNPRI) and discussions with experts in the field of responsible investing. In September 2010, an amendment was made to the Statement of Investment Policies and Procedures for the Trust Fund under the Carleton University Retirement Plan. The amendment states that environmental, social and governance factors should be considered in investment decision-making. The policy is binding on the plan.

I see nothing particularly binding there, to put it mildly, but the point at issue is that SAIA came prepared to argue the case against the four companies named in their resolution within the context of that policy. And they simply weren’t given the chance to do so.

Well, as the Citizen article today says, the stage was set.

Between two and three hundred students filled the Atrium. There was lots of chanting, drumming and superb, spontaneous dancing. Bagpipes were nowhere in evidence. Some BOG members arrived, escorted by security. Cries of “walk of shame!” rang out. Other BOG members were simply blocked by the crowd from getting to their meeting.

Miller told me that he was refusing to attend the meeting on principle. The BOG kept students out of what should have been a public meeting; the students had little compunction, therefore, in returning the favour.

I didn’t catch up with Jacques Shore, Executive Committee member and Ottawa VP of the Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce, but I spoke with a couple of community BOG members one of whom, Mike Robinson, I had served with on the Board of the United Way some years ago. Had they been kept out? Yes. Had there been any violence? No. Just drumming, chanting and “profanity.” Campus security, he said, advised them that they shouldn’t try to get in.

Mike is a decent man, and he told me he felt that divestment was “a legitimate subject for the Board to discuss and debate.” But he wasn’t happy about being kept out, and thought the Executive Committee should be able to manage the Board’s agenda.

So how do Board members get items onto the agenda if they’re red-lighted by the Executive Committee? I asked. “Bring it to the next meeting,” he said. That would have been cold comfort to the students assembled, I think. Perhaps he was unaware, in any case, of the finality of the Executive Committee decision (see below).

Shortly after 4:00 pm when the meeting was scheduled to begin, it was cancelled. I am informed, but cannot confirm, that the BOG had quorum, but pulled the plug anyway.

The BOG members exited the building through two lines of students, who were told by an organizer to “show respect” for one older member. But there was no need for alarm. The students simply chanted “walk of shame” as the BOG members made their way out. It was all peaceful enough: no intimidation, no crowding, no violence of any sort.

And so nothing changed. There was no meaningful airing of the issue that had brought the students together. Their motion, duly submitted, was not permitted to be heard. And, as Vice-President Watt made clear in the Carleton backgrounder, “[T]he Board itself will not be considering the divestment issue any further.”

There will be no debate on divestment by the governing body of Carleton.


Student governors, take note. The agenda will always be out of your grasp.

“I believe students can change the world,” says a Carleton fundraising poster. Maybe so, but as quite a few of them learned today, it’s an uphill battle, even at their own institution.

UPDATE: More “fair and balanced” Robert Sibley.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on March 29, 2011 9:16 PM.

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