On Tuesday evening, the night marking the official opening of Western’s Orientation Week, a small group of activists (myself included) was asked by Campus Police (CCPS) to leave campus while protesting the increasingly high cost of education and student debt. Organized under the banner of the Western Solidarity Network, our group sought to raise awareness about issues which we feel are conveniently absent from O-Week, but which nonetheless constitute a grim reality for many university students: the financial realities of tuition and student debt, and the predominance of corporate interests on campus. By highlighting the ways in which these trends insidiously pervade Western’s Orientation Week, we hoped to situate them in an immediate and resonating context for first year students. In doing so, we wanted to offer to incoming students an alternative way to think about their new and unfamiliar surroundings.
In what follows, however, I will not delve too deeply into the content of our message; the pamphlet we distributed can be found here, for those interested. Instead, I’d like to explore the discouraging response to our presence from campus authority figures (which, as you might have guessed, was not exactly positive).
It should be noted, firstly, that the incoming first year students to whom we primarily directed our message – affectionately known as ‘frosh’ – were largely receptive; in fact, out of all the parties involved, they were most receptive. We handed out pamphlets only to those students who demonstrated interest in our cause. And, as a result, we had some rewarding conversations which indicated a general frustration with the cost of tuition.
Campus authorities, on the other hand, had no patience for us. As mentioned, our group was eventually asked – or, more accurately, told – by CCPS to leave the premises. Before the Repressive Campus Apparatus arrived, however, we were confronted by a few other authoritative figures: notably, event planners, USC administration, and even sophs.
Soon after our arrival outside of Talbot Bowl, a disgruntled fellow informed us that he was attempting to run an event for frosh, and that we were ruining it. This ostensible event planner had no apparent connection to Western, but quite obviously had a vested interest in having his event run smoothly, without the inconvenience of protest (understandably so, from the point of view of a stakeholder). We politely informed him that we were Western students on our own campus and wished only to talk to first year students. He then let us know that the police were on their way.
Shortly after this encounter, we were met with warnings from USC administration – namely, from executives of the Student Life department (the USC’s very own risk management sector), as well as from O-Staff (the organizing body responsible for overseeing the operations of O-Week). Both parties made their message clear: this was not the time nor the place for what we were doing. While they did express some pseudo-sympathy for our cause (i.e. “We know tuition is too high, but can’t you do this another time?”), their actions spoke to their true allegiances. They told us we should have asked permission. But this bureaucratic advice betrays some of the basic principles upon which effective activism is founded: spontaneity, disruption, and rebellion. After some deliberation, they, too, informed us that CCPS would be arriving shortly.
In the meantime, we were confronted with an intolerance and skepticism from an unexpected group: sophs (the student leaders responsible for welcoming frosh to Western). Many of them, for some incomprehensible reason, felt it necessary not only to ignore or dismiss us, but to tell us that we had no business being there in the first place. Some even went as far as to direct their frosh not to talk to us or take our pamphlets. Other soph teams, whose support would have been greatly appreciated, completely shunned us in an attempt to maintain their misplaced idea of counterculture. All of these responses, it seemed to me, demonstrated that many sophs had unwittingly internalized the logic of administration: that is, O-Week ought to remain sanitized, free from disruption and reality. Of course, this hostility was by no means a universal response from sophs (a few of them were, in fact, receptive), but, overall, it was rather disconcerting.
Finally, the Campus Police arrived, took our student cards and names, and subsequently told us that we were to leave campus immediately. When we asked the officers why we weren’t allowed to be there they told us that the university was holding a frosh event, and that campus was therefore an inappropriate venue for this sort of demonstration. We disagree: O-Week is precisely the time and place, for its purported function is to orient students to their university experience – an experience which will necessarily entail the stark reality of exorbitant tuition fees and excessive corporate influence. Nevertheless, we left campus (but not without distributing a few pamphlets on our way out).
While all of this is undoubtedly concerning, what’s especially troubling to me is the groups that Western does allow to disseminate information on campus during O-Week. To name a few: in the UCC this week, both Rogers and Bell had booths set up with aggressive marketers handing out information, hungry for student commitment; when receiving our new bus passes, students are handed promotional flyers, specifically marketing commercial services to Western students; both the Westernizer and the “Frosh Issue” of The Gazette are inundated with commercial advertisements; and at the upcoming Midway Carnival, promotional booths and free corporate products will create an orgy of consumer spectacle for likely intoxicated frosh, in effect transforming students into consumers and O-Week into a perverse carnival of capitalism (which, as we all know, can be an all too seductive ride).
But activists on a university campus? Students with a message about the rights and well-being of other students? This is clearly unacceptable. How dare we tarnish the otherwise squeaky clean commercial image Western wishes to espouse? Through our conversations and confrontations with campus authority, the message was made explicit and palpable: our presence was not welcome. The presence of large corporations and rampant promotionalism, on the other hand, are perfectly suited for Western’s Orientation Week.
All of this is not meant to suggest that students should be discouraged from taking action on issues about which they are passionate; on the contrary, this is a call for more action, for this experience is not at all dissimilar from the experiences of other activists here at Western. The suppression of student activism on campus – under the guise of safety, brand integrity, policy procedures, or event planning – is a concrete and alarming trend. But the only way to combat it is to continue applying pressure. As students, we shouldn’t need permission to express our views on campus. And we certainly shouldn’t be told when and where we’re allowed (or not allowed) to protest. We, as students, ought to rekindle the notion of the university as public and political space, wherein alternative ideas can be debated, and theory is put into practice. As a collective body of students, we are strong. We can reclaim the university on our own terms, if we’re up to it.
The Western Solidarity Network (WSN) is an online space, a public sphere, started by a group of students at the University of Western Ontario for students and London community members to organize and discuss the issues that affect us most. This page will serve as a way to foster a community of like-minded individuals focused on action and awareness. Links to articles, community notices, general discussion, and organization are encouraged. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jordan Coop is a fifth year MIT student and a member of the Western Solidarity Network (WSN). The views expressed here are his own; as such, they are not necessarily representative of the entire WSN or of OPENWIDE MAGAZINE