Lowy and Lex: In Full

FREDERICK LOWY
Interim President

The Link: There’s student unrest everywhere around town. Are you ever worried that the relationship between students and the administration might break down to the point of an occupation? Is that something you have thought about this year?

Dr. Lowy: I’ve been very impressed, ever since I came to Concordia the first time, that the students behave in a very mature fashion. Taking into account what they want and recognizing the rights of others. If you’re asking [whether I’m worried], I’m certainly not worried, I think Concordia students will continue to behave in a responsible way.

Given that ConU has a history of activism, it just seems that something about tense political situations sometimes escalate here. Do you have any thoughts on this? Especially since you were here in 2002 [for the Nethanyahu Riot].

I’m happy to say that experience was one of a kind. The circumstances that lead to that situation with the cancelled speech were a very unusual situation. The student body was different, the CSU was different, and a lot of people from outside the campus participated in that event. It’s a different situation and it involved the importation to Concordia of geo-political problems elsewhere in the world.

Can I get your comment on the board meeting today?

Well, it had to be interrupted because of lost quorum, which is unfortunate because the decisions made during the closed sessions couldn’t be reported as they usually are in open session. A number of the external board members volunteer and were quite upset. Essentially the work of the board was interrupted. It’s very difficult to get external members on a volunteer basis to give up a lot of time and clearly it’s not in the university’s interest to have them lose interest. At the same time the students have a right to protest, it’s just a question of how they choose to protest and the consequences of whatever choices they make have to be considered.

What efforts for compromise do you think can be made between the two parties? There seems to be a wide separation of opinion between students and the Board. It seems like all year there hasn’t been a Board meeting where there hasn’t been an issue of contestation that doesn’t seem to have any middle ground.

Well, first of all my colleagues and I in the administration miss no opportunity to talk and interact with student leaders. My door is open to them, [VP’s] meet frequently with the CSU and GSA. Communication is open. We recognize there are issues in which there are differences in point of view, that’s normal. As long as communication is open and there is respect on both sides, which I think there is, sometimes these issues can be resolved. Sometimes they’re not so easily resolved. I think the key is respect and communication. And that happens.

So how come there hasn’t been any compromise?

Not all of the problems can be resolved, not even with the best intentions.

What do you think the relationship should be between students and the administration?

There is friction. You might be in a better position than I to say where the friction originates. I don’t think you can get away from friction and here’s an example, I think that protest is fine and people are entitled to views. All we have to do is ensure we behave towards each other with respect and that does happen.

Take the filming, broadcasting and recording issue. In order to get a sense of the context, we looked at what the other universities have done around the country. I don’t know if you’ve seen the table done by the Secretary General’s office. No university in Canada—not one—permits broadcasting or recording. In Quebec, as far as recording goes, McGill and Bishop’s do not permit it. The only one in QC that is open to the public in Bishop’s.

Only Concordia and Bishops have students there at all.

No other universities broadcast their meetings. Are photographs or videos allowed to be taken? No. Is there a question period from the audience – at Bishop’s no but members of the public may request to address the board.

If all the universities in Canada object to certain things like filming and broadcasting, you might ask why, and I think the answer is (and a number of people have made this point) that most members feel that if they give their time voluntarily to Concordia, hours of time, they want to speak freely and not worry about how their words are going to be taken by anybody. That’s just it. They’re not a public body like a national assembly or a government of Canada department. We’re also not a court of justice where lawyers and judges and witnesses interact and a stenographer takes down every word. We’re not in such a highly structured situation where evidence is challenged and there’s argument about this or that. We’re trying to do a job here, and to make it public really potentially intimidates people from saying what they want to say and ultimately a lot of people choosing not to accept membership on the board.

In the spirit of compromise then, have there been any other ideas or methods to keep the board as open as possible and as transparent?

This is as open as possible without destroying the whole function of the board. Every decision made by the board is public. There are minutes and they are public, they’re actually very good. So all the decisions of the board are there. What isn’t there is how we arrived at those decisions. What’s in the minutes is that a certain motion was presented, discussed, and the event that followed. Who said what was not recorded. But the community is fully informed about every action, and they’re in the archives if you want to go and see what previous board minutes say, you can go right back to the beginning of the university. They are accurately recorded.

[…] There is a full account, there is openness in terms of decisions and issues, what isn’t [included] is what particular individuals say and that’s because simply they might not say it [if it was recorded]. That’s why all the other universities also leave their meetings closed.

But even for archival purposes, just to have a full a record as possible, don’t you think it would serve a purpose?

I’m amazed how much is in the archives and online too. I mean, I think that’s total openness in terms of decision-making. To know what individual said what and what individual retorted, I don’t think that would add – it would actually potentially subtract -from the openness that we want on the board.

You don’t think there’s any credibility to the idea that, you know, if they’re not comfortable saying it in front of the entire school body they shouldn’t be saying it?

Take what you just said and take it further. If you want people to give time from their jobs and families and come to Concordia and help us, in governing and representing the university to government and donors, if you want them to do that you have to provide a forum for decision making that allows for free speech and encourages free speech and not guarded speech. If you’re in a courtroom you have to be very careful, that’s not the kind of atmosphere that we want at the board.

Do you have any predictions for next meeting to ensure that this standstill doesn’t happen again?

We will be meeting with student reps, I hope they are just as eager as the admin and the board to see this resolved and do what is best for the university.

We had the chance to speak to Mrs. Adler, and one of the things she said is that she doesn’t believe that media should be in there, period.

They’re not allowed in the other universities

Yeah but they’re allowed at Concordia, seems pretty regressive to have that conversation. On that particular issue, where do you think the board stands?

I can’t speak for the whole board.

Do you think it’s constructive to have board members who hold that position when the school, just a matter of months ago, took very public criticism for not being open and transparent?

We are as open and transparent as the other universities. Where did those external advisors come from? They come from Laval, the University of Toronto and from McGill and each of those universities where they come from there is no broadcasting or no press. The very places they come from, and I don’t think they specifically spoke about this. If you’re asking me personally, I have no problem with responsible press and indeed in the open session they are [allowed inside]. And no one on the board to my knowledge has suggested they shouldn’t be there.

Do you think that implies that the heart and spirit of the Shapiro report is not valid?

I don’t jump to that extreme. I think there is no doubt that transparency is a positive value, but there’s no value that’s absolute. There are very few. You have to balance it, again depending on the situation, against other factors. Free and open speech is a factor. And communication of Board decisions is certainly a value we hold. But whether specific comments made by specific Board members to each other, whatever value it has is outweighed by a potential negative consequence of people either not speaking up or simply not coming.

I’d like to hear your thoughts about the argument that Concordia is a public place, funded by the public purse, so a lot of the people who are pushing for this broadcasting use that as an argument that the decisions being made ought to be public, and how you arrive at the decisions ought to be public as well. There is a perceived onus on Concordia to be as public as possible, just because of where the funding is coming from.

I agree that Concordia as far as I am considered should be as public as possible, consistent with the other objectives we have to meet. That said, we’re not a court of law, which is open because it’s in the public interest. Given the Concordia situation, recording what goes on in the meetings has the great risk of intimidating people that they wouldn’t continue otherwise.

Public interest is also spurning this desire to know what’s going on in the mind of the board. And since last December especially, the interest in Concordia politics has been huge. The Woodsworth dismissal rocked the boat.

Oh, did you guys write about that? [laughs]

What else would we have written about? Would have been a slow news year otherwise. [Laughs] No, but seriously. The Woodsworth thing happened, and that’s where the public interest is generated and it’s newsworthy, and it’s something that affects everyone on campus. That is the genesis of where this came from. Do you think that putting something like that to rest might help this entire situation moving forward? People were surprised she was back teaching. Do you think that having that conversation publicly will get people off your back?

Look, first of all on the specific issue on her teaching, we have to separate the university’s obligations to her as the outgoing president, and those obligations had to do with the contract that the university at the time signed with her at the time she left. That’s one thing. As far as I’m concerned that matter is closed, we are meeting the obligations that were contracted.

But as far as her teaching, she was a tenured professor here and got [that position] back. She has every right, provided the department wants her and needs her to teach. Those are two separate things and should be separated.

The problem for some people is they don’t make that separation. The terms of her departure, I wasn’t here at the time, but they have to do with the contract between herself and the university. Her teaching is a matter between her and her department. She’s a qualified professor.

But in terms of the public interest moving forward, the decisions were made and we don’t know how they came to these decisions. The way that those decisions were made are what people are still interested in…

I can’t comment on that, I wasn’t here. Of course if those episodes hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be here at all. But look, I think that is part of our history and one of those things that will remain unclear perhaps, I can’t add any clarity to it.

_I’d like to ask you about [Concordia Provost] Dr. David Graham’s statement released last week about the strike likely to happen in March. What’s the communication like between the school and the Ministry of Education? Are there contingencies or plans if there is a strike? And if it becomes an extended strike, do you think that it will affect Concordia?

There’s a lot of communication between the administration and the CSU. First of all we recognize and have no problem and applaud students rights to protest something that they don’t like, we recognize there are diverse opinions and if students feel as they do that they’re against the tuition fee increases, they have every right to indicate that. If they want to indicate that through withdrawal of classes, that’s their right, people drop out of lectures and classes all year. That’s up to them. But as we’ve said to the CSU, just like people have a right to protest, people have a right to choose not to protest and come to class. These are two rights and we’ll try to accommodate both rights.

Have there been any plans made on the possibility of an extended semester?

First of all there are all kinds of potential events that we cannot foresee but we try to foresee as many as possible. Let me just say that in regards to students protesting and withdrawing from their classes, there are consequences for that and students have to be properly informed. If the students are well informed and know the consequences of their actions, I think they’re in the better position to make a decision about what to do.

School spokersperson Chris Mota: Extension of the school term – classes will continue, everything is going on, I don’t know where we talk about a need for the extension of a school year. My understanding is that teaching goes on.

I think the idea is that if there is mass participation, the attitude is that you can’t fail everybody. If the majority of students engage in the strike, what might the plans look like to get around that?

You’re asking a hypothetical question, there’s no doubt a lot of things could happen, I don’t think it’s helpful to comment on one thing that might or might not happen. One of the concerns that we recognized this week was that Dr. Graham‘s letter was “fear mongering.” It certainly was not intended to be such, but it’s entirely his job to do that, he just wanted to make sure that people are informed about all potentialities and that they should get informed so they can decide for themselves what to do.

You spoke of the situation as a hypothetical, but it is entirely a possibility. Don’t you think it would be wise to plan for this?

We’re doing our best to plan for every likely event. We can’t foresee them all. We’re looking at it.

Is there a discussion amongst the various universities?

No, there hasn’t there, though there might well be in the future. There was certainly a discussion about the increases in tuition fees but not about strategy. […] Look, as I said before, I hope we don’t lose a single student. But, I also hope that the university is able to continue at a high level.

LEX GILL
Concordia Student Union President

I was wondering if the CSU has planned for any occupation? Or have you had the conversation about occupation in the wider student movement?

I think occupations have always been considered legitimate forms of peaceful direct action. As far as the CSU goes, there is a sort of occupation vibe going on in the last week of February, there’s going to be a sleep in. Otherwise, in terms of other action on campus, I’m not particularly at liberty to talk about it. I’m just not totally sure if I can speak on the behalf of others or what they’re planning, but in the Quebec student movement, of course [there is talk of occupation]. This is how it went down in 2005, and if these are the sorts of tactics we need to use in order to be heard by people who are not listening, then so be it.
I also think it’s an important act of reclaiming space.

Can I get your comment about the board meeting on Friday? Do you think it was a success for you and for your demands, or how do you feel about the way that the walk-out happened?

I’m sure that Dr. Lowy said that he was disappointed that people would use a tactic like quorum, which we can admit is not the fairest way of stopping a meeting. I’m sure he would say that he was disappointed that sort of tactic took place.

What I’d like to say is that I’m disappointed that there were obviously conversations about transparency in closed session. I’m disappointed that the Board has spent months on this issue of filming, and of reporting to students and the community about what happens in those meetings. There have been massive amounts of criticism, and we’ve tried everything you know? We’ve made committees, we’ve put forward proposals, and we’ve asked very politely, we’ve asked very aggressively. And there was nothing on the agenda about this. Students organized themselves with the support of student governors to come and film the meetings themselves and the response was to shut down and discuss that secretly, and that’s what’s disappointing.

But it’s disappointing we’ve gotten to this point where that tactic got involved.

This tactic as well, it’s enormously costly in terms of volunteer time of external members. Do you foresee there could be efforts to compromise and find middle ground on this issue?

Well yeah, there has to be, and the reality is we’ve been trying to find ways of doing that. Like we’ve seen in previous board meetings, it’s been [Board of Governors Chairperson] Peter Kruyt’s imperative normally to always just shut down discussion.

Obviously we still care about this issue, and students obviously care about this issue […] so we have got to find a way to move forward.

I’m hoping to put together a proposal and speak to some external Board members before [the next meeting]. There are obviously some people who just don’t get it. They don’t understand, I believe I have heard the words “Transparency is the opposite of good governance” come out of the mouths of a couple of people at this point. And those people will never get it, but I think that the reasonable people on the Board will understand this is a reasonable demand. It’s not radical.

One of the biggest arguments put forward by the BoG, at least by Lowy, is that there’s no precedent for this, and no other school in Canada does this. I was hoping you could talk about that retort.

So, I’ll borrow a line from the tuition campaign.

One: saying that it doesn’t happen elsewhere, or that it is happening elsewhere, isn’t an argument—it’s a fact. It’s neutral. I would say it would be a positive if we were first, that would be groundbreaking, that would be impressive and set a new standard in terms of university governance. But people are too afraid.

Two: perhaps it would be the first for a university, but it is certainly happening at school boards in Montreal and Quebec. It happens at Union meetings, obviously. And this is not irregular and it’s certainly becoming more common practice.

Just because no one is doing something yet it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If we followed that kind of principle in our everyday lives, no one would never do anything new. It’s a ridiculous way of living, and I don’t think it’s an argument.

There seems to be this attitude among Board members that they feel cuckolded, and would watch what they say if they knew they were being filmed, and it would be the opposite of really free speech. That’s another argument I heard. People would be more careful about what they say because they know they’re being recorded.

First of all, in open session and meetings they could already very well be recorded. Journalists are there and record what they say and the things they do.

Theoretically, there’s nothing stopping people from doing that in the open session as it stands, in fact the only motion that exists was a motion that was voted down on filming—but not that filming is not allowed. It’s a nuance, but it’s important to point out that these people are already being observed, and could already be recorded.

So there’s really nothing fundamentally different besides having the process sanctioned, and with some principles, and done professionally.

I think it’s also important to note that the people who sit on the Board are public figures, right? They engage in all kinds of public activities, they have reputations in the community, and I simply have trouble understanding why they would be so concerned about what they say on the Board of Concordia.

More than that, I think that a lot of external governors generally are missing the point that if you want to have private, frank discussions that you think might be inappropriate or damaging to someone’s reputation, you can do it in closed session. We’ve never asked to film closed session. As governors, and as someone who has my own board to report to I understand the importance of having that kind of confidentiality when you need it.

Daily operations on the board just don’t require it to be under a veil of secrecy.
And members of the public go all the time, journalists go all the time, and there’s no real tangible difference. They keep saying, ‘Oh, what if we get taken out of context?’ That can happen already. Someone can record you and take it out of context. The only difference is that if the board is actually filming and broadcasting the whole thing itself, you’d have that whole piece to clarify the context. You’d have more information, not less.

What do you think the relationship should be, ideally, between the students and the administration? It seems to me with every Board meeting that happens, we’re chipping away at something, but what should it be like?

You know, the longer I do this job the less I like talking in terms of what the administration should be doing. There are a lot of administrators that are working to do a lot of good and I think that the structure really impedes that, unfortunately.

Speaking in general terms here, […] what I think would make a difference at Concordia would be if the administration had a bit more courage to do things differently. People sort of lean on that ‘This is what we’re supposed to do, this is how we’re supposed to work, this is what we’re supposed to be asking for.’
I had a meeting with the President’s Office with VPs as well and we were talking about the tuition fee increase, and I got the sense that even they understood that it was harmful to students and that we’re being screwed. I mean, there are $860 million [in the budget] and we’re only getting $250 million of it. They know that. They understand that, but if Concordia’s administration had the courage to say, ‘Hey look, we need more money sure but the way you’re doing it is wrong,’ and stood up with students, if the process was respectful and collaborative and based on fact instead of the assumptions of the ways we’re supposed to behave, I think it would make a difference.

I think that’s on our end too, you know? I think after years of seeing complacent CSU executives it was really important to us to position ourselves in a way that would be critical of administration. We understand that the admin and the government isn’t always looking out for you. At the same time, there are a lot of assumptions we make about the intentions of the university and they are not always correct. I think that there has got to be dialogue no matter what. And what we consistently see happening at Board meetings is that dialogue gets shut down and that the Board members are not interested in dialogue.

Do you have any predictions for next meeting to ensure that this standstill doesn’t happen again? Or are you still going to put up a hard press for the next meeting?

The student governors haven’t met to talk about it, I want to move forward productively. To me, playing the quorum game is not a solution, it was delaying a motion that we felt would be uncomfortable to let pass without the public understanding it. It was a moral dilemma, but that’s not a solution. That delays the issue. So I think we need to come up with some constructive ways of putting the issue back on the table and having an actual conversation about it at the next meeting. But that takes everyone cooperating, not just us.

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