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The attack on student union autonomy at the University of Windsor

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

With classes out and students in the thick of their exams, the president of the University of Windsor declared that he plans to block the University of Windsor Student Alliance from accessing their student fees.

The decision was announced to the board of the UWSA in a letter signed by Alan Wildeman and leaked.  The UWSA is one of three student unions at Windsor and represents all full-time undergraduate students. The UWSA fee also funds campus media: both the radio station and The Lance depend on it.

Refusing to remit student fees is a popular tactic used to stop the operations of a student union. And, it's relatively easy. It's a decision that exposes just how vulnerable student union autonomy is in Ontario.

In his letter, Wildeman said that his decision was taken because he believes that the students' union has not governed itself properly. The Windsor Star reports that the administration will "cease funding to the UWSA until the school is confident that there is a "properly governed organization in place."

The one problem, of course, is it’s not actually the University of Windsor's money.

The UWSA has been, for a long time, a very centrist student union. The executive is normally anchored by executives active within fraternities or sororities and the Liberal Party. For a school where the student centre was named after the CAW, the level of student activism from the UWSA has, over the years, been very low.

However, this year, the executive has been somewhat more progressive and a referendum to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign was held. Wildeman mentions this vote in his letter as one of his justifications for strangling the financial health of the student union. Of course, he blames a variety of technical issues for his opposition to the referendum, rather than the politics of the decision itself, though he made his opposition to BDS widely known during the vote.

For example, he claims that the question wasn't clear enough:

Be It Resolved That the University of Windsor Students Alliance:

Join student organizations around the globe by endorsing and participating in the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions from Palestinian civil society;

and Commit to identifying and divesting from companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression; 

and Affirm that students have a vital role in supporting struggles for social justice, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians' struggle for self-determination and freedom.

As if "Israeli war crimes" isn’t clear enough. The vote passed by 798 to 585.

In his letter, he didn't seem to make reference to the threats that the university received from external companies who said that they’d refuse to hire U Windsor students in co-op positions if BDS passed.

There were other technical problems with the vote, such as whether or not the petition calling for the referendum reached quorum. Wildeman also took issue with how many students were allowed to vote at the council level by proxy.

But do these relatively minor infractions justify such a harsh response?

The cover used for this decision is the recent election, where students organized for a yes/no vote to vote against the only students that ran. Rather than allowing the UWSA to work out the details of another election, Wildeman is using this opportunity to teach the student union a lesson: don't try to pass anything controversial; don't piss off the admin.

In Ontario, student unions are bound by corporations legislation but rely on university administrations to release student fees and data that corporations legislation compels them to have (like a membership list). Unlike in Québec or British Columbia, no laws exist to prohibit an administrator from not releasing student union fees.

This leaves student unions exposed. It necessarily forces them to have the capacity to undertake legal campaigns, especially for when a ground campaign isn't possible (during exams at the end of a semester, for example) in case their fees are withheld. It means that contracts that rely on those fees can be broken at the whim of an administrator. Employment responsibilities, service contracts and operations that students rely on can grind to a halt over night.

This creates a massive power imbalance and with it, turns the job of a university administrator into a kind of parental role, a role many administrators are only too happy to assume.

It also keeps a threat constantly looming that if you make a mistake, the admin can cease your operations under the cover of those mistakes. This means more resources have to go toward administrative staff and legal resources rather than to campaigns and outreach.

In many cases, right-wing students will work with administrators to have them involve themselves to help suppress progressive student activists.

Broadly speaking, there isn’t even a consensus on the idea that students are competent and have the right to conduct their affairs independent of the administration. Student activists have to organize at the grassroots to demonstrate the importance and value of autonomy in their organizations among their members.

This has fundamentally changed the activist character of Ontario university and college student unions.

At the UWSA, where the executive was split on the question of BDS, it’s highly likely that the current, muted response from the UWSA is the result of some people involved in the UWSA actually supporting the move. Rather than get involved in the UWSA and steer it into a different direction, many members of the UWSA have expressed support for the administration’s decision online.

Student union autonomy is a fundamental principle and should be defended vigorously, but it takes a lot of time, energy and resources. Finding a way to navigate such an environment can be extremely difficult. It can also make or break an executive’s popularity, depending on how the administration plays their cards.

It's hard to imagine what legal justification the University of Windsor admin is operating under. Many schools have fee agreements that govern the remittance of fees, but not all do. If Wildeman isn’t waving around this agreement, there’s either no agreement at the University of Windsor, or the agreement wouldn’t justify his decision.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Such an attack on autonomous student organizing is unacceptable. What does matter is that peoples' jobs are at risk and that a message is being sent to students at Windsor: you’re under our thumbs.

I salute the courage that it took to bring forward the motion on BDS, but it's a reminder to all students organizing within Ontario's precarious framework: if you're going to challenge global oppression through the formal framework of your students' union, dot your Is, cross your Ts and do the groundwork necessary to make an administrator's attack so unpopular that he won't even consider undertaking one.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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