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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Film review: Whose University Is It?

By David Smookler
Published: 10:00 am, 23 September 2003
Modified: 5 pm, 11 January 2012
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Whose University Is It? (the title was taken from a piece of graffiti at Trent University) is a new addition to the growing pantheon of documentary films that politicize as well as inform. The film successfully splices interviews, video from protests, university meetings and provincial debates to show the shift in university governance from a democratic, inclusive policy to a more dictatorial model that is little concerned with the people the universities are supposed to serve.

The movie shines a light on the activities of the provincial government with regards to education, and specifically how it is using funds to coerce universities to be more dependent on private corporate sponsorship.

Needing cash, Trent University applied to the province’s Superbuild fund, money set aside by the Tories specifically to get universities to apply for corporate donations. Along with this conditional offer of money was a message from a provincial representative that Trent would be made an example of if it weren’t “accountable to its consumers/taxpayers.” The government requested the university sell off its downtown campus in the heart of Peterborough.

In the film the present head of the university, Bonnie Patterson, appears pleased with these developments. She likens the students who would be concentrated on a single isolated campus to a “guaranteed consumer base” for the various corporations that will move into the college setting, once they have secured the right to do so by donating to the university.

When the university’s Senate (a coalition of professors and students) votes against the Superbuild proposal, the Board of Governors, led by Patterson, rejects the Senate recommendations in an unprecedented move. A former president of the university makes it clear this is not a choice everybody in Patterson’s position would make.

The film ends with a dramatic confrontation between police and students, who are forcibly dragged away during a protest. The final frame quotes economist John Kenneth Galbraith asserting that the health of a society can be measured by its willingness to publicly support schooling; a sobering indication of the health of our society today.