Learning to listen

Over the last couple of years, particularly this year, I have had the opportunity to be involved in the Governing Council at U of T. As a news writer for The Varsity, I have attended all of the GC meetings of the past year and many of the committee and board meetings associated with it. This observational role has given me a unique window into the process; it has also meant that my participatory role is limited, if not absent.

GC meetings are long, procedural, and often end in disappointment for the students involved. But, somewhat surprisingly, I’ve found myself enraptured by these proceedings, even as they sometimes draw into the evening hours and, my tape recorder failing me and my notepad overflowing, I feel my stomach start to grumble and my eyes becoming heavy. Why the spectator value? Because these meetings are where decisions that affect us as students, citizens, and members of the academic community are made. I’m convinced that we should all care about such decisions, regardless of our future ambitions and fields of study. Our educational system has far-reaching implications for our province and our country.

Recently, in The Bulletin (U of T’s Public Affairs-produced newspaper), the former president of the Graduate Student Union, Jorge Sousa, wrote a piece that captured much of the frustration I’ve felt sitting in the background of these meetings.

Discussing governance at U of T, Sousa wrote, “We must accept diverse voices in a dialogue and make everyone feel that they are part of the system that they are contributing to.”

And then the pivotal point: “For instance, there are people who favoured the Conservative education reforms and subsequent cuts. Although I personally find this stance reprehensible, those individuals that took that position have an important voice in a dialogue that will contribute to the success of the university.”

Observing the meetings of GC, I have often been enraged by the manner in which student voices have been shut down by the chair of the board, meaning that, in effect, the voices of all students have at times been disenfranchised. At the same time, while I feel a deep respect for the students who make it their pursuit to fight for the rights of those they represent, I believe that they have sometimes failed in bringing about the dialogue Sousa suggests.

Some theories of activism charge their adherents to refrain from participating in deliberations carried out by bodies they feel are illegitimate. To participate in such bodies is to legitimize them.

Is the University of Toronto’s administration and system of governance illegitimate? Accused of corporate takeover, silencing, exclusivity, and limiting academic freedoms in that past, some clearly believe that it is. And some refuse to participate. But those who do participate—students, faculty, and staff—at least have a duty to improve the legitimacy of the system. Most of all, they have a duty to foster dialogue.

What does it mean to dialogue? To dialogue means to listen, and this is an activity that so many of us unknowingly absent ourselves from, to our own detriment.

Within the governance system at U of T, and I believe in our provincial and federal governments, we should make the act of listening a priority. Parliamentary systems such as the ones used in this country are by their nature adversarial, but universities need not be.

I respectfully call on those dedicated student activists who attempt to voice the interests of students at GC to cultivate the dialogue that Sousa speaks of. We must listen to the voices of the “other side,” regardless of how instinctively we abhor them. Similarly, I call on responsible administrators and faculty to fulfil their “listening” role in the dialogue.

As I prepare to graduate from this university, I take with me my experience as an observer and commentator on governance at U of T. It has taught me something about the importance of respectful dialogue, of hearing “the Other.” As the world sets out on the path of war, I am reminded of the significance of such lessons for all.

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