Last Tuesday’s meeting of the Governing Council’s University Affairs Board began like any other, with the usual formalities. After premiering the university’s new online strategy, Jill Matus, vice-provost of students, moved on to address the impending review of the Code of Student Conduct, slated for the next several months. Thus began the meeting’s high drama.
Part-time student representative Joeita Gupta, who had already drawn critical attention to earlier points in the meeting, now reached the peak of her performance. Gupta delivered her points with clarity and determination. She called for the outright scrapping of the code, saying that such a disciplinary framework has been used to restrict students’ rights to free speech, especially when such speech challenges the university administration. She noted the 2000 TA strike and the debacle surrounding the Fight Fees 14 two years ago as examples of such misuse.
Jeff Peters, president of the Association for Part-time Undergraduate Students, addressed the board as a guest speaker. Peters also questioned the Code of Student Conduct, almost perfectly echoing Gupta’s sentiments from only moments earlier. This would have made for an unremarkable and superfluous speech if not for the fact that Peters has a speech impediment that gives him difficulty speaking. On this particular night, he was also struck by a cough that often overcame his body and appeared to nearly knock him down.
As this spectacle wore on, and Chair B. Elizabeth Vosburgh asked Peters to wrap up his speech, he stood his ground and starkly refused. He asserted that he had many points to make and that he would speak for as long as he needed. The chair was nevertheless firm, causing Gupta to intervene and insist that Peters be given more than the usual allotted time due to his impediment. The confrontation devolved into a shouting match between Gupta and the chair. In the end, Peters did wrap up and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.
Gupta and Peters are certainly neither foolish nor naïve, and their combined spectacle entirely reframed the meeting. Rather than simply paying homage to the university’s strengths, those in attendance were called upon to confront the shortcomings and inequities perceived among members of the student community.
Whereas U of T is undoubtedly a world-class institution that should proudly promote and celebrate its virtues, a single-minded focus on this hampers progress in the long run. Rather, improving the experiences of students requires bodies such as the Governing Council to realistically attend to the challenges and shortcomings that persist.
Before closing the topic, Matus responded that the code would be done away with only if widespread sentiment against it is made apparent in the coming months. The door to significant change therefore lies open, and the onus is on all members of this university to make their voices heard. Do we agree that the university is a hierarchical corporate structure and that students, like employees, are subject to particular rules of conduct? Do we instead agree that the university is a community of equal members, all subject to the same rules of conduct? Or do we simply shut up?
Maciek Lipinski-Harten is a graduate representative on the University Affairs Board.