In the spring of 2015, students from several departments at Concordia University in Montreal held general assemblies to vote on whether to join a province-wide student strike movement known as “Printemps 2015,” protesting the provincial Liberal government’s austerity policies. Some departments voted to strike, others did not, but almost a year later the aftermath of these events continues to play out at Concordia.
More than two dozen students have been brought before disciplinary tribunals for their role in non-violent strike activities, and representatives at every level of student government have accused senior administrators of lying and engaging in “predatory behaviour.”
In interviews, students described a harrowing toll on their mental health and academic performance. They face the threat of expulsion in a series of tribunals that can last 11 hours at a stretch and have now carried on for the better part of a year — with no end in sight.
"It's been hell, to be honest,” said Nora Fabre, a third-year political science student. “Watching my peers stressing out, asking ‘how am I going to juggle school and make sure I can defend myself against the administration and this professor?’ was really unsettling.”
"I spent countless hours talking to my advocate, having group meetings that went late into the night. The constant thought in my head was ‘I should be studying right now.’”
Aloyse Muller is an international student from France and the elected president of the Liberal Arts Students’ Society. "I used to be an A student,” he said, “and I'm now a B student as of last semester."
‘Obstruction or disruption of University activities’
Students in several departments, including political science, voted in general assemblies to hold a strike on April 1 and 2, 2015. By most accounts the strike went smoothly, with no recorded incidents of violence. “Full-time and part-time professors’ unions,” reported the Link student newspaper, “along with the teaching and research assistants’ union stated their support for the strikers, while advising professors and teachers to not cross picket lines.”
Michael Lipson and Graham Dodds, both professors in political science, arrived at their respective classrooms before picket lines had been set up and attempted to hold class in defiance of their union’s directive. Students in Lipson’s class responded by offering to use the class time to hold a conversation on austerity. When their offer was refused, they used chanting to ensure the class could not proceed. A similar scene played out in Dodds’ class.
At least 27 students were charged, some in relation to both classes, under article 29G of Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities, which prohibits the “obstruction or disruption of University activities.”
Dodds declined to talk to Ricochet on the basis that the tribunals are ongoing, while Lipson did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. One of the professors entered an article I wrote last year into evidence at the tribunals, and as a result I have appeared as a witness in my capacity as a journalist.
Patrice Blais is a law professor at Concordia and vice president of the part-time faculty association. His union has opposed the tribunal process from the start. “Our position is clear: this is not the proper mechanism to address an issue which is fundamentally a political issue,” Blais told Ricochet. “The code of conduct is not the way to settle these kind of issues.” The full-time faculty union, which represents the professors in question, did not respond to requests for comment.
During the 2012 student strike, over 50 charges were filed against students at Concordia. Alan Shepard became university president later that year, and one of his first acts after taking office was to withdraw all charges. This year, again, Shepard’s administration was initially tolerant of the strike, even cancelling classes for a “day of dialogue” on April 2.
In April the university dismissed questions about the professors’ complaints as out of their control. But a month later, students received notices of the complaints against them and were surprised to learn that the administration had joined the cases as a co-complainant.
University accused of bad faith
According to a joint statement issued by nine elected leaders representing all levels of student government at Concordia, this violated a promise made by three senior members of the university administration to not charge students for peaceful strike activity. The administration, through a spokesperson, has denied providing any such assurances, and has thus far declined all interview requests with the administrators in the room during the meeting with the student leaders.
"It was a huge surprise, and a feeling of betrayal,” said Marion Miller, academic and advocacy coordinator for the Concordia Student Union and a signatory to the statement, “I know these administrators very well, and I've spoken to them on a one-on-one basis many times, so it was a huge feeling of betrayal that they would say this to my face and that we would come to an understanding about how the situation would play out, and they would give their commitment not to charge us and then sign on two months later as a co-complainant.”
“What we were told by our student representatives,” said Fabre, “was that as long as we didn't vandalize, we didn't block main entrances and we were non-violent that we could carry out our strike mandate. That's what the administration told them.”
She and other students pointed to confusion over a day of dialogue when classes were cancelled. It was originally scheduled for April 1, but at some point was changed to April 2. Many of the students interviewed for this piece said that at the time they thought that the day of dialogue was April 1.
“It was even on the Concordia website that April 1 would be a day of dialogue,” said Fabre. “I was under the impression that this was the day of dialogue, and we were within our rights to fulfill our strike mandate.”
For Emma Fogelman, another student charged for disrupting Lipton’s class, she and her fellow students are victims of the administration’s failure to communicate clearly.
"The people at the bottom are being punished for a lack of communication that happened at levels way, way above us."
According to multiple student representatives, it all adds up to a climate of severe distrust between student leaders and university administrators, undermining the ability of elected leaders to work with the university.
No end in sight
Last fall a tribunal was held for most of the students charged by Dodds, with the remainder facing a tribunal scheduled for March 1. The first tribunal, composed of two graduate students and one faculty member, found the students guilty of disrupting the class but only issued a letter of reprimand, the minimum possible punishment under the code. Last month a marathon 11-hour tribunal hearing for students charged by Lipson resulted in the same slap on the wrist.
According to Miller, who received a letter of reprimand for her role in disrupting Dodds’ class, in the tribunal Dodds and Lipson expressed a desire for her and the other students to be expelled. “The professors were really intent on a severe punishment. They said they would love to recommend that the sanction be expulsion, but they knew that since that has to be approved by the president it probably wouldn't happen. So their recommendation was the strongest possible sanction short of expulsion.”
Administration skips own mediation process
The Concordia administration refused all requests for an interview. Spokesperson Chris Mota explained in an email that although “there are no provisions in the Code of Conduct that prevent the university from giving interviews while the deliberations are ongoing, we do not comment while a process is underway. Once all the tribunals are over we would be pleased to speak with you.”
Given that appeals have been filed, and that there are three levels to an appeal in Concordia’s peculiar process, that could mean no interviews until as late as 2017. It’s a curious silence for a publicly funded institution. Mota has denied the allegations of nine student leaders about what was said in their meeting with senior administrators, but these administrators are now unavailable for interviews.
It isn’t the only curious action on the part of the administration. Last fall the university hired external mediators to attempt to resolve the conflict outside of the tribunal process. According to Mota, the mediator for complaints related to one class cost $26,000, while the cost of the other process isn’t yet known.
Details on the mediation are shrouded in confidentiality agreements. It is known, however, that despite being a co-complainant in the cases, the administration refused to participate in its own mediation hearings. Asked why not, Mota responded, “We had hoped that informal resolution, or mediation, would be a viable option in these complaints. We believed the effort was worth the investment. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in this case.”
"To us it was completely absurd," said Miller. "It made the mediation process much more difficult, especially because a lot of what we wanted to discuss had to do with the administration. The profs said the admin promised them this, we said that the admin promised us that, and the admin wouldn't come. There were just so many unanswered questions. [The administration] played an important role in the confusion that ensued during the strike, and they didn't want to be held accountable for that."
Likewise, the administration sent only security agents to represent them at the tribunals. Mota’s response to a question about mediation was, word for word, identical to her response to a question about sending only security staff to the tribunals.
“The University has indicated that its involvement in the complaints was taken in support of the faculty and that it would support whatever the outcome of the hearings.”
Many of the students Ricochet spoke to over several days at Concordia, some facing charges and some not, expressed variations on a theme: the professors, and thus the university as co-complainant, had targeted student leaders through the tribunal process.
"Out of all the departments in which students were charged,” said Nora St-Aubin, a student who was at both classes but was not charged, “the president of every student association got charged. They're trying to make examples out of people."
"They singled out and targeted 25 of the hundreds involved in the strike,” Fabre agreed. “I felt like I was made out to be some kind of criminal."
Ben Prunty was student union president last year, and a witness at last month’s tribunal. “The professors that are charging students here are in fact holding all the other parties hostage right now,” he argued.
“The university doesn't need this scandal. I doubt they want this to be happening, and neither do the students need to have their valuable time, energy, and importantly their emotional energy, wasted, myself included. This is a very draining process, not just on the individuals involved but on the community.”
"After 11 hours it's emotionally and honestly physically draining,” said Fabre. “It felt really intimidating to be targeted and singled out by my university.”
“What’s not clear is which role Concordia is playing,” added Blais. “Are they a complainant or are they the people running the system? I think that’s a question that needs to be answered, because that’s where the problem lies.”
Tribunals threaten student movement
While at Concordia, I met a group of students painting banners, later dropped along with origami birds in high-traffic areas of the university, for a group called Concordia Against Tribunals.
Eamon Toohey is a member of the group. He is a first-year English literature major, who wasn’t at the school when the strike happened, but he sees the tribunals as dangerous.
"This whole tribunal process presents a threat to the student movement as a whole, and if this is something that's allowed to fly at Concordia, then it'll be able to happen anywhere else and it'll severely limit our actual ability to take action when we need to,” he said. “I'm in this to protect future student mobilization because it all goes down the tubes if we allow this to happen."