Concordia University Magazine

Whose university is this, anyway?

The Concordia Student Union (CSU) has been the centre of much controversy throughout the past year. Here, Concordia University Magazine chronicles these events, clears up some myths and looks at some students who have taken a different approach to activis

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach.
— Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

"Coalition For Change"

The “coalition for change” (clockwise from left): Concordia students Sharon Koifman, Nili Yavin, Sean Morrow, Jonathon LaBerge, and Chris Schultz. They helped distribute the petition to oust the CSU, which aided in pressuring the president to step down in October. Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Over the past year, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) has increasingly taken aim at “the mongrel dogs” at Concordia and beyond, shots that have resonated through the national media. Corporations, the Canadian military, the Israeli government and the Concordia administration, among others, have all been in the sights of the CSU, most infamously — but not exclusively — in its student agenda, Uprising 2001-2002.

This should be a time when Concordia’s star is ascending, as new buildings spring up on both campuses, enrolment sits at an all-time high and a large number of new faculty arrive. Unfortunately, every time the CSU has landed in the news — which was almost daily from September through October — it’s sullied the reputation of the entire University community, even though the CSU slate was elected by only 4 per cent of the student population. Worse still, students — the very group the CSU represents — stand to lose the most.

The CSU members, in their defence, believe their cause is just and their activism part of a much greater concern than short-term job prospects for new graduates. The CSU and its supporters have accused the University of improperly trying to silence them, and many students, faculty and alumni back their right to espouse political views. Indeed, much of the CSU’s criticism of globalization, corporate influence in higher education and Palestinian human rights carries mainstream support. Lillian Robinson, principal of Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute and among the CSU’s most vocal supporters, contends, “Since students have not been invited to take part in the debate about the focus and direction of higher education, it seems to me that Uprising and the CSU initiative about corporate influence on campus were attempts to engage that debate.”

Donald Boisvert, Ralph Lee, Chris Schulz

Concordia students Ralph Lee and Chris Schulz, at right, hand Dean of Students Donald Boisvert a petition calling for the CSU executive to step down, as the media looks on. Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

But civil debate is something the CSU has consistently shown an unwillingness to participate in. When Concordia University Magazine invited David Bernans, a CSU researcher and adviser, to comment for this story, he refused. On October 5, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) held an open forum promoting “unity amid diversity,” with a panel including CSU president Sabrina Stea, Dean of Students Donald Boisvert and Sally Spilhaus of the Office of Rights and Responsibilities. But during the question period one CSU ally after another lined up at the microphones only to hurl insults at the administration, Boisvert, Spilhaus and even the well-intentioned organizers, then marched out en masse. Students from the faculty associations and administrators who have dealt with the CSU in private meetings or public forums report that this self-righteous, confrontational attitude prevails.

Furthermore, the CSU’s rhetoric strives, it seems, not to engage but simply to provoke. Flipping randomly through Uprising reveals countless examples such as this: “Michael Di Grappa [Vice-Rector Services] tries to placate us with ideas of a ‘student centre,’ at least ten years down the road (a carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick feeble attempt to keep us quiet). I think, ‘Well fuck off.’ ” (No writer attributed.) The CSU claims the contentious pieces in its agenda are meant to be satirical, but as Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy points out, “Satire in order to be satirical has to be recognized as such. Their document, unfortunately, is very serious.” He adds, “The same things could have been said in the agenda in a less offensive fashion. You can criticize the government of Israel, for instance, without advocating violent uprising. It’s not the message, it’s the way it’s said.”

Taking back their union

More importantly, the CSU does not appear to have acted in the best interests of their constituency. In early October, 15 former CSU executives and representatives from the 1990s co-signed a letter to Concordia’s Thursday Report denouncing the current slate for irresponsibly using the student union “to further their own narrow political interests.”

Michael Nimchuk

Michael Nimchuk, president of the ECA, adds his message to the TAG peace banner in the Hall Building lobby in September.

Upon learning of the attempt by the CSU to ban three companies from campus in September, the Commerce & Administration Students’ Association (CASA), led by president Cristelle Basmaji, and the Engineering & Computer Science Students’ Association, under president Michael Nimchuk, rallied enough students to easily defeat the motion to bar the companies, as well as to win back the right for the associations to appoint their own representatives to senate and the board of governors.

Basmaji, a third-year marketing student, says, “We at CASA don’t believe we should be promoting our political views at the expense of others.” Ricardo Filippone, president of the Arts & Science Federation of Associations, adds, “It is unacceptable that the CSU wasn’t listening to students, destroying the school’s reputation and creating a hostile environment.”

Concordia student Ralph Lee agreed. So Lee, fellow student Chris Schulz and a group informally calling themselves the “coalition for change” began a petition to recall the CSU slate. Within a few weeks they had close to 3,200 names, significantly more than the 2,300 (10 per cent) needed to force a recall. With the writing on the wall, Stea stepped down before the petition was submitted, forcing a by-election. Schulz found that students were more than happy to sign the petition. “They were very angry with the CSU,” he says. “We had across-the-board support.” Schulz, a third-year political science student who ran for president last year and had been a student councillor and clubs commissioner in the past, does not call himself an activist. But he felt compelled to act by the CSU’s lack of regard for the concerns of most students. “We want the new executive to take into account all of the views on campus, to be democratic and to consult the faculty associations,” he says. “You can’t disenfranchise 5,000 commerce students and 2,500 engineering students.”

Another coalition member is second-year communications studies student Sean Morrow. He hadn’t been involved in student politics until things escalated this fall; he then helped distribute the petition. The response to it, he reports, was obvious. “I spent 45 minutes in the Hall Building cafeteria, and 85 per cent of the people there signed the petition. People were saying to me, ‘I’ve been looking for you — anything to get rid of the CSU.’ ”

Positive tack

Nisha Sajnani, Rocci Luppicini

TAG’s Nisha Sajnani and Rocci Luppicini, at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where they presented a study on tolerance. Sajnani says, “Our projects have highlighted what it takes to be a responsible and representative group.”

Many Concordia students remain idealist and activist but are trying to take a constructive route to effect change. In the wake of September 11, former CSU president (1995-96) Jonathan Carruthers launched a “peace banner” project in the Hall Building. Large banners were left for students to sign or paint on, to be a “catalyst of peace,” according to Carruthers, for all of those in the Concordia community.

The banner project was part of a larger initiative, TAG — Tolerance, Acceptance, Growth — headed by GSA president Rocci Luppicini and VP, external affairs, Nisha Sajnani. TAG aims to bring about social change through student projects, like the peace banner or a photo and art exhibit to raise awareness about intolerance. Sajnani will begin a diploma in community and economic development at Concordia after completing her master’s in drama therapy. “The banner project,” she says, “ was the kind of positive and collaborative effort that we’re looking for.” TAG has received support and funding from the rector’s office and the dean of students office and plans to offer more panel discussions and student-run projects. Luppicini, pursuing his PhD in educational technology, says, “It’s important to start with an idea, not an agenda.” Adds Sajnani, “When you’re in a position of power and advocacy, you must be careful. You must be open to your whole membership.”

By December, the Concordia community will have found out how representative the CSU truly is. Yet even if the slate is re-elected — a possibility, given the difficulty of attracting a large voter turnout or if the several slates in the running split the opposition vote — their free reign will have been hampered; it will be some time before any student union will be able to remain insensitive to its constituency.

In the pages of this magazine over the years, Concordia and its administration have consistently received praise for its progressiveness in areas like women’s studies, queer studies and services for the disabled. Concordia encourages student involvement and interest in the outside world, as practiced by Nisha Sajnani or Chris Schulz. But sadly, the CSU insisted on treating the administration or anyone not on their side as the enemy. Bob Dylan, reflecting on his former narrow worldview, wrote in “My Back Pages,” “Lies that life is black and white/Spoke from my skull.” Fortunately, not all students see life as black and white, a healthy attitude in the post September 11 world.

If you have any comments about this article, contact Howard Bokser, (514) 848-3826,

Whoos the CSU?

The CSU executive that stepped down in October was first elected in March 2001. Out of a population of 21,000 Concordia undergraduate students, roughly 1,900 voted, and about 850 (4 per cent of all students) chose president Sabrina Stea and her slate of five VPs. Concordia’s student turnout is lower than most schools partly because of the large part-time and night-time contingent, traditionally less concerned about student politics.

Concordia’s student unions have traditionally had a leftist bent — like most Quebec university student unions — but beginning with Rob Green’s two-year presidency in 1999 and followed by Stea, the CSU has become increasingly radical; members profess to be anti-globalization, anti-corporatization, pro-Palestinian — a position which became more evident and controversial after the Palestinian intifadeh that began in September 2000 — and even Marxist and anarchist.

In December 2000, Concordia students voted in favour of the CSU becoming an accredited union, similar to a labour union under Quebec law. It is therefore independent, accountable only to undergraduate students and to the Concordia Council of Representatives — an elected group of 30 undergrads (many of whom currently are aligned with the CSU) plus faculty reps. The student union also has access to a budget of approximately $1 million yearly, from student fees, and pays its executives, hires a staff and appoints representatives to different boards. The University collects the fees for the CSU and provides it with office space, wall space and access to common areas, as it must under the accreditation law.

The year that was —
The CSU kept busy in 2000-2001

Student Agenda
The CSU student agenda, Uprising 2001-2002, released (unfortunately) on September 11, made national headlines for its call for civil disobedience, intifadeh, flag burning and other acts of rebellion. “When this book came out it hurt the University in several ways,” Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy says. “We began to get angry or confused phone calls from parents, prospective students and potential donors.”

In the aftermath of the agenda and September 11, the Jewish watchdog group B’nai Brith Canada called the CSU, certainly without basis, “a training ground for terrorists.” “That was an extreme statement by the B’nai Brith,” Dr. Lowy insists.

In October, after the release of Uprising and other events (described below), the Concordia administration asked three Quebec government ministries to investigate the CSU, arguing that it was not acting in the best interests of its constituency.

Job fairs
Angry at having part of a submission rejected for publication in The Bridge, a magazine for new students, in September the CSU published its own newsletter, The Unabridged, in which it denounced several Canadian companies for warmongering. Copies of the article “Making a Killing” were faxed to some companies and, as a result, some of these withdrew from job fairs organized by engineering and business students. Engineering & Computer Science Dean Nabil Esmail says, “This student union also represents engineering and computer science students, and they were very unhappy to know the executive was cutting into their job opportunities.”

Expulsion of companies
At a general assembly, September 26, students were asked to vote on the “expulsion” of a Concordia governor and three companies with links to the University accused of wrongdoing and improper influence on curriculum and research. However, the potential negative fallout of this move mobilized voters — mostly business and engineering students — and more than 800 came out and resoundingly defeated the motion.

Board and senate
In the past, the Commerce & Administration Students’ Association (CASA) and the Engineering & Computer Science Students’ Association (ECA) sent their own elected representatives to the student slots on university senate and the board of governors. But after the CSU won accreditation last year, its executives contended that they had exclusive rights in this matter. At the September 26 general assembly, students overwhelmingly voted to allow CASA and ECA to again nominate their own representatives.

In July, after CSU VP Laith Marouf was caught painting graffiti on Concordia property a second time, he and fellow CSU member Tom Keefer allegedly roughed up security guards and Keefer allegedly uttered a death threat, witnessed, in part, by Vice-Rector Services Michael Di Grappa. Dr. Lowy excluded Marouf and Keefer from Concordia premises. The two claimed innocence and that the banning was politically motivated. They also maintain that they were denied due process under the University’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities. But the administration countered that they were not students — Marouf was in failed standing and Keefer was not registered — and therefore the code doesn’t apply.

Concordia legal counsel Bram Freedman says, “The University has made it clear that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are wonderful, but when it gets to the point of threats and intimidation, rushing security guards, we draw the line.” And given Concordia’s tragic history, Freedman adds, “There is zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour.”

The case is now before the courts.

Concordia refused a request from the student group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) to hold a pro-Palestinian bazaar and rally scheduled for September 15 on University land. SPHR claimed that the denial was politically motivated, but Dr. Lowy explains, “What worried us was that this rally by their own calculation might have drawn somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000, of course the vast majority non-students. We were frankly afraid there could be disruption and even violence.”

After September 11, the SPHR postponed the rally until September 27 and again requested space from Concordia, which it still refused. A much smaller rally was held elsewhere. Dr. Lowy reports, “The September 27 rally was interrupted by others, 80 were arrested, none of whom were our students. I cite this as an example of what we were afraid of, on a much larger scale.”

At a Concordia job fair last spring, a group of students, including Keefer and Christina Xydous, allegedly overturned CSIS and Canadian Armed Forces tables. A student tribunal was held (although the proceedings were never concluded). Says Freedman, “Keefer and Xydous were participating in the process only to discredit the process — they said so publicly, it was no secret.” Keefer and Laith Marouf now seek a similar tribunal hearing for their expulsion case.

UN Resolution
At a general assembly held in April, students voted, 774 to 677, to support UN Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to pull out of land that it has occupied since the Six Day War in 1967.

The CSU revealed in October 2000 that $193,000 had been embezzled from its funds. In October 2001, the Montreal Urban Community Police charged former CSU VP Finance Sheryll Navidad with fraud.

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