Reaching for a wider community
Reaching for a wider community
By Jael Lodge
Classrooms closed, students and faculty detained and entire religious and ethnic groups being denied the right to an education. Something out of the Holocaust? No, it's happening today in many places around the world and Western students are trying to do their part to alter the situation. But this creates a dilemma should Western's faculty and administration be endorsing such campaigns?
"We just wanted to raise human rights issues," says Hoda Etemad, communications officer for the Association for Baha'i Studies. "Our members all went to see their professors and deans, who all received a package."
The package Etemad is speaking of is a letter and copy of United Nations declarations regarding the systematic denial of education to minorities in Iran. It also asked for support in a letter writing campaign to various Iranian officials, both in Iran and Canada.
Greg Moran, Western's VP-academic, was one of those to whom the Baha'i students made a presentation. However, he declined to comment on whether he had in fact chosen to support the campaign.
"I listened to them only as an individual, not as a representative of the university," he says, stressing he would not have had the authority to write such a letter on behalf of the university.
Jan Van Fleet, the university secretariat, says to her knowledge there is only one policy precedent involving this type of request. This was in 1980 when biochemistry professor John Trevithick made a motion for the Senate to support a campaign for academic freedoms in the then Soviet Union.
According to the Senate minutes, it was suggested by senators this type of action is a matter of personal opinion, not university endorsement. They felt at the time that the university should restrict itself to academic matters relevant to its own operations or those of Ontario and Canada.
Times have changed since 1980 and there seems to be a different view on the subject among some faculty members and students.
"I don't believe that there is a policy in place respecting our ability to send letters of support," says Ted Garrard, Western's VP-external. He also notes the administration does occasionally have to decline to offer support, generally for reasons of the cause or organization being racist or other problems which fall under the human rights code.
"There's also the relationship between the university and the cause," Garrard continues, citing the university needs a logical reason for supporting any given cause.
Ted Hewitt, associate dean of student affairs for social science, sees part of the reason for not supporting many campaigns as simply because it is not the role of the faculty offices. "We see our mission primarily as one resolving academic issues," he says.
Hewitt also notes the office receives many requests for support, but generally the faculty itself does not take a specific stance. "If individual faculty members and students asked for support of a specific issue, we take the request very seriously.
"We determine if involvement is appropriate."
Not even all campus groups feel their role is to organize campaigns like the Association for Baha'i Studies. Jeff Clayman, president of the Jewish Students' Union, says it is not something which their organization has ever had the need to do. "I think organizations above and beyond us would take care of [international] issues."
While the campaign of the Association for Baha'i Studies focused in the first term on bringing the situation to faculty members, in the second term it has focused on informing students and it had a display in the University Community Centre's atrium in January. This places concerns over involvement in the University Students' Council's arena and in itself leads to other sets of issues in light of possible conflicts between campus groups.
Etemad stresses the point of the campaign being not against the population of Iran, but the government. "It's basically a human rights situation."
Pete Hill, VP-campus issues for the USC, says the USC has to be careful in supporting political or cultural campaigns. "We don't want to support something as an organization," he says.
Hill says the reason behind this cautious stance is the diverse composition of Western's student body. "Every issue probably has both sides represented on campus."
What the USC does do is provide a forum for suggestions as to how campaigns should be conducted, as well as using the equity table for discussions. Hill also offers suggestions as to the form of campaigns, which try to avoid confrontational approaches.
"We get letters from a variety of organizations, but we would rather support students than being involved in outside groups," Hill says. "If students really want to become involved, we can support them.
"The USC is an organization specifically tied to the undergraduate body. Our affiliation with global issues should be tied to student organizations."
Western does appear to have the ability to make a difference internationally, but as evidenced by faculty and administration, it is the responsibility of students to get the ball rolling.
"We're not specialized in one issue," says Jamie Cavanagh, co-chair of the Western local committee of World University Services Canada. "Specifically, though, our slant is on education and access to education."
Taking another approach to activism, WUSC tries to sponsor students from other countries where they are denied education and bring them to Canada. "Last year we attempted to get sponsorship [at Western]," says Cavanagh. "It didn't work because the proposal was not accepted by the USC."
Cavanagh does note, however, the administration was receptive to the idea once they could be reached. "Trying to get someone to talk to us and admit they were the right person to talk to was the hardest part.
"They do seem to be interested in an international image."
While WUSC was unsuccessful in bringing a refugee student to main campus, Huron College has supported the program for two years. The students there, through a donation made with their student fees, donate half of the cost to bring a student who would otherwise be denied an education to this country.
"It's based on need, such as poverty or safety issues," explains David Bevan, Huron's principal. "As well as Huron's capacity to be a suitable place for them."
In terms of actively participating in campaigns on human rights issues, Bevan says this is dealt with on an individual basis. "There's no policy that's been written down," Bevan says. "It's always a matter of the individual situation, trying to be sensitive to the position of the college and not to abuse personal position."
Arja Vainio-Mattila, who teaches international and comparative studies at Huron College, does see a role for universities in the support of international human rights issues. "Students are the university," she says. "If a campaign has support of students, the university should be pursuing it."
©Graphic by Brahm Wiseman