Today, David Turpin, the President of the University of Alberta, stood in front of 253 people — that’s how many can fit in an ECHA lecture hall according to fire codes — a full overflow room, and a crowd of students outside. Turpin decided that what all of those people really needed to hear was the same budget presentation that has been given to council, to the Board of Governors, and numerous other committees this year. Turpin decided that students just needed to hear what was really going on, and then maybe they would agree with him. Turpin decided that 10 minutes for questions, at the end of that presentation, would be enough to satiate students’ desire to be heard.
I am baffled by Turpin’s behaviour today. It confounds me that a person under such public scrutiny, accused of not listening to the needs of students, would make those choices. And I am proud to see that students did not stand for them. After 26 minutes of Turpin’s presentation, hecklers in the crowd asked him why he wouldn’t listen to them. Students yelled out about the unfair format of the forum, and told Turpin that they have in fact heard about the details of the budget, and that they are in fact still mad about it. When he was asked to answer student questions earlier, Turpin resorted back to his PowerPoint instead of addressing the concerns head-on.
When he finally opened the floor to questions, Turpin was asked if he believes that he deserves his exorbitant salary. He was confronted with Nicole Jones, who said she has been put in unsafe situations as a result of her needing to pay ever-increasing residence fees. He was asked if the Board of Governors would freeze layoffs, or if they would reconsider their budget in light of the new money being provided to the university by the provincial government. He deftly avoided providing any real answers to those questions.
I am baffled, but I am not surprised. None of us elected Turpin. None of us elected the Board of Governors who voted on these changes. Undergraduate students get only two representatives on that board. We have very few systemic mechanisms that we can use to ensure that people are listening to us, and that’s a problem.
This is also the same administration whose members have been documented to not listen to student representatives, simply because of the fact that they are young. Administration has made the mistake of assuming that students are easily exploitable, even students who are elected and paid to be a part of university governance. They assume that we don’t have the information, that we don’t understand big numbers, and that we can’t be bothered to understand what is going on.
Today, those assumptions were very clearly proven wrong.
Students came out to the forum, and they came prepared with questions. They stayed afterward, chanting. They followed Turpin to his office, and remained in the hallways of SAB for almost two hours. Today they showed up, and it sounds like they intend to continue showing up.
I wish students didn’t have to yell to be heard. I wish they didn’t have to protest to be listened to. But in light of the current system of accountability, which offers students almost no structural mechanisms through which they can get their way, I’m glad that they are yelling and protesting. In a better world, the system wouldn’t be so pegged against them.