MACLEAN’S JOINS A DIALOGUE ON STUDENT POWER
"There is discontent because this is a hierarchical academic community for everybody but students"
That resounding crash you’ve been hearing on the university campuses of the world in the past couple of years was the sound of ivory towers tumbling to the ground. Nobody, except possibly a few fossilized academics who roosted in the towers, was sad to see them go. It is no longer a matter for debate that profound changes are inevitable in the concept of the university as an institution — both in itself and in society. What is now at issue in Canada is whether these changes will evolve peacefully, in the wake of debate and discussion, or come violently, in the wake of flying cobblestones and clouds of tear gas.
In the weeks before lectures began this fall, the representatives of the three main elements of the campus community — students, faculty and administration — were all manoeuvring for position around the bargaining tables. No one was certain what the fall would bring. There was always the chance that some small incident — perhaps as trifling as a student parking problem — could spark the sort of situation that set Columbia and Paris ablaze in the past year. But the best sign that differences could be resolved peacefully was the existence, on most Canadian campuses, of a continuing dialogue between student leaders and administrations.
Here is a sample of such a dialogue. On one side was Dr. Claude Bissell. President of the University of Toronto, who had just returned from a year at Harvard where he set up a course of Canadian studies. As administrative head of Canada's largest university. Dr. Bissell finds himself, in his own words, “in the eye of the hurricane." Speaking for the students was 22year-old Steve Langdon, this year’s head of the Students’ Administrative Council at Toronto and a former head of the campus NDP organization. Speaking for Maclean’s, when he could get a word in. was Staff Writer Douglas Marshall. '
Much of the current discussion at the U of T centres around a report on undergraduate education commissioned by Dr. Bissell and prepared by Prof. C. B. Macpherson of the Political Science Department. It recommended reductions in examinations and lectures. Dr. Bissell considers the report “one of the most radical documents I’ve
read in recent years." Student leaders don’t think the suggestions made in the report are radical enough. With this in mind, Maclean's was seeking the answers to two questions: How much does Student Power want? And what are the universities prepared to give? What emerged was the fact that, as yet, neither side is very sure:
Maclean’s: Are there going to be serious disruptions of this or any other Canadian campus this year? Langdon: If you're asking whether there is going to be a riot, I don’t think that is a question I can answer. The dynamics of the situation are such that there won't necessarily be a riot. But a confrontation. I think, is going to come within the next two or three years. What happens this fall depends on how much publicity various issues have been given, whether talk about the clashes in Paris has speeded up the process of confrontation.
Bissell: 1 agree that the question is too hypothetical. But let’s look at the sources of discontent. Let’s ex-
amine this vague phrase, “dynamics of the situation.’’ I had some discussion a little while back with Mr. Langdon and some of his senior colleagues. And finally we came to the ultimate question: “What are the sources of discontent?” And the very specific ones don’t strike me as monumental. One was parking on the campus. One was library facilities. And one was what Harvard undergraduates quaintly call “parietal rules,” which simply means having women guests in men’s residences. To what extent does Mr. Langdon think that the Macpherson report was an answer to some of this “discontent”?
Langdon: I would say those are seen as a symbol of a much deeper discontent . . . Okay, let's examine some of the things that came out in the Macpherson report. The question of evaluation was talked about as one of the things that concern students most.
Bissell: Evaluation of teaching? Langdon: No. evaluation of students. Examinations — the whole business. It was suggested that ex-
aminations don’t produce anything that can be called learning.
Bissell: They came up with recommendations that certain examinations be retained.
Langdon: They came up with the suggestion that examinations be eliminated in second year. They said they didn’t see any value in the examination as an educational instrument. The question then arose: Why not eliminate examinations?
Langdon: That’s right. And the point was made that this was not possible. That it wasn't possible, it seems to me, is a large part of what’s wrong with the university. The university regards evaluation as an important method whereby you are channeled from the high schools into the corporate world. And I think the very clear emphasis in the report was that you can’t eliminate examinations because they are necessary to standardize people, to permit corporations to evaluate people on the basis of their university work.
Bissell: Examinations are an essential part of the university process, although I think what has happened at Toronto is that they frequently become a treadmill. They have eaten into the education process and in many cases they may be simply demands to regurgitate. But here again, as a radical Tory or a Left-wing Liberal, I believe in looking at the institution and seeing in what way it can be changed.
Maclean’s: Let me speak for a moment for the conservatives in society. Many people can’t understand why students can’t accept a measure of authoritarianism. Do you. Dr. Bissell, believe a university can be a democracy and still be good? Bissell: That’s a question I would never have dared to ask. I'll begin by saying I think one of the basic changes I’ve seen is the growing democratization of the university. I use that more in terms of representative democracy than the strict head-count democracy. I suppose that 20 years ago. when I first became an administrator, you might have described the U of T as a benevolent form of authoritarian government. And since that time I’ve seen almost every area democratized ... I think that the university must more insistently respond to democratic pressures, but l am certainly / continued on page 57
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opposed to the political kind of democracy — which I describe roughly as head-count — and I think Mr. Langdon and his associates are, too. And I am certainly opposed to an overnight radical shift of powers. Maclean’s: So you believe the shift toward democracy has been a good thing?
Bissell: Yes, a very good thing. The university must be in a position where its future course is decided by those most deeply involved in it. That is the faculty, first of all, then the students, the alumni and laymen from the community who have demonstrated interest in higher education. There must be this wide involvement or you won't have, first of all, loyalty and a sense of cohesion, and second, a wide enough selection of priorities. Madean’s (to Langdon): You don’t think democratization has gone far enough?
Langdon: Well, I don't put it in terms like that, in spite of the surface changes, which obviously . . .
Bissell: I don't accept these colored words. These are fundamental changes, from my point of view. If you’d fought as I have for these issues. you wouldn't call them surface. Langdon: I mean surface in the sense of occurring at the top level of the university structure — at places like appointment to the President's Council, or the committee to look into university structure. You can’t have these things and expect them to be mean-
ingful if the attitude still exists that this is a hierarchical, academic community for everybody but students. I think that was the attitude I sensed in your remarks. I sense it in the whole way in which this university is run. Symbols like parking, like the library, like the bookstore are symbols of a hierarchical community. A place where library privileges are different for professors than they are for students. A place where discounts are available in a bookstore for faculty, not for students. There is discontent because it is the kind of community where these things exist, and that is reflected in the education system. It's reflected in the feeling that you have to have a lecture system. It’s that attitude. and the community that attitude creates, which I think creates the discontent. the feeling that there have to be radical changes. The appointment to particular high-level committees is not going to change things.
Bissell: You mean that the appointment of students to these committees will not be a contribution toward this process?
Langdon: Not unless there is a possibility of changing that hierarchical community. I don't believe that will happen.
Bissell: Because the students are not powerful enough?
Langdon: I think it will not happen partly because of the attitudes of faculty and administrators. I also don't think it will happen because of the position of the university in society. I don't think the “powers that be’’ in society will permit a university to be
that kind of radical community. I think the university is too enmeshed in society for that to occur. It’s enmeshed in the kind of courses it offers; in the way it socializes students who go through it; in the research and work it’s doing. Even the University of Toronto does something like $500,000 worth of research for the U.S. military establishment. I think it’s because of this position that you can’t get the changes in universities. Bissell: What you’re saying is that you want a university oriented to the one particular point of view you identify with the students.
Langdon: That’s the case.
Bissell: Is your point of view widely held among the students?
Maclean’s: Let me ask this. A letter in the Toronto Globe and Mail suggests that, even leaving out the hard-core radical activists, the elected student politicians are more radical than the vast majority of the student body. Can you defend that?
Langdon: I think that’s probably true.
I think they’ve taken the discontents that exist among students and tried to figure out why they exist and come to an analysis you may call Marxist or neo-Marxist; but it seems to me a very realistic analysis of what the university is in this society.
Bissell: Is there any point in striving for democratic measures in universities? Or is the university so hopelessly enmeshed in what is basically a hierarchical, unjust society that the only solution is a revolution that will somehow or other change the whole of society? I think you would admit, despite the weaknesses of the university that you’ve described — which I think I can understand in terms of your political analysis — the university has still managed to be a centre of dissent. I apologize for reverting to my year at Harvard, but the corporation at Harvard summarizes the authority and conservatism of New England. And yet Harvard during the McCarthy regime and during the last four or five years has been the centre of dissent in the United States ... If you were to go through the faculty of the University of Toronto, you would find very powerful bodies of dissent. Where would your party [the NDPj be without the university? Nowhere. Perhaps the university’s main function is to be critical of society. Certainly it has a surface relationship with society, and I think many people would cry out in anger if it didn't serve that purpose. But at the same time, it has been the source of dissent. What I resent, bitterly resent, is the attempt to describe the university as a festering bog of reactionary Tories.
Langdon: This is the irrelevancy of President Bissell to the current situation. Radical questioning of society is no longer, I believe, possible in the kind of liberal terms with which the university has usually been associated.
I think that is the kind of response that the universities are most able to make through their individual professors, the response to what is seen as a non-liberal war. But the admittedly very articulate anger of these people has not been translated into a critique of their own universities. You haven’t had a response in most places to the tie-in of American corporate research . . . What do you see producing stu-
Student evaluation: “It shows how look to others”
dent discontent? Or do you feel there isn't discontent?
Bisseil: There is a good deal of student discontent; there always has heen. I think some arises from administrative errors, which I would be the first to recognize and which I try to remedy. 1 think a good deal arises from the too heavy reliance on the lecture system. The Macpherson report makes certain recommendations toward minimizing this discontent. I think a good deal arises from the aura of secrecy that has attended a good many university meetings. This is one area in which Ï and some of my colleagues have responded to the students, 1 hope positively. The students have taught me a good deal here. When this concept first appeared, Ï thought it was strictly for the birds, that it was no way to operate such a complex organization. Now I think there is a disposition to recognize as a principle that, no matter what technical delects it may have, it is on the whole good for the university — if only to declare to the world that there is nothing we want to hide ... You asked in the beginning the inevitable question about disturbances. There may be disturbances. There will be a certain amount of animated, abusive discourse. But, for the first time since I came to this university, I can sit down and talk about some of the fundamental problems, some of the basic assumptions of the university. This is the first time in the history of this university that I've had this chance. And that is a sign of grace.
Langdon: Yes, it’s partly a sign of the fact that you are a very honorable person.
Bisseil: Like Brutus — and look at what happened to Brutus.
Langdon: No, in the very best sense of the word. I also think it is a sign of an institution that feels itself threatened.
Bisseil: You're not threatening us, are you?
Langdon: Threatened, in the sense of being fearful of what is going to happen to you. Not threatened in the sense that I am saying that I am going to do something to this university, because that isn't the way I would want to operate.
Bisseil: May I come to another matter I think really basic, the question of evaluation. Mr. Langdon was talking about the evaluation of students, grades, the awarding of degrees. And I said to him that this is really coming close to the heart of the university; if you eliminate some process of evaluation. you change the university entirely-
Langdon: I believe evaluation is probably the essential issue.
Bisseil: Well, I think a certain amount of evaluation is essential. I resent it when it becomes a treadmill, when it becomes the raison d’être of education. But I don't see how we can avoid it.
Maclean’s: There is no alternative? Bisseil: I believe in the process of evaluation. It is an integral part of life, of human society. I believe in it. And I also believe that the university must be attached to the society
around it and accept in certain defined professional areas standards established through traditional professional practices.
Langdon: I can see no reason for maintaining formal evaluation unless for the non-educational, non-learning reasons Macpherson suggested in his report. I don't see evaluation as being
necessary to try to coerce people into trying to learn, to make sure people strive toward excellence. Because basically. I think, in human beings there is that drive for excellence, wisdom, whatever you want to call it. And if you look at people that way. evaluation becomes something imposed on them . . .
Bisseil: l do think it is necessary. Evaluation gives you an awareness of how you look to others, which I know' is a sometimes disquieting and sometimes disheartening impression. It also acts as a spur, sometimes a depressant, I admit that. I'll be frank with you. I’m a product of the 1930s. I came from a family where there had been nobody at university. And it was doubtful whether I would get there. I got a minor scholarship that gave me $50 a year, which seemed to me
Why not an egalitarian society? “I don’t like uniformity”
wealth beyond the dream of human possibility. So I went on to university and each year, in order to keep that scholarship and ergo, in order to go on — this sounds like the saga of the poor boy — I had to get first-class honors. For the first year this was a dark obsession, a gloomy cloud. Would 1 get first-class honors? Well, I
did. But from that time on it didn’t bother me at all because my colleagues, distinguished scholars, had said I was a first-class student, and, by heavens, I was a first-class student. This was a sense of discovery for me — that other people had assessed me as having these qualities; therefore, by some miracle, I must have them.
Langdon: To move on a bit, I agree with you that the university has become an institution that is no longer concerned with just educating an elite. It’s creating experts who are going to play a professional role in society.
Bissell: That's right.
Langdon: Now the question I would
really like to ask you is: why not an egalitarian society?
Bissell: I suppose it’s just that I don't particularly like uniformity.
Langdon: Is egalitarianism that? Bissell: Well, I’m afraid so. If you end up not having distinctions, you end up having one grey blur.
Langdon: You mean if each person has somewhat the same economic conditions, you’re not going to have different ideas .. .
Bissell: Oh no, you’re talking about something different here. In many ways I am sympathetic with economic egalitarianism. But I'm not sympathetic with what I think you are saying — that you want social and intellectual egalitarianism. That is, you resent the meritocracy, the intellectual elite.
Langdon: No, no, I don’t. I don't resent the meritocracy because it represents the people with knowledge. Knowledge is a very important thing and something I really value. One thing I resent about the university is that it doesn’t really permit me as a person to do the kind of detailed work to develop that. It’s not the fact that some people are given knowledge and some are not, but the fact that this knowledge involves great economic return and that the economic return tends to be reflected in power in the decision-making for society. Bissell: But that doesn't necessarily follow in our society. I suppose some of the most learned men are in the church and certainly some of the most learned men are in the universities . . . The average professorial salary is still well below the salary of the doctor or the dentist.
Langdon: Your suggestion that we need this competitive society to create excellence, to make people strive, is somehow contradicted by the fact that you do have people who do things for the love of it, because they think it’s right, who become university professors because they are interested in seeking knowledge and wisdom.
Bissell: Okay, we are talking about a very small group.
Langdon: To get back to my question: why not an egalitarian society? Bissell: Well, it’s a question of my analysis of human nature. I believe in intellectual competition.
Langdon: But need that intellectual competition be reflected in economic return?
Bissell: It need not be, but it usually is.
Langdon: But doesn’t that say something about the kind of society we have?
Bissell: Yes, but there again, society gives its major rewards to movie performers and baseball players and captains of industry — not to professors as such.
Langdon: You’re right, it's not a perfect meritocracy. I tend to feel you have to criticize the whole idea of a meritocracy that implies economic reward. I don't think you criticize the idea of intellectualism as an end. because it’s very important.
Bissell: In other words, you’re not worried about intellectual distinctions being made between a research scientist and technician in a lab. You think that this is inevitable.
Langdon: Intellectual distinctions?
Certainly there are going to be intellectual! distinctions.
Bissell: But you think these are going to be accompanied by commensurate recognition?
Langdon: I can’t see any justification for it.
Bissell: Well, that’s radical socialism. Langdon: Well, what is the justification for it? Why aren’t you a radical
Bissell: Oh, because, well . . . I'm just not a radical socialist.
Langdon: Now this is an interesting point, because if you believe in a society that should be a meritocracy, then you see the university carrying out the function it is trying to carry out now. If you see, somehow, a different society, then you have to see the university as carrying out a different function. So this really is the essential question.
Bissell: I think the university is acting as a powerful dissolvent of class structures by the mobility it gives to people.
Langdon: But it’s been indicated that social mobility doesn’t imply an end to a class structure. It probably makes a more functional class structure. Bissell: Well then, I believe in class structure, shall we say, and that is why I am not a radical socialist. Could I add one point that is terribly important? The Board of Governors, 1 suspect, and some of my colleagues and a good many of the alumni think I've sold my soul to radicalism. Oh well, it's part of the game. But when I am talking to the Board of Governors or to alumni about what you would call concessions to students, which I prefer to describe as simple administrative or democratic moves, one of the criticisms I face all the time is that the students are not aware of their relationship toward society and the state around them. They look upon themselves as a privileged group, an arrogant group, who are now subsidized very heavily by the state and are demanding further subsidy. who are not satisfied by loans, who say they should be doubled; who are not satisfied with residences, who say they should be tripled. And my friends say a deep revulsion is already setting in — that what we are faced with here is the most affluent and arrogant trade union in the history of this country. Now, I arri just express-
ing what my friends say. How do you respond?
Langdon: I think the people who say that haven't been around the student movement in the past year or so and haven't seen the changes in emphasis. You’d perhaps be surprised to know that students are not now demanding grants instead of loans, that students are no longer demanding that the student-award program be reformed to make it easier to get more money. The emphasis is now on the social
barriers society sets up.
Bissell: This is a general shift of attitude?
Langdon: It’s certainly a shift of attitude at this campus. The emphasis appears in our housing project, which we are trying to get started on College Street. It's not seen solely as a student residence. We’re trying to make it something that involves people from the community living in the building . . . I think you. are right; students are an upper-middle-class group and they
can’t have a trade-union attitude. They have to have an attitude like the CIO had for many years — of social unionism. A commitment to more than just getting changes in their own social conditions, a commitment to much wider changes. And it's because of this commitment, I believe, that the university is threatened, that students analyze the institution in terms of society. It’s because they get the connection that you get this kind of radical analysis. ★