Dear Mount Allison Community, Alumni, and Friends,
“What do you stand up for? What have you learned to stand up for? Will you resist those who would have you do evil? Would you be one who would recommend evil? What’s the good in standing up?”
–Brian Neilson, “Stand Up”, The Argosy, May 7, 1999.
I wrote these words almost fifteen years ago to the day and they are from an editorial encouraging my fellow graduates then to think seriously about the kind of people they had become and what kind of citizens they would be after their time at Mt. A. I have taken to writing The Argosy again as the parallels between my fourth year in 1999 and the fourth year of the class of 2014 are disconcerting and it grieves me that my alma mater is hurting once more.
Back in 1999, we too faced the possibility of losing our semester in the face of a faculty strike just as this year’s class did. The SAC (the precursor to MASU) then: held a student forum inviting both sides to share their story, there was a tent city in the quad, a library sit-in, a SAC sit-in, a police cruiser-led student protest numbering in the hundreds on the first day of negotiations and even a lawsuit filed by the SAC against both the administration and MAFA looking for recompense for lost tuition. This time around, MASU seems to not have taken the identical steps but student frustration was just as palatable this time around as last time around. But this letter is not about the students’ reaction to a situation beyond their control. It’s about looking forwards rather than looking backwards; it’s a love letter in the form of a lament.
Imagine you are a boss who feels your way of doing things is gaining no traction with your employees. Imagine you are an employee who feels your contributions in trying to improve the workplace are going nowhere with the boss. All the while both the boss and the employee genuinely believe they are doing what’s best for the company. What do you do? What can you do? What do you stand up for?
Let’s face it, we’re all adults here, there are always going to be competing visions of what Mount Allison can be and how to get there. There are going to be factors ranging from revenue streams (read: research grants, donations and international students), enrollment and labour costs to class sizes, infrastructure and tenured faculty that influence the journey. All the while the elusive experience of a liberal arts education will be beckoning from just beyond the horizon.
And there will also be the intangibles that don’t have a monetary value attached to them. The things that we all hold onto in our personal and professional lives—our pride, our sense of worth, our desire to effect change. Positively nurtured and you get collaboration, compassion, even contrition. Negatively fostered and you get personal vendettas, feelings of betrayal, distrust and disenchantment. Where we are now can be summed up in two words: binding arbitration.
Won’t you come and mourn with me awhile?
Whether your son or daughter, roommate, or fellow student spent the strike getting drunk or getting their work done, they nevertheless got exposed to the possibility of seeing themselves as others might see them—nothing more than a dollar sign in the eye of the higher mind. Having very little recourse, some students understandably tried to secure a tuition rebate for themselves and their peers. Looking out for the collective is indeed an admirable goal. Being forced to see themselves as customers rather than citizens—sojourners on the way to discovery and enlightenment—deplorable. As a friend of mine once said: “Not all learning shows up on a transcript.”
Alternatively, I may be the naïve one, thinking that goals and visions beyond our own self-interest and economic advantage are still worth standing up for. Doing it not to pad the resume, doing it not to get praise, doing it not to get rich. Doing it because it is beautiful, doing it because it is the right thing to do, doing it because we are all interconnected like it or not.
I want to leave you with one last thought and I hope it is not true about our beloved Mt. A, but I fear it is heading in a particular direction:
“A university will have ceased to exist when its learning has degenerated into what is now called research, when its teaching has become mere instruction and occupies the whole of an undergraduate’s time, or when undergraduates come with no understanding of the manners of conversation but desire only a qualification for earning a living or a certificate to let them in on the exploitation of the world.” – Michael Oakeshott, The Idea of a University.