Protest U

April 2001

Once upon a time, university administrators were the target of student protests. These days, however, they are more likely to be facilitating student protests. In January, the senate at Concordia University in Montreal voted to make special accommodation for students who wish to defer their final exams so they can attend demonstrations against the upcoming Summit of the Americans in Quebec City. This week, the University of New Brunswick made a similar dispensation. Typically, permission to write a make-up exam is granted only in cases of medical or family emergencies; but given the Concordia and UNB precedents, students at several other universities are pushing for their own protest exemptions.

To be very clear: This paper strongly supports freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully, and it is proper that universities should incubate a wide range of debate and opinion. That said, the primary function of a university or college is to educate students. Something so basic to education as course examinations should not take a back seat to extracurricular political activities. Of equal concern is the fact that school administrators appear to be turning students into proxies for their own political beliefs. Frederick Lowy, the Vice-Chancellor of Concordia, claims his school's new exam policy is not an indication that the university is taking a position on the Quebec City summit. Rather, he says, the school has a duty to "permit the clash of ideas... and to facilitate constructive engagement in the important events of the day." Fine words, but the veracity of Mr. Lowy's statement will be put to the test when another group, less inclined to leftist politics, appears before him to make a similar request. If opponents of globalization are permitted to skip exams, then a pro-life group whose members wish to attend a high-profile abortion clinic protest on exam day must also be accommodated.

School administrations at Concordia and UNB have acted on one of two principles. Either (a) the dates of all final exams are negotiable for politically active students; or (b) special treatment should be accorded to proponents of fashionable political views. Either position is inappropriate for an institution whose main goal is higher learning.