Guest Post: Cressida Heyes on the Inaugural Meeting of CAPSE (Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education)

Last Friday, in Tory Lecture 11, almost 500 people gathered for the inaugural meeting of CAPSE (Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education). CAPSE aims to bring together students, staff, and faculty not only from the University of Alberta but from postsecondary institutions across the province to respond to the Government of Alberta’s 7 March 2013 budget. The budget has declared devastating cuts of 6.8–7.2% to all of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. After speeches from representatives of various University organizations such as the Association of Academic Staff (for whom President Donna Wilson spoke) and the Students’ Union (represented by President Colten Yagamishi), the audience broke into thirteen small groups for half-an-hour brainstorming sessions. The groups included “Cross-University Outreach,” “Media Campaigns,” “Teach-Ins,” “Coalition Structuring,” and “Indigenous Alliances.” Professor Cressida Heyes (Philosophy) offers a few words here about the group dedicated to “Changing the Conversation Around the Cuts at the U of A.”

Cressida Heyes: photo of changing the conversationIt was a stirring sight on Friday. One of the most impressive things to my mind was the fact that “dialogue” had finally become reciprocal and deliberative. (For god’s sake, no more Town Hall Meetings where besuited administrators present powerpoints of the obvious for fifty minutes and then hangdog faculty line up for ten to raise the usual objections! No more blogs with a tiny box into which one types one’s anonymous comments, only to have them disappear into a jumble of others!)

I was part of the breakout group discussing “changing the conversation at U of A.” I can only speak for myself here, but part of the perennial frustration of working at this university is its top-down, authoritarian governance structure. This has enabled central administration for some time now to set the terms in which we’ll be allowed to discuss austerity: Go forth and discuss how to move the university on-line. Tell us how you’ll attract venture capital. Whatever kernels of positive innovation such debates contained, they have now been overshadowed (and maybe unmasked) by a swingeing and immediate cut to the bone. But instead of asking, “how can we fight back?” the deliberative task becomes, “send us your ideas for how to save $100,000.” The only thing more disheartening than this craven politics is the rush among university employees to point fingers in response: “Do it to Julia! as one commentator rather apocalyptically described it.

In that context it was inspiring to hear the range of ideas in our group. What if, instead of “divide and conquer” among the rank and file, some of these things happened instead?

  • Hundreds of faculty, staff, and students posted to Colloquy that we refuse this ersatz consultation, and instead we demand a face-to-face mass deliberative exercise in which we debate together what kind of resistance and response we can muster. (Some of us are experts at organizing such things!)
  • We publish a glossary of terms, recasting the debate away from “efficiencies” and “vertical cuts,” to “neoliberalism,” and “corporatization.” We know what these words mean, but many Albertans don’t. (I imagine something like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, myself.)
  • We produce a series of video shorts in which students and faculty creatively and quirkily present to the Alberta public what their degree means to them. (Already I’ve been offered video filming and editing skills, and the possibilities for showcasing the kinds of learning we do are endless.)

Along with the more conventional but equally necessary strategies such as petitions, writing outraged letters to politicians (and maybe taking your MLA for coffee and singing the praises of U of A), these ideas and the micro-process of which they were a part speak to a passionate desire for a new and better way of talking among ourselves and with Albertans about the value of a comprehensive public university. 

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9 Responses to Guest Post: Cressida Heyes on the Inaugural Meeting of CAPSE (Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education)

  1. Melisa Brittain says:

    Fantastically refreshing. Well said!

  2. Shelagh campbell says:

    Great to see our faculty AND students engaging in this fight to save our university from being turned into a sausage factory, pumping out minimal publishable/consumable units cut ever thinner.

    • Jen Alabiso says:

      it’s true shelagh – i’ve been incredibly heartened by the massive outcry. there is a desire to engage in the work of opposing not just the cuts, but the belief system BEHIND the cuts. it’s a horrible situation, but this response has been gorgeous.

  3. Louise Michel says:

    Brilliant “insurrection: le plus saint des devoirs”, as Gustave would say.

  4. Laurie Adkin says:

    Wonderful ideas! Some have been proposed in previous years, such as campus-wide deliberations on the priorities of the university and how to advance them. Might this be the moment when it becomes apparent to a critical mass that the hierarchical, corporate-driven administration model is not producing the kind of institution we want to be? That obedience to political masters is a failed strategy? That the name of the game is not competition and rivalry, but solidarity?

  5. These are wonderful ideas – What stood out for me Cressenda was your suggestion of taking our MLAs out for coffee… I’ve done this before, several times as a “Civil Information Activist” over the years. I have along with several other committed activists shared ideas relating to another cause not only with a few politicians but MOSTLY with THOUSANDS of PEOPLE outside in the streets. Civil Info actions openly at farmer’s markets, Fringe, Heritage Days, Cara-West parades, Folk, Works and Street Performer festivals – We interacted with Edmontonians ONE on ONE on numerous busy street corners around the downtown Edmonton area and in Old Strathcona sharing the latest news and information related to our controversial cause – Former Edmonton Journal journalist and author Todd Babiak, a critic of our cause (written in one story) later said to me while passing “we put our cause on the minds of Edmontonians”. I like what you said about a “Face-to-Face Mass Deliberative Exercise”. Imagine if we can find a few dedicated enthusiastic people from last Friday’s rally and assembly to commit to spending a couple hours each Saturday over the next 6 months sharing the latest news and information with Albertans relating to the cause CAPSE. Educating and Informing the average person in the streets how to better understand the effects behind these Government cuts in education and how it will effect their kids. It’s very possible an exercise like this could turn that ONE on ONE interaction into a MASS of better informed Albertans . A few hours each weekend to help the average Albertan like me better understand the meaning to words like “efficiencies” and “vertical cuts,” to “neoliberalism,” and “corporatization.” This exercise might do lots of good for CAPSE – IT BEATS waiting for corporate media news to do it for us… ” “Don’t (hate) wait for the media, BE THE MEDIA!”

  6. Judy Garber says:

    Cressida, I am energized by this. Thank you.

    My thoughts: We can win *only* by challenging the discourse that allows people to take seriously “Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education” as an acceptable name for the state agency that funds, controls, and in an ideal world fosters universities and colleges. Did the U of A or U of C challenge that reconceptualization of what makes post-secondary education valuable? Did the news media take any note of the change after last year’s election?

    Can anybody — the media, MLAs and MPs with colleges and universities in their ridings, the Minister and Premier, our own institutions’ high-level administrators, our faculty associations, our own colleagues, our own students and their parents, Alberta high school students and their parents — describe even basically what *most people* do every day at a place like the U of A? A small minority of people attend post-secondary institutions, so it’s incumbent upon us to tell them why they should give a shit about the complaints of well-paid professors.

    We have to show and tell. Our face and our words all over the news, social media, our Department/Faculty/research centre and individual web pages. We contact any reporters or editors we know, we post the videos Cress mentioned, we stage smaller events that demand less (of professors, students, reporters) and put faces and soundbites right out there. Take-a-politician-for-coffee is a great idea — why not bring a few students along? Our students are already organizing events; they are media-savvy.

    There’s a risk in forcing ourselves on people who didn’t ask to hear what we want to tell them. I’d invite them to us rather than crash farmers’ markets, etc.

    How to lobby the administration is a task above my pay grade….

    Based on my experience in Alberta, I am afraid that I must express pessimism about mass gatherings at the Legislature — the government doesn’t ever take them seriously. They wither on the vine, and our resources are better used in ways that gain more frequent and more sustained media and public attention.

    That’s all for now…..

  7. Judy Garber wrote : “There’s a risk in forcing ourselves on people who didn’t ask to hear what we want to tell them. I’d invite them to us rather than crash farmers’ markets, etc.”

    “Forced?” Not a chance!

    “Invite them?” – Yes I totally agree, especially at the the farmer’s markets known as a safe place where people love to meet!

    Civil Information Activism is not a confrontational action that employs an in your face soliciting or anarchist approach, but rather CIA allows the inquiring by-standers to approach the civil activists who display subtle invitations such as a small banners, colorful tee shirts, smiling friendly students and teachers standing on the corner holding something that looks a lot like informative leaflets in hand – “Whats this all about?” is usually the first words a CI activists hears from a stranger. Now you got their attention by allowing them the RESPECT to make the first move, now you have the opportunity to share your CAPSE cause with another.

    I totally understand your point made Judy and I have to admit back in 2007 our highly charged, sometimes over enthusiastic group of activists may have come across as bunch of party crashers by some, or loud obnoxious crack-pots by others. I remember we once marched around the campus grounds of the UofA, with placards held high accompanied with bull-horns that were a blazed with garble. This action burned off tons of energy for all of us and did not attract too much attention to our cause. We accomplished nothing that day [live and learn]

    SIMILAR – You’ll recall a couple hundred highly energized protest marchers from last Friday’s march to the Legislature’s steps – [were they crashing someones party?] With the afternoon traffic in full swing across the High Level Bridge we may indeed have caused a few angry drivers to miss appointments or be late for work. I personally watched one woman dangerously speed to the intersection in hopes to beat the approaching crowd of the CAPSE marchers, the police stopped her and she looked PISSED!

    The sheer size of that march would be impressive for anyone to see, but I DARE you take a poll around the UofA campus and ask 25 students at random – “What did you learn from last Friday’s protest/march to the Legislature steps”. Most likely you’ll find 1 or 2 who may have heard something about a protest relating to education cuts but … All that enormous planning and energy that went into that protest never really happened as so far as the average Edmontonian knows. Unless they caught a 30 second spot on CTV or CBC that evening – it’s likely all forgotten by the next day given the attention span of the average person including myself.

    What I’m proposing here as a CI-activist is employing what the late Izzy Asper the founder of Canwest – the largest newspaper chain in Canada. Izzy once proclaimed “If you want the public to hear you once, you have to say what you’re saying five or 10 times.”

    Now consider the [friendly – non confrontation] front lines of civil information actions at the farmer’s market (leaving the bull-horns and poor attitudes at home) The only goal in mind is to reach out to as many Edmontonians in a couple hours with the cause and concerns of CAPSE and what we need to do as Albertans to fix those problems!

    More on CIA
    Civil information activism combines respect, perseverance and commitment to achieve the goal of bringing the important news and information to public awareness. CIA empowers citizens using social media tools to become a medium source of Information, facts or data that’s sometimes over looked or ignored by corporate media. Civil information activism is taking part during events in a safe, non confrontational manner, never putting the public or activist at risk. It’s foundation is based on respect for all people, property and the rule of law.
    First Rule to Civil Information Activism is “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” This rule ALWAYS eliminates debates and arguments on the front lines during civil information actions.

    If I had a dollar for every person who said to me over my 7 years as a Civil Information Activist “Thank You Doug for doing what you’re doing” It’s humbling and rewarding…

    Amnesty International, Red Cross and the SPCA all became large institutions recognized for the good works they perform – and they mostly got their start and continue to do so today with people interactions on the streets and handing out informative leaflets accompanied with friendly smiles.

    Here is a Civil Information Action I did last year (2011) by my lonesome self in around the Student Union’s building and the UofA campus grounds. This low costing civil information action was the only promotion I used to help me promote a guest speaker event I put together last March 2011- The defining results: I almost filled the Stanley Milner Library Theatre all by myself using CI-Actions! YOUTUBE

    That same summer of 2011 I collected over 900 signatures for a petition now sitting in Ottawa by myself using civil information actions.

    I made this simple introduction to Civil Information Activism video back in 2009 – dated and lack of crafty edits but it clearly defines how CI- actions can work for action groups like CAPSE – YOUTUBE-

  8. The second post had spelling errors corrected , could you please post the second and remove the first post – Thanks Carolyn.

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