Commentary | We Need Action

An open letter to all Science undergraduates

Over the last two months, we, a group of Science students, have been trying to mobilize the Science student body against tuition hikes and to start a discussion about the eventuality of a strike within our faculty. We thought that the best way to do so would be to have a General Assembly (GA), enabling the Science student body to be consulted on matters we thought were important.

However, many events since the approval of a petition for a GA in January have led us to think that the SUS executive wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea of holding a General Assembly, seemingly going as far as passively undermining the process of setting up the GA. We see this as deeply problematic, as GAs are the only way the executive can consult the students they represent. (If there are other forms of consultation, they are done at an individual level: the students are consulted one by one. GAs, on the other hand, foster discussion. and the decisions made during a GA are made as a body, not just as a collection of individuals.) To name a few instances where the SUS didn’t act appropriately, we could point at the numerous times nothing was done in time-sensitive situations. For example, when the executive took a full month to book a room for the Assembly, ultimately booking the room too late for it to happen on the day that it had planned to take place on. Such events have been what characterize most of our communication and collaboration with the SUS executive since the petition hand-in, but are not what constitutes the core of the matter.

The most problematic action taken by the SUS was its unconstitutional application of the SSMU GA by-laws to the petition. The petition was validated on January 24th, and a GA should have been organized according to the existent SUS internal rules at that time. Instead, the SUS exec decided to wait more than a week  – until the next General Council meeting on February 2nd – to formally adopt the SSMU GA by-laws and apply these newly adopted by-laws to the petition that was approved in a different legislative context. At this GC meeting, Council also voted to strike the clause that allowed for motions to be submitted from the floor. This means that anyone who wants to submit a motion for the GA needs to do so two weeks prior to the Assembly. A member of the Science Mobilization Committee argued vehemently against striking this clause because it would be undemocratic, since only well-organized people (aside from the initial movers of the GA) would be able to draft a motion in time, given that they were even aware of the GA. Nevertheless, the SUS Council decided to strike the clause. Since the Assembly was announced only four days before the deadline for motion submission, only our motions made it through to the GA.

In addition to this, the SUS executives have failed to respect the newly-adopted GA by-laws. Indeed, article 9.1 states that “[i]t shall be the responsibility of the Executive Committee to make all necessary efforts to publicize General Assemblies, Regular or Special,” yet no class announcements were made (to our knowledge), emails to the listserv were late and rare, and posters were not placed in conspicuous spaces on campus. The SUS has again failed to act, while its mandate was an explicit call to action. It seems that even our student representatives do not understand the importance of a vigorous student democracy on campus.

As Science students, we would like to emphasize the importance of political activity. As we tried to spark political discourse among Science students, many people, including student representatives, were quick to claim that Science students are generally politically neutral, as described in numerous campus publications. According to these people, Science students would be more interested in their equations than in political activity. We think that what characterizes students genuinely interested in science is their curiosity about the beautifully diverse and complex world that surrounds them – which includes politics, defined as the processes by which groups of people make collective decisions.

Scientists, as a community, can no longer afford to be politically neutral. Fundamental research is constantly under attack. Tuition hikes are part of a larger scheme to privatize research and education in Canada. Such transformation would be disastrous for scientific inquiry and academic freedom, as under the dictates of the market very little money goes into fundamental research. A century ago, Ernest Rutherford conducted Nobel Prize-winning research at McGill into radioactivity and nuclear chemistry that was crucial for our modern understanding of chemistry. Would such research be funded at McGill today?

As scientists, we need to think about the way universities are run and funded, since these factors have profound implications on science and medicine. Scientists of the last century, Albert Einstein being one famous example, have decried how their own or their colleagues’s discoveries have been used by dominant ideologies in order to further individual interests at the expense of others – speaking out against such things as the atomic bomb during the Cold War, or the chlorine gas used during World War II and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What this shows is that scientists have refused, and continue to refuse, that their work be used to the detriment of society, and that satisfying their personal curiosity and being paid is not all that matters. By handing control over research to private corporations and the military, universities not only act against the freedom of researchers, but also against the mission of science and education as a public service: that of making the means to move towards a better world.

These scientists made it clear, whether explicitly or implicitly, that action is needed, and that being politically neutral does not mean withdrawing from a situation, but, rather, being inactive when injustices are committed. It is to tacitly accept what is being done – or not done – even though we know all too well that it is wrong. If political neutrality means accepting injustices (especially present or future), then we are in the wrong to be politically neutral, whether or not it is easy for us to step in the ring and do something about it. Injustices should be confronted with action. Looking away won’t solve the matter or make the problem disappear and being politically neutral is precisely that – looking away.

In our case, being politically neutral means being ignored by the administration when it comes to being heard. We are told by the same people who disregard us that we are the leaders of tomorrow. But why tomorrow? Why not now, in the social and political spheres that suit our role as students, as precisely those who will have to live with the consequences of what is being done today? A university is not only a part of society, it is also a microcosm of society. The government’s lack of accountability and their willingness to be corrupted by big businesses is reflected in our own administration’s (authoritarian) rule over this university. Moreover, universities have a long history of making society progress towards better things. It is therefore our duty, as students, to have political opinions and to challenge the status quo.

Signed by the Science Undergraduate Mobilization Committee

 A previous version of this article stated thatRutherford’s famous gold foil experiments were conducted at McGill a century ago and his results were absolutely vital for our understanding of the structure of the atom. Rather, a century ago, Ernest Rutherford conducted Nobel Prize-winning research at McGill into radioactivity and nuclear chemistry that was crucial for our modern understanding of chemistry. The daily regrets the error. 

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