News | Full interview with Angus Johnston

McGill Daily: What have you found to be the most effective tactics for students trying to move their administration one way or another?

Angus Johnston: Doing actions where you’re soliciting the support of alumni and parents, and it’s not clear exactly how much those kind of actions can scale up, but I’ll give you an example: On a bunch of campuses in the last year, universities have cut back on library hours, claiming that they didn’t have the money to keep the libraries open. And students have staged study-ins in the library, where they just go and they’re studying and they refuse to leave when the library is supposed to close. And it’s really hard to arrest students having a study-in in a library. It puts the administration in a box. And again, it’s not clear that you can have a revolutionary transformation of the university through a study-in in a library, but you can get the hours back. And another thing that that does is it puts the plight of the student, it puts the financial circumstances of the university, on the front page of the media – because the media love a library study-in. And [the administration] are going to feel heat.

The idea is that you are operating from within your own experience and outside of [the administration’s] experience, that what you’re doing should be something that you feel comfortable with, that makes you’re opponent feel uncomfortable. It’s tricky to do that, and it’s getting trickier all the time.

MD: You’ve said that there wasn’t much media coverage of the University of California upheavals in recent years. How can students get their faces in print?

AJ: The first answer, which is the standard student answer, is to do something big, something really splashy. And that works to a certain extent. But as I’ve been watching the media more myself—and as a blogger I’ve become media in a weird way—I’ve realized that keeping up a drumbeat of action is incredibly effective. Because the first time you have an action, in many cases you’re going to catch the media flat-footed. Either they won’t find out about it or they won’t be paying attention or they won’t send somebody out or they won’t send a photographer. Or they’ll just think it’s a fluke, they’ll think it’s a one-time thing. But then when you have another action a few weeks later, they’re already primed, they already know what you’re issues are, they’ve already got their antennae up, and if they’re feeling that it was a mistake to miss the last one, they’ll be sure not to miss this one. It’s an irresistible hook for the media to say ‘For the second time in a month.’ It takes it from being an anecdote to being a narrative. So…it gets media attention, to keep up this kind of intensity, but it’s also how you build a movement. It’s how you build relationships and connections and learn from your mistakes and all of that.

MD: There’s a possibility that Quebec tuition will be brought to the national average in 2012. It’s not clear right now what student politicians and activists are going to do about it. What would you suggest?

AJ: I’m usually pretty skeptical about the idea of a global student movement, because I think students’ experiences are very different in different places. In general, the way that a university is structured is very different, and students generally don’t have really intimate connections across from one part of the world to another, even on the level that they have on the national level. But, having said that, this current tuition spike is a global phenomenon. We’ve been seeing it going on in the United States: California is bracing for possibly another tuition increase. They’re now at well over $10,000 a year and they’re looking at the possibility that it could rise next month as much as 10 or 20 per cent more. And California is a system that doesn’t even officially admit that it charges tuition at all. They have as a state-wide policy that they don’t charge tuition, so it’s all referred to as fees. And so the “fees” are now a five-digit number. Britain is going through this right now. The government has just announced that they are planning to cut support for higher education by 80 per cent. I think what we’re finding is that the privatization issue is a global thing and students have been responding in a global way. But privatization is a nebulous term if you’re not already politically connected. If you don’t already have an analysis of higher education, then the concept of privatization is not going to be one that gets you out in the streets. But this ballooning of tuition—for a while in the United States we thought this was a one-year thing. And it’s becoming clear that this is just going to keep happening and happening.

So I think there is an opportunity presented by this for a grass-roots global movement, and I don’t exactly now what that might look like, but I certainly think that there’s more of an opportunity for that than there was. And I think…what’s beginning to happen and what really needs to happen, is a large-scale conversation on the level of the national media and national scholars and politicians and activists and everybody, about not only theoretical questions about “what is the university for?” and “what do we want the university to look like?” but also these questions of “how does the university actually work now?”

One of the issues that’s just been breaking in the United States in the last few weeks is, there is this assumption—and I think you guys are going through this increasing role for research and sponsored research and all of that—and one of the arguments that’s always been made about that is that that kind of sponsored research brings in money; that the humanities are a money-loser and that the hard sciences are subsidizing the humanities. Well there are a bunch of scholars now, just in the past few weeks, making the argument very pointedly that that’s exactly backwards. Faculties are more expensive in the hard sciences—they’re paid more. The infrastructure to set up labs and all of that is more expensive. In many cases you need to have smaller classrooms [in the hard sciences]. So the cost per student to run a biology class is much more expensive than the cost per student to run an English class, that either may be 200 students, or may be taught by a [course lecturer]. And even if it’s taught by a full-time faculty member, the full-time faculty is still making half the money than the biology [faculty]. And as it turns out, these folks are arguing, most of the external money that comes in for these research projects goes directly into those projects. There isn’t a huge amount of overhead that flows back into the university’s coffers, and the university spends a lot of money chasing that research funding.

This argument is that high-value sponsored research is a money loser. And not everybody agrees with this analysis. But it’s an amazing debate to be having. If we’re going to be adopting a bottom-line perspective, if that’s what the political realities are, then let’s really look at the numbers. Let’s open up the books…and not just be operating on the just so stories that have been handed on for generations and generations.

MD: Over the summer the Architecture Café was closed without real student consultation. Have there been cases that you know of the corporatization of food on campus?

AJ: It’s a constant struggle; it’s a constant struggle. And the reason it’s a constant struggle is because student autonomy and student participation in governance and in the running of the university is always hard fought and hard won. And when the university loses a struggle like that, they recognize that they just have to wait. And they find the right moment to roll back the victories that students have won.

MD: Can you think of particular instances of the corporatization of food on campuses in the US?

AJ: I don’t know specifically about food stuff. But…at my campus, we had a record store on campus that was student-run, and it was constantly a fight to keep the university from saying, ‘Well, we need the space.’ And I was involved in a natural food co-op when I was an undergrad, and it was entirely student-run. One of the things that’s really significant about that, in addition to the fact that it’s students providing a service for other students and it’s not profit-driven, is that it gives students an opportunity to be in a position of responsibility and leadership in terms of running these facilities, which is a tremendous opportunity…for the students’ sense of what’s possible.

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