News | Back in the SSMU of ’69

Prominent Montreal-based civil liberties lawyer Julius Grey, began his politically crusading career in an office familiar to most McGill students – that of SSMU President. In 1969-1970, when Grey presided over the student society, campus politics were different. Grey sat down with The Daily before the winter break to discuss what he sees as an alarming rightward shift in the politics of Quebec, and the world at large.

The McGill Daily: You are a former SSMU president, and the Daily’s archives seem to show that you had a good relationship with the administration.

Julius Grey: The administration in those days was academic; it was not business. The administration changed during the [former McGill principal] David Johnston years [1979-1994], our present Governor-General. It became much more conservative, much more concerned with fundraising and big business than the actual day to day fraternization between the administration and the academics. We did not have a professional, bureaucratic, business oriented administration. What we had were a bunch of academics who were named, and you’d see them in the faculty club. There was no real difference between [administrators] and the other professors. And when I came back from England and started to teach, I would walk up to Principal Robert Bell and say, “Bob, what’s the policy in this or that.” There was not the same barrier.

One of the things that worries me – if you read the Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and Le Monde Diplomatique – you’ll find all over the world a growing corporate takeover of the university, so that the university is all a matter of corporate money coming into places and sponsoring research. Remember that the research will not be objective. It’s difficult to imagine sponsoring economic research that concludes they should be nationalized. When you say that I as student council president was close to the administration, yes, but it was a bunch of academics. The people I was close to were not at all right-wing, they were all of different views and different shades, but they were all people who wrote books and believed the financing of a university depended not on corporations but on the government.

MD: Do you see the new type of administrator as accountable to students?

JG: They’re not. They’re not accountable to students; they’re not accountable to faculty. What you’ve got is a growing alienation, a Marxist alienation – a term which I use consciously. The professors are being alienated, the students are being alienated. One day what will happen is what happened in the middle ages in that everything was in the hands of the church, and then there would be secessions: people forming their own little groups. The real origin of Oxford and Cambridge was that people would gather around informally around some guy who had a somewhat different view of Holy Communion that might be considered heretical somewhere else. And they would discuss it. And the Sorbonne became great because people like Abelard and Thomas Aquinas who weren’t fully orthodox in every possible way, and they too found Aristotle, found some of the Arab philosophy and applied it. What you’re going to have sooner or later is people either seceding from the university, saying all they’re doing is they’re training MBAs or engineers for business, and you’re going to have discussion groups, clubs like during the French revolution – the Jacobin club. Because I don’t think we’ll take it. I’m not interested in a corporate university. I think companies, if they want to participate, they’re welcome – but on a level playing ground. They’re no different from unions, from other lobbies, and in the end, the university must not become an instrument of lobbies.

MD: What do you think of Heather Munroe-Blum?

JG: I think she is part of the new system, and I criticize the new system. But I don’t criticize her personally. I think she’s a very able and charming lady. It’s not her fault. It’s that the whole university world and North America has fallen into the hands of corporations. The reason it’s falling more and more into the hands of corporations is because the government is withdrawing. It’s cutting taxes, it’s making savage cuts. All universities have tremendous problems because they had to guarantee pensions. The pensions are fixed return pensions, so [employees] guaranteed X amount of money. Then their investments crashed in 2008, and they have a hole in their pension account. And the government, which is in serious trouble, doesn’t want to fill that hole. So what they’re saying is “manage, cut, get rid of unnecessary things.” And then what happens of course is the corporations come in and say we’re not all that interested in Latin scholars, but engineering, MBA, Law: “we might be able to fund as long as we can be certain you fund these programs the right way.” But don’t let the university become dependent on a particular lobby.

MD: What are your thoughts on the Quebec government’s decision to increase tuition in 2012?

JG: On tuition increases, what I want to say is that the present tuition increases are not written in stone. Remember, what I’m paying for my children right now, is virtually the same thing I was paying, with the inflation having doubled. So I’m not saying though that they could not raise the tuition fees a very moderate amount. But there are two things: First of all, if they’re raising it in order to cut the subsidies to the universities, it’s not at all improving the university. The university will get nothing; they’ll end up with the same thing. It’s relieving the pressure on the government so they can cut taxes for big corporations. It’s people like you subsidizing big corporations, and I certainly don’t want to see that. The second thing is, without being dogmatic, that it’s got to be exactly the amount it was last year, there’s one fundamental principle that without which the left has no sense: there are certain things that have to be accessible to everyone, and the most obvious two things are health and education. The third one is culture. The fourth one – which is not for everybody, but it has to exist – is a minimum income –minimum security that if you fail, fall ill, do something wrong you can’t fall below a certain point, and your children will have the same access to education, health, and so on.

In the long run what it does is put the government in the hands of an elite, that doesn’t use the public school system, public health system; they’re not interested in it. They let it fall into complete neglect, and gradually you have the foundation of firm and impenetrable classes: those who have gone to the private schools, the private hospitals and clinics, who have private performances, who go to vacations in private clubs – and the average person who can no longer get there. So without postulating there can never be an increase in tuition, or it can’t go up or down a few dollars, the whole trend of terrible things is McGill’s arrangement of the [self-funded] MBAs, of the University of Toronto’s paying law degree. My God, I shudder at the thought. In 1989 they got rid of the Russian Revolution, and maybe it had gone wrong, and Stalin was a murderer and so on, and all that was true. But now they’re doing away with the French Revolution. They’re doing away with the notion of liberty, equality, and fraternity. There’s no more liberty because there’s a security state around, there’s no equality because they’re allowing the formation of classes and they don’t want to fraternize with anybody. So what we’re doing is watching the undoing of the French Revolution, and I’m asking myself when are people going to wake up and say, “No you can’t keep cutting taxes, and putting in private institutions at all costs.” This is exactly the opposite of what we’ve fought for. I became a moderate in the 60s and 70s because I thought the battle had been won. We got Medicare, the segregation system fell apart in the United States, and so on. But right now the world’s going the opposite direction, and nobody’s saying a word.

— Compiled by Erin Hale


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