Commentary | QPIRG: A public institution

The university’s mission should not be dictated by private interest alone

In the past few years, a collection of campus conservatives has been campaigning against the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at McGill (QPIRG McGill, or just QPIRG in shorthand). Their techniques are crass, pushing students to trade their fee levy for beer or pizza. In spirit, their campaign is selfish and regressive.

There’s not much else to say about them. Nevertheless, their activities do present a space for discussing an important question: what kind of work should students make the university do in today’s society? Aside from our student unions, QPIRG was the first student-run organization to collect fees directly from students. Its research and advocacy work are an original and small but essential part of what McGill accomplishes in the world. What exactly is the nature of this accomplishment? Why do campus conservatives abhor the sort of university that QPIRG is building?

They take issue with QPIRG’s public interest mandate. They misunderstand, perhaps intentionally, what it means to act as a public institution. To get a proper sense of “public” as used by QPIRG, I find it useful to think of other public institutions – let us consider, therefore, the public broadcaster.

What makes a public broadcaster (CBC, BBC, NPR, et cetera) different from a private broadcaster? In Canada, we look to public broadcasters to present stories and news that private networks overlook. We don’t expect private networks to take hard, critical looks at the governments and corporations they rely on for advertising dollars. We are not naive about the business world and its inherently corrosive influence on journalistic ethics.

To counter this problem, we have established public broadcasters. We have blessed them with stable funding. We have insulated them from political influence. And most crucially, we hold them to a public mandate: to always value public over private interests.

The CBC, for instance, is mandated to inform, enlighten, and entertain. It must do so while giving special consideration to Canada’s regions, to French and English minorities, and to our multicultural and multiracial nature. What a telling articulation of the public interest! For the CBC, the public interest is not served by a merely general, widely-shared sort of enlightenment. Instead, we are told, the public interest is best served when the perspectives and concerns of underprivileged communities are actively inserted into the mainstream.

This vision is highly compatible with QPIRG’s. Three decades ago, McGill students decided through a university-wide referendum to establish QPIRG as a kind of public institution: an arm’s-length organization with stable funding and democratic oversight. QPIRG was mandated to utilize the resources of our large, relatively conservative university to serve the public interest. It does so by bringing underprivileged communities and perspectives to the mainstream of campus scholarship and culture.

Our university, like the broadcasting system, is built and financed by the government. Private interests make use of the university – and that’s okay. Many students think of their degree merely as a stepping stone to a comfortable job in middle management. Many academics and companies take research born in the university and bring it to market – whether we’re talking about publishing textbooks or selling inventions. These private interests are not necessarily bad – sometimes quite the contrary.

But we cannot allow private interest to dominate and direct the university. Our degree must not be an expensive ticket to a cushy lifestyle. Our professional scholarship must avoid narcissism and irrelevance. If the university as a whole, after weighing and balancing each of our individual endeavours, does not serve the public interest, then we are all negligent.

Funding QPIRG McGill is one crucial step that students have made to ensure that our university serves society – by serving the underprivileged voices in our midst.

Trevor Chow-Fraser was on QPIRG McGill’s Board of Directors from 2004 to 2008. He can be reached at trevor.fraser@mail.mcgill.ca.


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