On March 3, nine student demonstrators gathered on the fourth-floor balcony of the University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall to protest fee increases and budget cuts to higher education. Within hours almost 300 students had gathered under the balcony. UQAM Mathermatics professor Timothy Walsh, who was giving a guest lecture at Berkeley, joined the protest. He sat down with The Daily to share his experiences.
The McGill Daily: Why did you join the protest?
Timothy Walsh: I was wandering around the campus when I heard the noises, I saw the student protests, I saw the sign. I’m old enough to remember the free speech movement, and I supported it then. I was glad to see that the spirit was still alive, and I support what they stand for. They were planning to raise the fees by some $3,000 at a go and the students were naturally quite upset about it. I can see their point, I didn’t have that much money when I was a student, and I know that some people are saying that when you increase the fees it doesn’t decrease the enrolment. That may very well be true, because there may be other people that have to drop out or not go to university because they can’t afford the fees. But the people who replace them are the people that didn’t make it on marks, and as a professor, I would like to teach stronger students.
MD: Do you consider occupation tactics to be violent?
TW: I wouldn’t consider it violence if nobody got hurt. One the other hand, you have to consider the effect of the image that it gives the public. Generally, these protests are won or lost on public sympathy. It’s very brave of the people to be willing to risk arrest, but it has to be on something that will gain public sympathy, and it’s possible that breaking into an office like that may not. I wouldn’t consider the tactic immoral but I might consider it unwise on that basis.
MD: Several associations at UQAM will be striking to protest impending tuition hikes on March 31. Do you feel that the faculty will support a strike?
TW: I haven’t interviewed the staff but I shared my link to the Cal Daily with others in the Computer Science Department. Quite a few wrote back congratulating me. So just on that small sample space I would imagine that there would be a considerable amount of support among the staff. Certainly the professor’s union, SPUQ (pronounced “spook,”) has supported the students on this and others. It represents the union’s position and quite possibly the majority of the faculty’s position on this.
We ourselves had a strike over financial issues. I entertained the strikers by singing old union songs in English; it would seem quite consistent of us to support the students as well.
MD: Why do you think that students in some faculties are less likely to mobilize around tuition than others?
TW: One reason why a smaller proportion of students in the professional faculties, especially engineering, than arts students join protests is that they are more dependent than arts students upon getting jobs related to their studies upon graduation, and joining protests could harm their job chances. Some employers may be reluctant to hire graduates who were active protesters, and CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] would be not at all reluctant to inform them. In my student days at the University of Toronto, I took part in many demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. In 1972, after obtaining my PhD and spending a year in post-doctoral studies, I got a one-year definite term contract as an assistant professor in the University of Waterloo.
After twice telling me that I would have no trouble getting my contract renewed, the head of the department in which I worked invited me into his office and told me that the reason the universities have less money these days is that corporations that profit from the war in Vietnam are discouraged from giving money to universities by the professors and students who protest against that war. Since my contract was not renewed, and since the demonstrations in which I had participated were in Toronto and not Waterloo, I can only assume that the RCMP had mentioned my participation in those demonstrations to some higher-ups at the University of Waterloo, who in turn indicated to the department head that it would be unwise to renew my contract.
The probability of such a thing happening these days is less than it used to be, but it is understandable that career-oriented students would be reluctant to take even a small risk of reducing their employability.
Another reason is that the protests sometimes directly inconvenience other students. A case in point is one of the actions in which I was involved at the University of Toronto. A recruiter from Dow Chemical came onto the campus to interview engineering students. Dow Chemical made napalm, a sticky gasoline, which the Americans dropped on enemy soldiers in Vietnam, setting them on fire. To protest the use of napalm, we blockaded the building into which the recruiter had entered, preventing prospective employees from entering. The engineering students were understandably furious with us. What we should have done is to hand out informational leaflets, explaining our objection to Dow Chemical and asking students to seek employment with companies whose hands were cleaner. …
I think students from all faculties will be willing to support the current protests because increased tuition fees hurt them too – provided that the protesters make common cause with them instead of antagonizing them with ill-considered actions like the blockade I mentioned.
—Compiled by Rana Encol