Over two dozen English students staged a walk-out at their last departmental meeting of the year last Thursday, after it was announced the Department of English Student Association (DESA) executive had been censured.
DESA students had known about the censure for over two weeks – after it was passed at a March 27 English faculty meeting – and planned the action an hour in advance of last Thursday’s meeting. Professor Paul Yachnin read out the ‘whereas’ clause of the motion during the meeting in the Arts Council room.
“This is a feelingly strong expression of disagreement with and disapproval of the actions of the DESA executive, people for whom we care deeply,” said Yachnin, before reading the motion.
The motion condemned the use of hard pickets by English students on March 20, the day after DESA members had voted in a General Assembly (GA) to go on a weeklong strike in protest of scheduled tuition increases. The motion described the “invasion” and “blockading” of classrooms, as well as the “verbal and physical intimidation of and threats to professors and students, and physical mistreatment of professors and students.”
“DESA’s central mission as stated in its constitution is to promote collegiality and community within the department,” read Yachnin.
“The DESA executive must accept responsibility for these incidents, since it enabled them through actions that run counter to the mandate of its own constitution,” he continued.
The vote to censure
In an interview with The Daily after last week’s meeting, Department Chair Allan Hepburn said faculty voted to censure the DESA executive “because a censure is the mildest form of admonition.”
The result of the March 27 vote was made public at the meeting at the request of Associate Professor Denis Salter. Thirteen professors voted for the censure, eight voted against, and two abstained. The meeting lasted three hours, with the motion to censure the only item on the agenda.
Yachnin described the discussion as “lengthy and thorough” and “remarkable” before he read the motion at last Thursday’s meeting.
“The members of the department spoke with their heads and from their hearts,” said Yachnin.
“There were areas of disagreement, but the discussion was open and honest and collegial. It was an exemplary instance of face-to-face democratic discussion,” he continued.
A professor who attended the meeting but asked to remain anonymous described the meeting as “very emotional” and “very tense.”
“One could see that many of the individual professors were very upset” at the actions of picketers the week before, said the professor.
The professor said the faculty meeting had been called by March 22, after the hard picketing of March 20.
The weekend before the faculty meeting, the professor said a number of professors whose classes had been picketed corresponded by email about how to respond to the actions. The professor said the proposed motion of censure, however, was not emailed to all faculty until the evening of March 26.
The professor said that “a particular group of faculty members…clearly collaborated to draft this document” in advance of the meeting.
The professor added that “the concerted preparation and presentation of this motion swayed the majority of those who stayed for the meeting to vote for it.”
In an interview with The Daily after last week’s meeting, Hepburn said the motion “was discussed at length in the meeting…and was heavily amended, and those amendments came from everybody, so I would say that it was collectively authored.”
The other interviewed professor thought “the conditions for such a vote were not very good, were not very appropriate for a gesture that would have such an impact on students.”
“In deciding to censure students, the faculty appeared to pit professors against students in a way that is not certainly a good reflection of what should be happening here,” added the professor.
The professor thought a “lengthier, more deliberate, and more inclusive discussion” within the department was missing from the process, which “should have made it very clear in advance to all the professors in the department that something actually rather significant was at stake in that meeting.”
Why they walked out
DESA President Zoë Erwin-Longstaff said in an interview with The Daily that, “I think we got our point across.”
“It’s not a forum where we could have discussed the censure afterwards,” she continued.
The DESA executive has been at odds with Hepburn since the association first announced it was holding a strike GA on March 16. That day, Hepburn emailed all faculty members in the department, writing that “DESA has no right to strike and no authority to take votes that bind members to strike. Students who want to attend class have the right to do so.”
The DESA GA voted to strike on March 19, and in the ensuing days Hepburn requested the names of each member of the DESA strike committee, as well as committee meeting minutes. Erwin-Longstaff declined the request after consulting with the committee, citing the “fluctuating” nature of strike committee membership.
Hepburn responded, “The department does not condone secret meetings and committees without a chair or clear membership.”
Ultimately, Erwin-Longstaff said she thought the experience was “a bit of a wake-up call to the English Department that students do have some sort of agency over how things go in the department.”
During the meeting last week, Hepburn said he will be scheduling more frequent meetings with DESA, including meeting with the incoming and outgoing executive.
In an email to The Daily last Tuesday, Hepburn said he hopes to discuss “concrete plans for jointly organized activities” with the DESA executives.
When asked what he thought the DESA executive should have done differently to avoid a censure, Hepburn replied in the email that the executive “should have represented the students in English programs instead of facilitating disruptions to classes.”
During last Thursday’s meeting, Hepburn said he didn’t want the year’s events “to be disruptive, or…to mark some sort of decisive change or vision with the DESA executive and the student body at large.”
“I call upon professors, administrators, and students in this department to show leadership in mending the relations between students and faculty,” he continued.
DESA VP Academic Ryan Healey said Hepburn’s comments were him “imposing on the DESA executive rather than actual lateral communication.”
“He’ll sit down with them next year and just make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Healey.