Commentary  Panem et circenses

Is the administration diverting our attention?

Panem et circenses is a Latin phrase which refers to the idea of a powerful person, usually an emperor, handing out cheap food (panem: bread) and entertainment (circenses: circuses, or games) to appease and distract the masses from the leader’s shortcomings or the real issues at hand. If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because in the past week Principal Heather Munroe-Blum personally invited all McGill students by email to a free barbecue – the panem –     and from September 19 to 21, the University will host a presumably free carnival on lower field – the circenses. It is humorous how literally the administration’s recent generosity corresponds with this Latin phrase.

I do not wish to sound demagogic or overwrought, so I will stop directly comparing Heather Munroe-Blum to a Roman emperor. I do, however, believe that we, as students, must understand the thinly veiled purposes of these “gifts.”

Heather Munroe-Blum had a rough 2011-12, especially in terms of student relations. The year started off with a bang when MUNACA went on strike, with many students vocally supporting the striking workers. Then, in a whirlwind early November, the administration refused to recognize the results of the QPIRG referendum and riot police entered campus, brutalizing students, activists, and bystanders alike, who were demonstrating against proposed tuition hikes. In February, a group of students protesting the administration’s stance on the QPIRG referendum, occupied the James Administration building for six days. Lastly, from February through to the end of the term the administration had to prepare for the possibility of a student strike. I hope I’m not forgetting anything.

Certainly Munroe-Blum wants a less stressful year. The election of  the Parti Québécois does not promise stability, or full and continued support for anglophone Quebec institutions. So, while McGill prepares itself for another unpredictable eight months, the least its administration can wish for is to have the students on its side.

One must wonder, then, are barbecues and parties the administration’s method of opening up more dialogue with the students? Or does the administration wish to, as the emperors did, distract us from the issues which will inevitably arise throughout the year?

Perhaps these panem et circenses are simply a peace offering. Munroe-Blum is extending a hand of friendship from the administration to the students, as if to say “let’s let bygones be bygones and have a happy, productive year, without any political unrest. This year, let’s talk out our problems and differences.” She even said in an email to students and staff this summer: “. . . As we all step forward into the academic year, let’s try to hang onto a bit of that summer feeling. The warmth. The happiness.” What represents “that summer feeling” more than a barbecue and a festival?

If, however, these panem et circenses are an attempt to distract us, then we, as students, should feel outraged that the administration would underestimate us: that it thinks our vote of approval could be so easily bought. If Heather Munroe-Blum’s goal is to disengage us, politically, from our world, then she is not suited to run an academic institution. An academic institution should be a place where students, faculty, and even administrators, fully and critically engage the social and natural world. It should certainly not be a place where this type of participation is discouraged.

So I’ll eat your panem, Heather, and I’ll attend your circenses. But if you’re trying to distract me from the problems that directly affect me, just know that I’ve still got my oculus on you.

Noah Q. Tavlin is a U2 English Literature and Urban Systems student and a Senior Editor at The Red Herring. He can be reached at

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