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G20 aims to shut down U of T campus and academic integrity

When the University of Toronto announced it would close its downtown campus for the week leading up the G20 Summit, it sparked discussion about the University's role in the broader global security agenda. The University community -- student groups, labour unions, individual academics and members of the general public -- condemned the closure and requested that the decision be rescinded in an open letter, noting that the action was reactionary, displayed a negative portrayal of demonstrators, and violated the principles of academic freedom. The signatories have yet to receive a formal response. The G20 closure appears to be yet another step away from democracy and a few steps closer to a business-led agenda subject to further negotiations at the G8 and G20 summits.

So for a few days, classes at U of T are postponed or cancelled. Campus buildings and libraries will be locked up. Students have to move out of their residences, events -- from weddings, to plays, to conferences -- have been cancelled.  Core student services, including health care for international students, psychiatric services, career centre, accessibility services, the student food bank, discounted metropasses, and other general support services will be disrupted from the closure.

While the original explanation was that the campus closure was to protect students, staff and faculty from "untoward incidents" of "violence, tear gas, arrests, disruption, and damage to buildings," the discrepancies unfolding in the details of the actual operations during the closure are giving that narrative less traction. First, not all student residents are being removed from campus. While New College undergraduate residents are being forced to move out, one block away the Grad House residents will stay. New College residence will be changing the locks immediately before and after the closure period. Many of the undergraduate students are being relocated to 89 Chestnut, which is in reality, closer to the fenced area in downtown Toronto than their current residences. While food services across campus will be closed, the Faculty Club will continue operating to feed "ancillary staff" throughout the closure. Graduate students have been provided specific instructions on access to their labs and a University spokesperson confirmed that the G8 Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs will remain open throughout the summits.

These discrepancies have led many in the campus community to question what is really happening at U of T and to its purpose. And it has led to further speculation on whether students are being shut out to accommodate additional security forces for the G20 at University of Toronto. When asked, University administration representatives would not confirm or deny whether additional security was being housed in the residences. 

The fear-mongering regarding the violence of protesters is far from credible. During previous G8 meetings held in Alberta in 2002 and University of Calgary theatres were booked for community events related to activism around the G8 summit. In 2001, when convergences met in Quebec City to demonstrate the Free Trade Areas of the Americas, thousands were accommodated on gym floors and residences at Laval University. And a University representative agreed with students today that the violence in Pittsburgh was instigated by police.

The University's collaboration and consultation with government on security activities in lieu of direct and democratic consultation with the University community is disconcerting at best. Instead of providing a space for to foster the University's "duty above all" to the "human right to radical, critical teaching and research," there appears to be other interests at play.

In the wake of the largest single private endowment to a Canadian university for the Munk School for Global Affairs -- focusing on global securities -- while critical liberal arts programs at U of T suffer, students and academic staff are seeing an unprecedented clampdown on their right to free and critical enquiry -- most recently illustrated by the campus closure. University of Ottawa professor Joel Westheimer recently argued "the academy's shift towards a business model of education delivery impedes our collective ability to preserve and promote a democratic way of life". And he's not the only one concerned about the erosion of democracy. University of Chicago Law Professor Martha Nussbaum argues in her new book that cutting our liberal arts programs in universities and focusing on the university as a space for economic growth is leading to an undereducated population and hindering democratic growth.

Aside from closing down on spaces for free and critical debate during the G20, the transformation on campus towards private endowment driven research is reaching new levels. And this wouldn't the first time that the University of Toronto's attempted curtail political discussion on campus has been unveiled. Last year, it was revealed in FIPPA documents planned attempts by the University to avoid space bookings for a student-led 2008 Conference entitled "Standing Against Apartheid."

Recent reporting revealed how University of Ottawa was playing a role in spying on academics and attempting to prevent the local student federation's space bookings to host a renowned Burmese activist in what appears to be another story of pressure to protect corporate sponsors from potential criticism on campus. And now, at the University of Toronto, we are seeing an increasing security presence. Police have been hanging around during student-led discussions and events addressing the G20, including some plain clothes individuals carefully observing public discussions.

The political control of campuses continues to deepen as ongoing examples of interference are unveiled -- such as the federal Minister of Science and Technology's pressures to SSHRC to withdraw funding from an York University Law Conference on Isreal/Palestine and Conservative Party members' interference in students' unions elections.

The University of Toronto's Purpose states: "Is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit." It will be important to continue to examine the consequences of this campus closure, and other attempts to clamp down on free and critical inquiry in the context our public universities' mandates.

Angela Regnier is Executive Director of the U of T Student's Union.

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