Opinion: BoG is undermining student representation

Should student representatives be allowed to speak to the students who elected them? The Board of Governors (BoG) doesn’t think so.

All members of the BoG are required to sign a Code of Conduct that seriously limits their freedom of speech, and prevents them from representing their constituents. This policy has been criticized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers  and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario as amounting to a “gag order.” This is because the Code of Conduct says that BoG members are not allowed to express their dissent or opposition to any action or decision taken by the BoG after it has been made.

For many BoG members, this might not impact them in any way. This is because most BoG members are not elected, they are business people and politicians who have been appointed to sit on the BoG. Their expertise may be valuable to the university, but they are not elected, and they are literally not accountable to anybody.

For a small group of BoG members, however, the gag order is very serious. They are elected to their positions by members of the Carleton community—faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Under the gag order, they cannot speak out against decisions that their constituents would find objectionable, and they cannot explain to their constituents how the actions of the BoG might impact them.

For example, the BoG votes to increase tuition fees by the maximum legal amount every year, which makes university education increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible for many students. Under the gag order, student representatives are allowed to vote against tuition increases, but once the BoG has made a decision, they are mandated to shut up about it. They are not allowed to talk to students about what they think about those tuition increases, nor about the negative effects of those tuition increases on students. This makes a mockery of democratic decision-making, and makes student representation nearly worthless. Why should we even have student representatives on the BoG if they cannot inform students about what the board is up to, or explain the consequences of its actions?

The case of Root Gorelick demonstrates the seriousness of the gag order. A faculty representative on the BoG, Gorelick has been blogging about open meetings since 2013. His blog has been a valuable tool for engaging with the community in an open and transparent manner. Unfortunately, the BoG has threatened to remove Gorelick from the BoG unless he stops blogging. This is a clear effort to stifle dissent, by preventing him from communicating with his constituents about his concerns with the processes and decisions of the BoG.

The Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) has outright refused to take a stand against the gag order, and actually appears to support the position of the BoG. Even more disappointingly, they have refused to support Gorelick and his efforts to make the BoG more transparent. This failure to show solidarity is embarrassing, and undergrads should ask themselves if they agree with the position of CUSA’s executive.

In contrast, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), alongside other campus organizations and labour unions, is calling for changes to how the BoG operates, so that university decision-making is more transparent. We have submitted a series of recommendations which would reform the BoG to be more democratic, accountable, and representative of the university community. The first step is removing the gag order.

Students and other campus stakeholders need to be meaningfully included in university governance. We, the GSA, hope CUSA will join us in our fight to give students a voice.