OPEN LETTER REGARDING THE PROPOSED POLICY ON STUDENT RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBLE CONDUCT PRESENTED TO THE SENATE
Dear Members of the University of Ottawa Senate,
On behalf of the University of Ottawa’s undergraduate student body, we are writing today to communicate our perspectives and outstanding concerns with regards to the proposed “Policy on Student Rights and Responsible Conduct” as submitted to the Senate on February 14th, 2022. As this Policy directly and permanently impacts the entire University community, but especially students, we respectfully urge you to carefully consider our feedback and concerns.
Before elaborating further, we want to thank Noel Badiou, Director of the Human Rights’ Office, for his engagement and collaborative spirit on this file. It is the view of the undergraduate student body that we need a stronger Human Rights’ Office, with the resources it needs to be able to protect survivors, racialized students, and all students covered by protected grounds on campus. Any outstanding concerns that we have about the Policy is not a reflection on his sincere personal commitment to these goals.
This is not the first time that the University administration has sought to introduce a Policy on Student Rights, often referred to as a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities or a Code of Conduct. In April 2008, upon receiving a draft version of a Non-Academic Student Code of Conduct, 3,000 students signed a Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO)-led petition against the Code, and hundreds attended a protest, noting that the Code “had the potential to stifle student dissent and the rights of student for free speech”. In August 2008, the University agreed to pursue a “different solution that will be created and agreed upon by all members of the University community, including students, professors, staff and the University administration”.
In 2014-15, following the creation of a taskforce on respect and equality to combat sexual violence on campus, the University administration once again held conversations about implementing a Code of Conduct. The SFUO campaigned against the Code again at that time and plans to bring it forward to the Senate for implementation were, again, abandoned.
In both 2008 and 2014-15, the core concern of the student body was this: will the implementation of a Code of Conduct protect students from unacceptable behaviour, or will it over-police students and stifle students’ rights to free expression?
In 2014, Mireille Gervais, the then-director of the Student Rights’ Centre, wrote in The Fulcrum: “The threat of punishment doesn’t change our culture, it simply adds a mechanism for control over students by the administration. That is not fostering a campus where there is freedom, debate, free expression, and student action in all spheres of your political views.”
In just the past few years, on this campus, we have had numerous discussions about two principles: the principle of academic freedom, and protecting and supporting community members from marginalized and equity-seeking groups. More accurately, we have, and doubtless will continue to have, strong debates and disagreements about what to do when these two principles collide.
Consultations regarding this latest attempt to introduce a Code of Conduct began in June 2021. The UOSU tentatively established with Mr. Badiou that there was “potential for common ground” so long as the Code “avoids policing students, strays away from prohibiting non-academic behavior that does not need to be banned, and that focusses on ensuring a safer and more inclusive academic environment, particularly for marginalized students”.
The student union took this view because it passionately believes in the right of students from equity-seeking communities to be safe on campus. The core tenet of all the policy stances and campaigns of the Union are this – How can we do more to ensure that students from one or more equity-seeking groups – Black, Indigenous, racialized, students living with a disability, 2SLGBTQIA+ students, women, diverse faith traditions, and many others – can study in an environment free from harm and prejudice? How can we ensure that these students, who are often breaking barriers by even attending a post-secondary institution, are in a secure environment fully conducive to their learning, and where they have recourse when that secure environment is disrupted?
In September 2021, the UOSU was shared a draft copy of the Code. We were surprised to observe the proposed inclusion of several articles, including:
- An article which defined “Misconduct” as any behavior that might “have an adverse affect on the University’s interest and/or its community”;
- An article which banned “use of University facilities contrary to express instruction”, which we feared could be used to shut down student’s free expression, such as peaceful protests;
- An article which forbade “knowingly creating a condition or circumstance which damages or threatens to damage the reputation of the University”, which we viewed as far too broad;
- An entire section dedicated to prohibiting underage alcohol and/or cannabis use – activity which is already illegal, and could also drive consumption underground, into riskier, more unsafe, and secretive environments.
These concerns, and many others, were shared with the Human Rights’ Office. Many of these clauses have since been removed or modified. Still, the inclusion of these articles and others in a draft document to begin with were extremely concerning to the student union, as the draft showed elements of stifling free expression and dissent, controlling student behaviour, and over-policing student conduct. Out of respect for the Human Rights’ Office, we continued to engage with the consultation process, but with heightened concerns about the University’s intent.
A second phase of discussions began on February 2nd, 2022. At the outset, the UOSU communicated our view that the Code of Conduct should be removed from the Senate agenda on February 14th, 2022, to allow more time for student voices to be heard in this process. We also communicated that, although we would continue to negotiate in good faith, the UOSU believed that several elements of the Code could still be applied in ways that “would be egregious to student rights and freedoms”. These concerns included:
- An article which stated that the policy applied to students through “electronic media (…) [having] a real substantial connection to […] the University Community”, which is still too vague and could be used to stifle the free expression of students critical of the University administration;
- An article which stated that “civility” is a key tenet of responsible conduct. Although dialogue, discussion, and cooperation are always preferred methods, one’s experience should not be entirely discounted based on the method that they use to express themselves. Oftentimes for racialized or marginalized communities, it may be difficult to be “civil” about something which is personally or emotionally upsetting, and there is validity in this reality;
- An article which listed cancelling financial assistance to Students as a possible punishment for breaching Responsible Conduct, which is an outlier among other Codes of Conduct among major universities;
- An appendix which still outlined that “disruption, interference, or obstruction” that impedes the University’s activities constituted a breach of Responsible Conduct. This, again, can be easily used to squash student protest and dissent;
- An article which granted the Secretary-General alone the right to make changes to the Appendices outlining what breaches of Responsible Conduct were.
Although frank discussions were held about these concerns, most of these clauses regrettably remain in the final version, despite student opposition. This is very disappointing.
Proposed solution to the consultative gap
To resolve this impasse between the University administration and the student union, the UOSU proposed a solution that would allow for the Code to be adopted while reassuring our membership, particularly marginalized students, that this Code would be used to protect them, not over-police them. Since its inception, the UOSU has striven to not simply oppose University measures we disagree with, but also propose concrete solutions. Thus, we proposed the creation of a new Committee of the Senate, named the Committee for the Policy on Student Rights and Responsibilities, comprised of 50% students, and 50% faculty/administrators, with the following mandate:
- Oversight: In a confidential and privileged setting, reviewing anonymized cases under this Code to ensure that the Code was being implemented to protect marginalized students, rather than as a mechanism of student control by the University administration;
- Negotiation, Cooperation, and Approval: Serving as the first-step approval body in the Senate’s governance structure for any future changes to the Code, so that students, professors, and administrators are required to work together, free of the power imbalances and democratic deficits of the Senate, to propose collective solutions to the Senate regarding future Code amendments.
The student union is willing to concede that student representatives of the Senate, and not union representatives, should represent students on this proposed Committee.
In the latest version of the Code, Section 7 calls for yearly review meetings between the HRO, the UOSU, the Graduate Students’ Association and the Student Senators. While we are pleased to see a commitment by the University to codify regular consultation with students, we are not entirely satisfied with the way in which they plan to do so. This current consultative system could quickly become purely symbolic if institutional weight is not placed on the student-proposed revisions. In these meetings, these student representatives can propose revisions to the policy. However, there is no commitment that the student-proposed revisions will make their way to the Senate for approval, nor that they will even be taken seriously. It is the strong view, as representatives of the student body, that student consultations can at times be extremely productive, but also can at times be another box to check, where students are not meaningfully heard. We are wary of this process becoming the latter.
This Committee would be a check and balance on the Code. The hope is that, in time, it will allay the worst fears of students that led to the Code being defeated in 2008 and 2014-15. It will give marginalized students a reassurance that their peers, some of whom may be from marginalized communities as well, are guarding against University over-reach. It will allow intelligent and committed student leaders to have a significant impact on the course of this Policy – the same impact that professors and university employees have on their collective agreements. In short, if the University administration is genuine in its intention to create a policy that protects students, respects student rights, and whose implementation would not result in an over-policing of students, why should the University administration fear the creation of a review committee?
By ensuring adequate student representation in the review of the policy, students can rest assured that these types of abuses will be less likely to occur, and that the amendments proposed to the Senate following reviews will reflect the needs of students and correct the injustices the Policy may inadvertently create.
In short, the UOSU’s concerns are as follows:
- The Code includes a number of elements which do not exist in other University’s Codes of Conduct, such as withdrawing financial assistance;
- The Code includes a number of clauses which are still too vague, and which could be interpreted to stifle student dissent, freedom of expression, and exert control on students by the University administration;
- The version of the Code presented to the Senate does not institutionalize student oversight and control over the Policy in a way analogous to professors’ or employees’ collective agreements.
Accordingly, without these concerns being resolved, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union and the undersigned student associations and unions of the university community cannot support the implementation of the Policy on Student Rights and Responsible Conduct.
This is the third time that the University of Ottawa has tried to implement a Code of Conduct for students. We recognize that shutting down these proposals is ultimately a band-aid solution. We want to settle and resolve this question, give the good parts of the Code a chance to work, and to prevent transposing the burden of fighting the policy onto future student governments. This is why we have and will continue to propose solutions.
In a 2019 interview with The Fulcrum, when asked if uOttawa was on the right path, President Jacques Frémont responded:
“You asked me if we’re doing better. I think as a community we will do better if we have a student union doing its job to represent students, and to push and shout and be unhappy and maybe have a demonstration in front of my office. That’s what student unions are for. (…)
Your involvement in the past, in terms of responsible investment, climate change, for instance, student rights, sexual violence, mental health — we’ve been pushed around by students, and it’s a very positive thing. I do hope that students, politically, will be back on campus.”
President Frémont was right. While we agree with the purpose of the policy, “to promote a means to maintain a respectful, healthy and safe University living, learning and work environment”, we ultimately cannot endorse a policy with insufficient protections against administration control, possible abuse, and limitations on student rights.
Although we hope the Senate will consider implementing the Union’s proposed solution, regardless of its decision, the undersigned student associations are clear: if this policy is used to stifle dissent or protest; if a students’ procedural fairness rights are violated or ignored; and if student consultations are a mirage and not a genuine exercise, the undergraduate student body will make itself heard.
The University of Ottawa Students’ Union Executive Committee
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Social Sciences, Henry Mann
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Social Sciences, Alexandra Cooper
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Social Sciences, Lewis Wilson
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Social Sciences, Sherouk Elasfar
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Science, Tarasha Sharma
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Telfer School of Management, Nora Al-Akwaa
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Telfer School of Management, Kareem Brochu
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Engineering, Emma Ballantyne
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Engineering, Chloe Bergeron
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Arts, Linden Coles
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Arts, Allie Skwarchuk
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Health Sciences, Anjolina Hamel
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Civil Law, Alexis Khouzam
Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa
Member of UOSU Board of Directors representing the Faculty of Education, Kristie Earles
CUPE2626, representing academic workers, lifeguards, and residence workers at the University of Ottawa
Senate Undergraduate Student Representative for the Faculty of Science, Sam Yee
Senate Undergraduate Student Representative for the Telfer School of Management, Reana Agil
Senate Undergraduate Student Representative for the Faculty of Social Sciences, Julia Alvi
Senate Graduate Student Representative for the Sciences, Charles Russell Thickstun
Art History Students’ Association
Civil Law Students’ Association of Ottawa
Common Law Students’ Society
Communication Students’ Association
Computer Science Students’ Association
Conflict Studies and Human Rights Students’ Association
Criminology Students’ Association
Economics Students’ Association
Engineering Students’ Society
Health Sciences Students’ Association
History Students’ Association
Human Kinetics Students’ Association
International Development and Globalization Students’ Association
International, Political, and Policy Studies Students’ Association
Linguistics Students’ Association
Psychology Students’ Association
Sociology and Anthropology Students’ Association
Science Students’ Association
Students’ Association of the Faculty of Arts
Students Association of Classical Studies
Second Language Teaching Students’ Association
Telfer Students’ Association
Theatre Students’ Association
Undergraduate Nursing Students’ Association