President's Statement on the Events at Simcoe Hall on March 20th, 2008
PDAD&C #43, 2007-08
To: The University of Toronto Community
From: David Naylor, President
Date: March 24, 2008
Re: President’s Statement on the Events at Simcoe Hall on March 20th, 2008
On the afternoon of March 20th, a small group of protesters entered Simcoe Hall and conducted themselves in a fashion antithetical to the University’s values and traditions of peaceful assembly. This statement addresses the background to this incident, reviews the unacceptable conduct, summarizes the actions that will be taken by the University, notes with concern the alleged role of some recognized student organizations in this incident, and re-states certain basic principles for general reference.
The Role of Students and the Right to Dissent
The University of Toronto has long upheld its fundamental belief in freedom of expression. We have done so in the basic belief that debate is a central and historic role of any university in a free society. The right of students to assemble peacefully and to express support for, or opposition to, courses of action taken by the University is similarly protected.
To ensure that students are heard systemically, the University also ensures that literally hundreds of students are actively engaged and consulted in the broadest range of university affairs, from setting budgets -- including tuitions and ancillary fees -- to setting codes of research ethics and planning building projects.
Though the resulting systems of policy-making may seem frustratingly complex to those from other walks of life, they serve to enrich our University. They ensure that student voices are consistently and powerfully heard in matters that affect their lives and the quality of their education. Conversely, those students who engage constructively with the administration and governance of the institution cannot be displaced by protesters who assert their right of privileged access to administrative decision-makers and governance bodies.
New College Residence Fees
The demonstration ostensibly was triggered by the proposed increase to New College residence fees. The issue of New College residence fees is being addressed by due process in governance, as outlined in brief below. However, I shall very briefly address these residence fees in the light of the significant misinformation that has been promulgated.
Research shows that residences can help build a sense of community and engagement, especially for undergraduates in their early years at the University. However, we seek to operate residences on a self-funding principle. The reason for that principle is obvious. In its absence, the vast majority of students who live off campus are put in the position of subsidizing a minority who live in residence.
The main exception to that principle is provision of some initial financing to residence operations given their relevance to the student experience and the high costs of construction in Toronto. The New College residence did receive such support.
Unfortunately, the New College residence was operated with lower fee levels and lower revenues than originally planned in its own business model. Those fee levels are also lower than fees for other residences on the St. George campus with the exception of Loretto College. This has led to annual deficits and a large accumulated debt.
The proposed increase in New College residence fees (not including the meal plan) includes 7% that was already planned since 2006, and an additional inflationary increase per usual. Thus, the actual surcharge to deal with the deficit is approximately 10%. This increase will greatly help to reduce the annual deficits. However, it does not reduce the accumulated debt or address the long-term mortgage on the residence.
Since the increase is proposed for next year, students currently in residence do have options to explore other campus-based residences as well as to live off campus as is the norm for the vast majority of University of Toronto students.
Process for Review of Fees
The fees for a broad range of ancillary services, including residences, go through a well-established process prior to being submitted to the University Affairs Board for review and approval. Residence plans are reviewed at the local level, in a process that engages students in the affected residence.
In the case of the New College residence fees, there has been extensive consultation and discussion in the College, including review by the appropriate residence and college councils and committees, all of which have significant student representation – indeed New College has amongst the highest proportion of student representatives on its governance bodies of any unit at the University.
The University Affairs Board is broadly representative and has eight students out of its 23 usual voting members. As with all Governing Council Boards and Committees there is a well established process for granting of speaking rights to external members. As a practice, the Chairs of these bodies grant the right to speak to representatives of recognized campus groups who submit appropriate requests in a timely manner according to their procedures.
The Incident on March 20th
On Thursday March 20th, about 30 protesters – some of whom were not University of Toronto students – conducted themselves in an inappropriate and unlawful fashion.
Three recognized student organizations -- the Arts and Science Student Union, the New College Residence Council, and the University of Toronto Student Union -- called on students to organize in protest against the increase in residence fees at New College. Early Thursday afternoon, some members of New College complained that individuals affiliated with a group that does not have formal standing on campus, were going door to door in the New College residence, pressing students to come to the protest.
The New College Student Council President later noted that as organizers from this group “kicked off their speech, the focal point of the rally changed dramatically from protesting the fee increase to other unrelated issues.” The President also reported that at no time did the organizers of the rally indicate that it “would lead to a sit-in at Simcoe Hall and make other demands that are unrelated to the New College student community…The NCSC would like to categorically state that due to the group’s misrepresentation of their purpose, Council disavows all ties to this organization.”
When the protest eventually assembled outside Simcoe Hall, the group included students from the University of Toronto as well as individuals who were not students. New College students were in a minority. Protesters carried flags and placards relating to a variety of international and domestic causes, rather than the New College residence fees per se. The chanting and shouting by the protesters ranged across issues from abolition of all tuition fees and grievances about retail practices on campus, to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ‘Israeli Apartheid’.
At about 2 pm, around 30 protestors entered Simcoe Hall. A few initially covered their faces with bandanas. They continued to chant and shout loudly about a range of issues other than the New College residence fees. They assembled outside the President’s Office, and demanded a meeting with me, unaware that I was not on site that afternoon.
University of Toronto Police did not, at any time, take any steps to remove these protesters from the building. They have considerable experience in dealing with peaceful demonstrations in a sensitive and appropriate manner so as to minimize any physical confrontation and maintain security and safety. Instead, the University police ensured that other protesters did not enter, and tried to ensure that the protesters did not force their way into closed offices or interfere with staff at work.
The protesters nonetheless verbally harassed and attempted to impede staff moving in the halls, even if it was simply to go to the bathroom. Staff were upset and stressed by the aggressiveness of the group and their constant screaming of profanities. When, at approximately 3:30 pm, University police attempted to escort a first group of staff out of the building, protestors hindered their movement in the hallway and shouted at staff members.
By 5:10 pm, a small group of staff remained in the Provost’s Office. The protesters congregated outside the door, insisting on their right to speak to me or a senior administrator and insisting that no one should leave the Provost’s Office until their demands were met.
Both the Provost and I were consulted about these demands. Our answers were identical and confirmed by Vice-President Judith Wolfson, one of those forcibly confined. We do not accede to thuggish tactics by mobs, and we can scarcely engage in rational discourse with protesters yelling obscenities and slogans in support of grievances on a wide range of local, national, and international issues. Above all, it is manifestly unjust to the vast majority of students to privilege a mob as regards access to administrative and governance proceedings when scores of other students engage constructively with those proceedings as members and through the appropriate exercise of requested speaking rights.
As the staff confined in the Provost’s Office prepared to leave, the protesters became more agitated and engaged in more intimidating behaviour. They banged at the door, placing themselves against it in a position to prevent anyone from leaving, and again asserting that no one should leave before a meeting took place with them.
Campus Police repeatedly and politely asked them to clear the door to allow staff to leave. The protestors refused repeatedly. Officers then moved to lift them away from the door. U of T police have done this many times when protesters at sit-ins put themselves or others in harm's way, obstruct the legitimate rights of movement of others, or create unsafe conditions.
In this instance, however, for the first time in the recollection of veteran police officers, some of whom have more than twenty years experience at U of T and/or in public safety situations involving protesters, there was active and aggressive resistance to the attempt to end the forcible confinement of staff by lifting protesters away from the doorway. Police were shoved, hit, and otherwise assaulted. One protester uttered threats to U of T special constables, insisting that he would find out who they were, find their families and harm them.
Protesters placed themselves on the floor in the path of staff trying to leave, pulling at their legs and causing the first staff member to fall to her hands and knees. The remaining staff meanwhile were trying to keep their balance in the melee and avoid stepping onto any of the protesters even as they were pushed and shoved. Staff escaped down an adjacent stairwell.
The protesters eventually dispersed of their own volition. University of Toronto Police did not forcibly remove anyone from the building.
Staff have described feeling threatened and afraid. Several remain disturbed at the aggression of the protesters, the sense of forcible confinement in their workplace, and the physical assault on them.
Implications of the Incident
We understand that some students are engaged in intense exploration of political and social matters and have strong views on internal and external issues. Every administration accordingly also expects that, from time to time, there will be peaceful assemblies in support of one or other cause. Those assemblies must always be allowed to proceed unless they intrude on the rights of others, are associated with unlawful conduct, or otherwise violate University policies.
Against that background, let me enumerate the concerns that have arisen about the conduct of these protesters. They hijacked the cause of another group, and pressed New College students into participating in a protest that was turned to other purposes. The group attempted to use intimidation tactics to secure privileged access to governance proceedings and the administration. It is clear that some of the protesters engaged in forcible confinement, harassment, and intimidation. Some of them assaulted police and staff alike. One of them made serious threats of harm against special constables and their families. Last, in an astonishing display of historical revisionism, they then portrayed themselves as victims.
The University is still in the process of gathering additional facts about the identities and actions of those who engaged in unlawful and inappropriate behaviour. We have sadly concluded that evidence must be submitted to the Toronto Police Services who will have to determine if criminal charges should be laid against some of the protesters. Any who are not U of T students will be subject to trespass orders for their violent actions. The inappropriate actions of those who are U of T students will be assessed in the light of the Student Code of Conduct.
I must also raise the matter of the association of recognized campus groups with this deplorable conduct. The Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) has the responsibility to represent over 22,000 full-time undergraduate students. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) represents over 41,000 full-time undergraduates on the St. George and Mississauga campuses. ASSU and UTSU are student societies of the University on whose behalf the University charges a compulsory fee. Executive members of ASSU and UTSU supported or participated in these unacceptable actions, and now, ironically, are promoting additional events to protest against ‘police brutality’. OPIRG staff also participated in the activities inside Simcoe Hall. OPIRG receives contributions from every student because of the dues structure of UTSU, the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU).
We will continue to follow our well-established processes for engaging with students in the management and oversight of the institution. We do not expect that, in their short years with us, students will understand or agree with all that is done by the various levels of the University’s Administration. However, the reality is that almost 12,000 faculty and staff are here on a continuing basis; and the Administration, comprised of various faculty and staff members, must look to the long-term interests of the institution as one of the great public universities of the world.
In that respect, therefore, we will continue to defend the rights of students and others to assemble peacefully and make their opinions known on a range of issues in an appropriate fashion on our campuses. However, we will also assert our responsibility to protect the rights of faculty and staff, as well as other students not engaged in protest, to go on about their daily affairs.
We have noted many times before that free expression on our campuses ends the moment it becomes unlawful or threatens the safety of any individual. These events unequivocally crossed that threshold.
In the same vein, those who would seek to disrupt meetings where University policy is being discussed should know that such actions only serve to undermine the very venues designed to seek direction from student representatives. On the other hand, those students who would wish to make their voices heard at U of T should know that scores of different policy-making bodies actively seek their voice each day -- in university governance, in faculties, on our three campuses, in departments, and in student facilities.
Last, we believe that many U of T students share the Administration's concern about this incident. Multiple postings on Facebook, YouTube, the Varsity website, and other interactive sites carry a consistent message: No matter what they may think of residence or tuition fees, a substantial number of our students have characterized Thursday's protest as an embarrassment and an aberration.
Needless to say, this Administration agrees. And we are thankful for the opportunity we have to collaborate with so many students in our shared aim to advance the University of Toronto.