Congress 2016 Day #1: Climate crisis, student unions, and even more controversy

The team at Academic Matters is always thrilled to attend the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, this year in Calgary, Alberta. We tend to gravitate towards the Canadian Society for Studies in Higher Education (CSSHE), as their program tends to align with the interests of our readers. But with over 70 scholarly associations in attendance, and with thousands of participants, there is a lot to see and do.

One of the best things about Congress, for me anyway, is their excellent “Big Thinking” lecture series. Every year, they manage to get a provocative series of speakers, and this afternoon’s lecture took that idea as far as it would go. Naomi Klein took the podium today, in what could fairly be described as enemy territory. Her dire warnings and radical program for change are important to hear, but perhaps a bit raw for a city reeling from the collapse of oil revenues. Congress is to be commended for embracing the spirit of discussion and debate by inviting her to speak (the Calgary Herald was in attendance, so I imagine there may be some media blowback). But I was particularly impressed by the sincere welcome extended by Dean of Arts Richard Sigurdson. He made of point of contrasting his remarks to the downright insulting reception that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne received at the hands of the Wildrose Party earlier this week. Calgarians, it seems, pride themselves on their hospitality, no matter whether they agree with your point of view.

Klein’s message, contained in her bestselling “This Changes Everything,” is well known. But I was interested to see her to connect climate change with the pervasive under-funding of public universities. Last month, it was revealed that a Shell executive has indirectly threatened that any university that endorsed the Fossil Fuel Divestment movement would be seen “unfavourably,” threatening millions in research funding. As the Dean of Science Chris Moore noted in a university report, much of the university’s research could not be conducted without support from oil companies. It is not hard to see how this might have a chilling affect on the ability of universities to be independent and critical. If universities were adequately funded, Klein suggests, they would be able to debate these issues democratically.

And Klein didn’t hesitate to hold her host’s feet to the fire. She wryly greeted the overflow crowd watching from U of C’s Husky Oil Great Hall.

On the topic of campus protest (or lack thereof), another highlight of the day was a presentation by Josie Steeves on Student Unions. She reflected on the strange status of student unions as both of the university and independent from the university, and the inherent tensions this entails. Her findings indicate a relative lack of interest on the part of students in mechanisms of collegial governance, perhaps a consequence of their uneasy position within the institution. Many of her respondents also suggested that they must leave activism at the door when elected to student government. This is interesting insight for faculty leaders looking to engage students in governance issues on their campuses.

I promised you even more controversy. Well, they renamed the Beer Tent. And it’s not even a tent anymore. Outrage!