Volume 40, Number 2: March/April 2006

Radical Campus - or Haunted House on the Hill?

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Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University by Hugh Johnson Douglas & McIntyre, 2005

This is an in-house account by a 37-year loyal history professor, tying up all the loose threads into one happy ending for the 40th anniversary of the founding of Simon Fraser University. It is a short story, really. The bright threads appear in the initial four-to-five-year period, but, by 1970, with the defeat of the series of radical challenges of those first years, SFU is already draped in the bleached, drab garment it wears today.

This volume appears to bookmark an effort to declare full recovery from the “traumas” of the early years, a demonstration of the survivors’ capacity publicly to recount their nightmares. (And make no mistake: The radical challenges are recounted in this book as a series of nightmares!)

The title of the book proclaims SFU a “radical” campus, as though even the ghost that had been haunting the corridors of their minds finally has been exorcised. Empty of meaning, the word can now be played with comfortably.

Yet, consider: “Radical” appears in red in the title on the book jacket. And above, a photo of Arthur Erickson’s famously angular architecture: rigid, pre-formed, grey and inanimate. In the very composition of this photo is evidence of incomplete recovery. The photo is of a section of the building that touches on “freedom square,” so named by radical students in the sixties because it was the site of so many big rallies. The photo edges on “freedom square,” but holds back, and not a single human being is visible. One enters a mausoleum, emptied of the energy of its once vibrant assemblies.

There are more self-conscious avoidances. Writing his history of a “radical” campus, Johnson has avoided interviewing any of the radical faculty, relying almost exclusively on newspaper reports, administration memoranda and interviews with those dedicated to crushing the radical endeavours, from social science to theatre (the latter almost totally neglected).

The release of the book was timed to coincide with a “Special Celebration” on campus of SFU’s 40th anniversary. The featured speakers at the celebration were four outstanding anti-radicals of the early years: a past Social Credit minister of education, the chair of the board of governors, the president of the university and a department head. In case you missed the message, the invitation specified: “Dress: Business attire.” Avoided? Not one radical was to be given voice at the celebration of “radical SFU.”

Oh, the dangers of even brief contact with the unrepentant actors of an authentic radical past. A spark might cross the gap of time, kindle passions anew. “Are you sure you have fully recovered?” a doctor might gently enquire.

Sanctioned Three Times

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has sternly reprimanded SFU three times in its 40-year history for its arbitrary repressions of critical thinking. And one of these sanctions is very recent. Yet this book avoids even whispering the name “David Noble,” and the sanction yet again of an SFU administration for scandalously sabotaging an offer to him of a faculty position.

Why, then, is SFU trying to “brand” itself as a radical campus? In the 1960s, auto-makers used the marketing slogan “The Dodge Revolution.” Of course, the last thing the capitalists wanted was revolution – but the idea was in the air, a part of the culture, a marketing opportunity. Ditto for SFU. Seeing youth involvement in social movements, they may imagine a timely opportunity for their own dishonest marketing ploy.

One can only hope they get what they don’t ask for, in which case the new unraveling will lead students to seek a deeper understanding of SFU’s past than the one presented in this breezy account, with its thumbnail personality bios and dates most reminiscent of limited-circulation my-town or my-school “histories.”

It is not until page 256 (five-sixths of the way through the book) that Johnson gets to the heart of radical SFU. He reduces to insignificance the astounding fact that several independent hearings into the purge of radical faculty unanimously and consistently called for their reinstatement, which the university defied. (These three-person panels included a university administration appointee, an appointee by the Chief Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court and an appointee by the radical faculty.)

Johnson makes every effort to discredit personally those with whom he disagrees. But the key weakness, which has present-day significance, is his incapacity to identify the central axis upon which the “crises” revolved. Without grasping this, his whole account reduces itself to an amalgam of   fragments devoid of much meaning.

The words are never mentioned in the book, but the question posed insistently by the radical students, staff and faculty was: “knowledge for whom?” Irreconcilably opposed were those committed to an egalitarian transformation of the university and those committed to the consolidation of an “instant” university into a hierarchy of power and privilege.

This opposition encompassed not only how the university was organized internally, but whose interests it would serve beyond the campus. The combined political science, sociology and anthropology department (PSA) was the hub of the radical initiatives. PSA students, staff and faculty together openly discussed and adopted a frank ideological statement to guide our work.

We committed ourselves to democratic, participatory and egalitarian decision making. There were plenaries of students, staff and faculty, and decisions required agreement of all three. We committed ourselves to critical thinking, specifying that, “We see within each social order the possibility of going beyond that social order. We identify, analyze, and so help to overcome obstacles to the realization of human liberation.”

As one expression of these principles, PSA organized a series of public lecture-discussions with globally renowned critical thinkers: Harry Magdoff, William Hinton, Marvin Harris, Ernest Mandel, Andre Gunder Frank, Herbert Marcuse. Those who opposed us, themselves unable to think beyond capitalism, could not grasp the rich variation of critical perspectives these speakers embodied, and regarded them all as homogenous.

When Gunder Frank accepted our offer of an appointment, the university countermanded it. When they heard we had made a similar offer to Marcuse, the earth shook.

Further, we committed ourselves to serving the interests of working people, Native people, the poor and the youth. We searched for connections with these groups, and some of them searched for us. Projects of research, teaching and organizing developed from these initiatives – including women-led unionization.

PSA enrollments grew; it became a magnet for students seeking intellectual and moral integrity. And they, in turn, became an unwelcome gadfly to many other professors as they brought their emancipating spirit to other classes.

The university president took on the task of crushing us, stating that, “the society and economy is capitalist and the university serves that system.” Given the opposing orientations, expressing conflicting class interests, it is not surprising the full range of state institutions were mobilized to crush the radicals. Government participated directly – and, of course, the police. In the latter regard, Johnson reveals en passant the intimate, continuing collaboration between the academic vice-president and the RCMP – both undercover and uniformed – and how SFU fit into the country-wide strategy for destroying campus radicalism. Johnson avoids researching this aspect, ignoring a recently published book on police spying at Canadian campuses, including SFU.

The radical initiatives at SFU were crushed: Johnson’s happy ending. PSA was taken over and dismantled, the guiding ideas buried, faculty purged, students dispersed. By this measure, radicalism was defeated.

But there are other measures. The practical implementation of some major features of one alternative to a capitalist university was an exhilarating, transformative confirmation of our human capacities and possibilities for so many, inside and outside the university. As well, the collective struggles to sustain these initiatives against determined counter-attack revealed the fault lines of our society and dearly cost the university (one of whose major responsibilities is to veil these fault-lines).

Glimpsing once again through this book – the pinched intellectual scope and traumatized psyche of the self-proclaimed “victors,” who remained resident in their haunted house on the hill – I, for one, sing with Edith Piaf: “Non, je ne regrette rien.”