By Allyssia Alleyne
It’s impossible to walk through Ryerson’s Student Campus Centre without being bombarded with different student beliefs and ideas. Campus for Christ draws in viewers with posters proclaiming, “Sex is Awesome.” A colourful, psychedelic poster promoting Wanderlust, the second- and third-year fashion show. A Beads for Beds poster asks, “How do you make money and change the world?”
In total, the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) sponsors about 60 diverse student groups, which they describe on their website as “an essential part of student life and building community,” among many other campus organizations. But while religious, cultural, and liberal voices are common on campus, finding a group representing the views of Ryerson’s critical, conservative and sceptical is no easy task.
Sean Carson, VP Student Life and Events, says the RSU invites students to start their own clubs to express their points of view and actively encourages students to do so during orientation week.
The RSU’s current policy on student groups says each student group must go through certain steps to be made official. Aside from listing proposed executive members, creating a valid constitution and listing potential events, prospective groups must also provide a list of at least 20 current full-time undergraduate students that support the funding of the group. This last factor can prove troublesome for students looking to share what are currently unpopular ideas.
Colin MacDonald, a third-year criminal justice student, set out to start the Ryerson Objectivist Association in September. Through the club he hoped to discuss objectivist philosophies, which are egoistic, pro-capitalist and against government intervention. He had hoped to create public discussion on these theories in relation to current events and campus issues like the Drop Fees campaign, globalization and sustainability.
Although he had managed to draw up a constitution, recruit executive members and come up with a list of five possible club events, he wasn’t able to track down the 20 members required to start a club. MacDonald thinks the fact that students are exposed to predominantly left-wing campaigns from the RSU, including the massive Drop Fees campaign that calls on the province to lower tuition fees, has impacted the amount of interest in clubs that offer different perspectives on such issues.
“People aren’t interested in things they’ve never heard of and things that are so contrary to things that they’ve heard for so long,” MacDonald says.
MacDonald was also concerned about the fact that multiple RSU bodies need to approve each group before they’re validated. He imagined that the deciding bodies might not want to fund a group with such different views from the RSU.
His fears may not have been unwarranted. Carson says such a club’s ratification would be at the discretion of the Student Group Committee and the Board of Directors regardless of whether they meet the requirements in the policy. Instead of following a rigid set of guidelines, both groups review applications on a case-by-case basis. “Every group that applies has the potential to be approved or denied,” says Carson.
But even established campus groups can feel as though their points of view aren’t important. Robert Marshall, the outgoing treasurer of the Ryerson Campus Conservatives (RCC), an RSU affiliate group, remembers bringing Tim Hudak, the leader of the Ontario PC Party, to Ryerson in 2009. Partially funded by a $500 donation from Ryerson President Sheldon Levy’s own pocket, it was supposed to be the group’s banner event. Weeks before the event, the club plastered the campus with about 200 posters, which had been approved by the RSU. Within an hour, all but a few had been torn down.
Although they were frustrated by the situation, approaching the RSU was the last thing on their mind. “Talk to those guys about that? Are you nuts? Their response would probably be, in my opinion, sorry we can’t really help you,” says Marshall. “So needless to say, we don’t do postering much.”
But the RCC is used to hostility on campus. On Campus Groups Day last September, Marshall says someone walked up to their table and said, “the only good Tory to me is a dead Tory.”
“The reality is that the political environment is not receptive to many of the ideas we might have,” says Marshall.
Though he may not agree with every group, Carson thinks all groups facing problems on campus should share them with the RSU. “I would encourage whatever group that wants to talk to us about any problems they’re having because the student union treats every group equally.”
To Marshall, this stifling of alternative viewpoints, intentional or otherwise, defeats the purpose of an academic institution. “Let’s face it: the situation with students is complicated. You need to encourage the diversity of opinions,” he says. “That’s what the university should be about: open discussion and free speech. People shouldn’t be afraid to speak their mind.”
According to MacDonald, a strong presence of alternative voices could help students look more critically at different issues and gather as many facts as possible before drawing their conclusions. “There are so many groups and rallies and talks that are pro the way the university is being run now, that just to get people to hear these arguments that sort of refute some of these claims would be useful,” he says.
Open discussion and the critique of established ideas will be more common on campus next year if Brianne Burnell and Elisabeth Huynh have their way. As co-founders of the Ryerson University Skeptical Society, the third-year fashion communications students hope to make people question what they’ve been told about accepted concepts related to the green movement, alternative medicine, religion and even campus political initiatives like the RSU’s “Too Asian, Too Racist?” campaign against Maclean’s Magazine. “We, the few driven against the presumptions of the world around us, decide to question,” reads the manifesto posted on the group’s Facebook page.
Although they anticipate some hostility from other groups in the coming year, Burnell and Huynh think they deserve the chance to voice their opinions and beliefs as much as any other group. “We’re not trying to offend anyone. We’re just exercising our right to question,” says Burnell. “It’s less about forcing our beliefs on people and [more] about getting people to think about things.”
Ultimately, Carson encourages students with alternative points of view to talk to him or the Campus Groups Administrator about starting their own student group. “I think starting a student club is a great way for Ryerson students to engage,” says Carson.
“If they don’t tell us they want to start a club, common sense: there’s not going to be a club.”
Photo by: Lindsay Boeckl