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Don't call it an occupation: Students take over McGill admin offices for surprise-resignation party

by Tim McSorley

Don't call it an occupation: Students take over McGill admin offices for surprise-resignation party
Don't call it an occupation: Students take over McGill admin offices for surprise-resignation party
Don't call it an occupation: Students take over McGill admin offices for surprise-resignation party
Don't call it an occupation: Students take over McGill admin offices for surprise-resignation party

Scroll down for latest update.

Since Tuesday morning, a group of McGill University students have been holding a “surprise resignation party” for one of the school's high ranking administrators – in his own office.

About 25 McGill students have been holding the 'party' – which many would call an 'occupation' – in the office of Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson on the sixth floor of the James Administration Building. The action is also a being called a “welcome back party” for campus radio station CKUT 90.3FM and the McGill branch of QPIRG, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (disclosure: the Montreal Media Co-op is a working group of QPIRG. While we receive some funding, there is no editorial association between the two organizations).

The action has two main demands: that a fall referendum on the future of CKUT and QPIRG be respected by the administration and that Mendelson – who the paty-goers blame for the referenda being blocked as well as many other controversial initiatives on campus – resign.

“As far as we can tell, Mendelson is not in the building and hopefully has resigned,” said party-goer Molly, an Arts student at McGill, when contacted late yesterday afternoon.

Last fall, CKUT and QPIRG ran mandatory referenda asking students whether they agreed to continue paying their semesterly fee to the organizations, as well as whether they would like to do away with online fee opt-outs.

The opt-out issue is a long-standing demand: three years ago the McGill administration allowed students to begin opting out of certain fees online when they pay there tuition fees. Representatives of CKUT and QPIRG have in the past said that this unfairly targets their groups and leads them open to semesterly de-funding ampaigns. Previously, students were required to visit the organizations' offices in person to request their fees be reimbursed.

While both organizations ran separate questions, they contained similar wording. Both questions passed by at least two-thirds, more than the simple majority needed.

But three weeks ago, Mendelson, on behalf of the university, sent a letter to both groups, stating that the questions were “unclear and, as such, will not provide the McGill’s Board of Governors the assurance necessary to approve renewal of your agreement with the university.” Every five years the university re-negotiates its space agreements with the two organizations, but only after students have re-affirmed their support for the groups through referendum.

Criticisms of the university, and particularly Mendelson, who is often the mouth piece for campus and student life related decisions at McGill, had been simmering over the past several months.

“The last straw was the rejection of the referenda,” explained Molly

“It's because of [the university's] overall attitude towards us. They either shut us down, infantilise us, or hold quote-unquote 'consultations' without any real feedback,” she continued.

Both Molly and co-participant Becka (who took over the interview when Molly was sent in to negotiate with the administration), pointed to a long list of critiques, including:

  • The university decideding to sign an exclusive food provision agreement which led to the shuttering of popular, student-run Architecture Café
  • The hardball tactics used by the university against the striking McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association workers this fall
  • The univeristy's persistent support for higher tuition fees
  • The presence of riot police on campus last November 10th, during a previous occupation of the same offices, where students outside the building were peppersprayed by police
  • The lack of student representation on the university's Board of Governors, the school's highest placed decision making body
  • The re-appointment of Mendelson to another term as Deputy Provost without any student consultation

When contacted by the Media Co-op, the students were about to have their first negotiating session with the university. According to reports since then, Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) Jim Nicell told the protestors that he is “ashamed of you, as students.” It's unclear what the next step by the university will be. When contacted yesterday afternoon, McGill spokesperson Doug Sweet said that the university could not comment in the “middle of an event” such as this, since the situation can change rapidly.

For their part, the “party goers” have said they are not leaving. They have also been joined since the begining by betwen 30 and 60 supporters in the lobby of the building, including professors holding teach-ins. Students were coming and going from the first floor during the day yesterday.

Overnight, though, the building was placed under lock-down by McGill security; students were allowed out of the building, but no one was allowed back in. Some students have also set up a makeshift tent-city outside the building. Internet has also been shut down in the building, possibly in an attempt to limit outside commnication with students and supporters: a live-stream was running from inside the sixth floor offices, as well as a costant live-blog and photos. The limited internet has taken down the livestream, but as they put it on their live-blog, THE INTERNET HAS BEEN SHUT OFF IN THE JAMES ADMINISTRATION BUILDING — WHICH WE FIND HILARIOUS. THANKFULLY, WE ARE EDUCATED ENOUGH TO FIND A WORKAROUND!!” so the blogging continues here.

More updates to come as the story develops.

UPDATE 1:

There have been reports that a student leaving the action to get his medication was dragged back up the stairs by McGill security overnight. Video:

UPDATE 2: QPIRG McGill has issued a press release, saying they support but did not know in advance about the surprise resignation party:

Press Release - Feb 8 - McGill_ QPIRG _ Occupation

Update 3Other coverage:

Twenty students occupy Mendelson's office (McGill Daily)
Familiar Territory (Concordia's The Link)

Update 4: Communiqué released at 4pm today:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Feb. 8, 2012 3:08PM

Close to 20 partiers on the sixth floor of the James Administration Building are prepared to party on, spirits high.

Partiers are re-decorating the space, collecting party supplies, and compiling playlists for a new dance party, which will surpass last night's in every way. Partiers hope that full internet access is restored by tonight, so that we can share our revelry with as wide as an audience as possible, including our disbanded comrades.

UPDATE 5: It's Thursday, Feb. 9 and as the party/occupation enters its third day, rifts (predictably) are showing between student organizations on campus. The presidents of the four largest faculty associations have published an open letter against the "surprise resignation party":

"The students currently occupying the James Administration Building have put forward the rhetoric of a peaceful occupation. We, however, as student leaders would like to note that the current tactics alienate the majority of students at McGill, many of whom agree with the final goals of the occupiers, but who disagree with the means currently in use.".

In other news, no update on the liveblog since 5:20pm Wednesday, when they announced:

"NEGOTIATION UPDATE 5:20 — Three of #6party’s Admin Negotiators are currently meeting with Nicell. It still is not clear why we are meeting with him — he doesn’t have the power necessary to grant us anything."

Update 6: Just got this from the ever-rad Gretchen King: "Just confirmed with the Venus Collective that they will be spinning tunes for the 6th floor partiers from 12:15-1:45 TODAY. To call-in live, CKUT's on-air studio is 514.448.4013. Folks are invited to call-in for an on-air discussion/speakout on 90.3fm or http://www.ckut.ca/. Bring your boom boxes down, a radio on-site/outside James and radios tuned-in all over campus would only amplify (!) this opportunity."

More news as we get it.

Update 7 (Feb. 9 10:00am): After over 12 hours of silence, the partygoers speak:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Feb. 9, 2012, 9:55am

Mendelson Skips Work, Resigns

For the second day in a row, Morton J. Mendelson has not shown up to work, and has not communicated with those waiting in his office in almost 48 hours. Hence we are pleased to announce Morton J. Mendelson's resignation from the position of Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) of McGill University. One of two demands of the sixth-floor partiers has been met.

We welcome this development as a victory for student life and learning. During his term as Deputy Provost, Prof. Mendelson played a leading role in the administration's autocratic tactics of encroaching on student space and controlling autonomous student activity. The administration re-appointed the Professor without consulting students.

If the position of Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) is to continue to exist, we advocate for a selection process that is democratic and accountable to students. More importantly, we support direct student action as a legitimate tactic toward ensuring that those who claim to represent our interests act for us, and not back-room handlers.

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