Photo: Evelyn Dom

On February 12, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) tried to decisively wrap up the controversy behind POLI 339. For the uninitiated, POLI 339 is a summer course on Canadian and Israeli politics which would involve students spending two weeks on exchange at the Hebrew University in Israel. The course drew both condemnation and support online from groups such as McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and Israel on Campus at McGill.

This is neither a defence nor criticism of the substance of the course. This is wholehearted criticism of the AUS’ actions.

Under Quebec law, courses with fees must be approved by student unions. On January 30th, the Motion to Approve the POLI 339 Summer Course Fee was presented at the AUS Legislative Council meeting. The Motion would have approved the $1000 fee for the course to cover a part of the airfare, lodging, and transportation for participating students. In a confidential vote, the motion failed by a margin of one vote (14 no, 13 yes, 9 abstentions).

Many were understandably upset that an emotional, highly charged issue was decided by one vote. It’s much harder to understand the logic behind the AUS’ next move.

According to the email sent by the AUS, there was “necessary information” missing from the initial February 12 session, including “the absence of the Professor teaching the course to answer course questions, pertinent documentation (potential syllabi, et cetera) not available, and the lack of required Departmental Student Association Endorsement.” There’s no explanation of why this vaguely-defined necessary information was missing in the first place.

Alright, so the solution to this seems straightforward. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, which the AUS took great pains to acknowledge, the AUS would surely procure and present this information at the next Legislative Council meeting and hold another vote. Easy, simple, fair. Right?

Apparently not. Instead, the AUS Executive convened, held their own vote, and passed funding for the course with a simple majority.

The AUS justified this course of action by invoking FIO constitutional bylaw 2.3, which states that, “If a decision must be made when AUS Legislative Council is unable to be convened, the AUS Executive Committee must contact the representative departmental association if and when possible for their recommendation. This recommendation can then be ratified by a simple majority of the AUS Executive Committee.” The AUS also cited the “time-sensitive” nature of the issue as a reason for expedience, since “a final decision needed to be confirmed by the end of last week.”

Many were understandably upset that an emotional, highly charged issue was decided by one vote. It’s much harder to understand the logic behind the AUS’ next move.

So, to recap: a democratic decision was made, in a public forum, with the results recorded and published for all to see. Then, that same decision was reversed, in a very non-public forum, and an email was sent out informing people only after the fact.

Don’t worry, though – to close out their email, the AUS reminded students that they “respect that there was a diversity of opinions and stances among the executive and among the larger student population.” The fact that they weren’t invited to the final decision-making table doesn’t seem to matter.

Regardless of one’s feelings on POLI 339, it’s easy to see why the AUS’ decision was immensely problematic. Their email is thin on details and thinner on reasoning. The AUS expresses concern about missing, vaguely-defined “necessary information” on the initial vote, and then fails to give stakeholders any information about the hastily-convened, eleventh-hour executive meeting. We don’t even know the final vote count on the Motion. The matter was “time-sensitive,” but it had already been two weeks since the last Legislative Council session – hence the next one being scheduled for tonight, now fortuitously delayed by the snow-day. The point still stands. If students were notified of the decision at 10pm on February 12, couldn’t that decision have waited until 6pm on February 13?

Lastly, there’s the “constitutional” defence – the argument that, since no rules or regulations were ever actually broken, the AUS’ decision remains legitimate. Sure, the constitution says you can. But that doesn’t mean you should. Using constitutional technicalities to justify interference in the democratic process is cheap.

The Motion was controversial from the start, with some alleging that the AUS’ presentation of the Motion constituted an endorsement of the course and, thus, a political stance. Defenders of the motion claimed it was a matter of academic freedom and fairness that the motion be presented for judgement. The same night, funding for two summer courses in Italy were passed without controversy: LLCU 301 and POLI 344.

Whether the AUS was acting for moral or political reasons could be debated, but it’s certainly beside the point now. It’s not really the “why” that matters – a “why” that we’ll never know, because we weren’t privy to meeting details. What’s concerning here is the blatant (mis)use of executive authority to override a decision made publicly and democratically. It’s not that the AUS didn’t give their constituents a voice. It’s that the Executive made a unilateral, private decision that the voice wasn’t “informed enough,” giving themselves the liberty to step in and decide instead.

The AUS closes by stating they “understand that for many students… this is an emotional and difficult situation.” They “apologize for any undue harm and emotional labour.” I suppose the AUS operates by old saying: Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.

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