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The Insidious Rise Of Right-Wing Populism On College Campuses

The University of Toronto is one of many colleges where subtle policy shifts are threatening vulnerable students.

University of Toronto (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last couple years — and especially since the ascent of Donald Trump — campuses have increasingly found themselves in the cross-hairs of “alt right” attacks. At colleges from UC Berkeley to the University of Washington to McMaster University, any attempt to curb white supremacist, anti-women, or anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is inevitably slammed as an affront to “free speech.” And in turn, many campuses across the U.S. and Canada are buckling to pressure, providing fringe figures espousing hateful ideologies a platform, at the expense of the safety of marginalized students.

This has seemed, to many, like a shocking shift, single-handedly ushered in by the Trump-led far-right fringe. But the truth is, campuses have been moving rightward in more subtle ways for years, and harming many marginalized students in the process. As the largest university in Canada, the University of Toronto provides a particularly chilling example of what’s happening at so many prominent colleges — in ways both high-profile and more insidious.

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The campus has become a frequent target of the “alt-right”; a recent National Post article, for instance, claimed that the school’s removal of White Student Union posters is stifling debate. At the same time — and it’s hard not to see the two as related — the college has stepped back from confronting the white supremacy and neo-Nazism the “alt right” espouses.

Most recently, the university failed to release any refutation of a white nationalist rally planned for September, beyond commenting that the group had not booked campus space. Meanwhile, its application of free speech has become remarkably lopsided: While it allows MRA groups to book screenings of The Red Pill — a propaganda film defending the men’s right movement in America, in the same building as the Center for Women and Trans People — it also tears down posters campaigning against sexual violence on campus.

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At the same time, as these actions are garnering the majority of headlines and attention, a dangerous change has also been taking place behind the scenes, at the university’s undergraduate student union (the UTSU). This organization supports many student-funded services — including the LGBTOUT, the Center for Women and Trans People, the Students for Barrier-Free Access, and the social and environmental justice group OPIRG-Toronto — that women and minorities rely upon for equal access to the post-secondary experience. And yet, of late, it has worked to systematically dismantle these services.

The story of how this has happened provides a case study in the nefarious, underground ways far-right ideology is infiltrating campuses.

Do You Hear The Dog-Whistle?

Like many campus organizations, the UTSU has long been considered a progressive organization. But echoing a rightward shift happening more broadly, the current slate of elected officials ran on a decidedly conservative platform, revolving around reducing “overspending,” freezing fee increases, and helping students find jobs.

Now, using deceptively neutral-sounding language, these officials are pushing policy shifts that are threatening the services of marginalized students.

Under the guise of “student choice” over where fees go, for example, the UTSU tried in April to reduce requirements for defunding its student services. Officials posited that, out of 44,000 members, only 250 student signatures should be needed to initiate a defunding vote, a reduction in threshold of about 95%.

Overt opposition to support for queer, trans, disabled, and racialized students is still unpopular on progressive campuses. So instead, these supports are being eroded indirectly.

It is not difficult to imagine how policies like these could be exploited. While it’s challenging to get 5,000 students to come out against LGBT rights, getting 250 is relatively trivial and only requires a listserv announcement in any conservative network. Even if the subsequent vote fails, the petition can still be recycled year after year to strip resources from marginalized students: Campaigning to urge students to vote in support is expensive for service groups, and imposes an energy tax on marginalized students forced to defend their presence on campus.

This push for more “student choice” operates in tandem with the reframing of campus equity as radical leftist politics. In this column from Maclean’s, to take but one chilling example, writer Matthew Lau argues that student unions supporting Indigenous groups or advocating against unpaid internships is not an expenditure that benefits or reflects the “majority” of students like himself. But these arguments encourage people to ignore that students function as a community, and their collective actions shape who gets to participate on campus. Providing women and minorities with resources to address the additional barriers that they face in higher education requires commitment from everyone. If every student who was not part of the groups prioritized by these respective services opted out because they did not personally benefit, these services would not have enough money to develop programs to counter the deep-rooted systemic inequalities in our post-secondary institutions.

This push for more ‘student choice’ operates in tandem with the reframing of campus equity as radical leftist politics.

Under scrutiny, the argument of “student choice” becomes flimsy. But it stands outside of context, and is abstract enough that people can project their own ideas of what it means onto it. As we have seen with “free speech,” these noncontroversial values are increasingly used as cover for policy and action that reinforce institutionalized discrimination.

Fiscal Conservatism As A Cover

This year, the UTSU fired its health insurance coordinator and its clubs and service groups coordinator, impacting the disabled students who relied upon guidance from the former, and the equity groups that relied upon the resources coordinated by the latter. Formally, the reason given was finances: The union could no longer afford to pay for its staff members. But for those with an eye on the financial health of the organization, this argument was confusing, given that the union operates at a surplus.

Rather, the UTSU released a report arguing that even though they were not in debt now, they would be in the future when the university decreased undergraduate enrollment by 30%. These numbers were lifted from one of several projections from a university task force intended to improve student-faculty ratios by 2030, ignoring the discussion in the task force report on the importance of maintaining stability of services and student life. The UTSU report itself also conceded that enrollment was going to increase in the short term, raising the question of why these staff needed to be laid off so far in advance.

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An investigative report by the Rabble notes that this is not an uncommon phenomenon in increasingly right-wing Canadian student unions, who use politically-motivated consultation firms that inevitably advise for the firing of staff. But regardless of whether we accept these fiscal arguments at face value, the reality is that fiscal conservatism is rarely intersectional. In considering how to save money, it tries to eliminate the more specific services where fewer people have a voice to challenge. Often, this results in a systematic skew against marginalized people; for some, this is a feature, not a bug.

Promoting Apathy By Limiting Information

It is not that students cannot see past the surface arguments used to justify the removal of measures against institutional discrimination, but it’s hard to do so when policy-makers make it challenging to have enough information to think critically about policies. When the UTSU intended to pass these decisions, among others, they quietly booked their meeting for 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the summer, only releasing their minutes a day in advance. When dozens of students still showed up to challenge their decisions in spite of work and child-care commitments, and then continued to show up for subsequent meetings, the union worked harder to block access.

First, they moved to ban livestreaming and recording of their meetings, hindering students from sharing these new policies with their networks. Then, noticing that black students were strongly represented through engagement from the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), the union began stationing police officers at meetings, who would demand that these students produce evidence of membership before being permitted entry.

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Marginalized students who rely upon the services that student unions provide cannot afford to ignore these right-wing student policies; in contrast, those who do not have as much of a stake may be discouraged by the increasing amount of work they have to do to receive news of and understand policies. As a result, there is a skew in the demographics challenging these policy changes. Because they are largely women and minorities themselves, they are easy to discredit using stereotypes: in an email to the student union board justifying police presence at meetings, the UTSU president accused members of the BLC of being physically violent and cited fears that students would not be safe at meetings.

These tactics cut off marginalized students from allies: first by making it difficult for allies to remain engaged, and second, by convincing allies that marginalized students are irrational, self-centered, and violent.

The Fight Ahead

The inclusion of women and minorities in higher education was a long and hard struggle. We should not take for granted that it will naturally persist without continued effort. Post-secondary education is far from a perfect remedy, but it has still transformed the way marginalized people participate in our society.

College opens paths away from economic marginalization. As a Deaf person, I have had many challenges in seeking employment; it was in an academic environment that I was given a chance to demonstrate myself, resulting in opportunities from my mentors and colleagues.

It also connects one to community, providing the social networks not to fall through the cracks. It was in my student life where I was introduced to other queer Asians, and where I learned to reconcile identity with culture.

The inclusion of women and minorities in higher education was a long and hard struggle. We should not take for granted that it will naturally persist without continued effort.

It provides the language, exposure, and platform to articulate one’s ideas and experiences. Had it not been for my writing classes, I would not have been able to form my ideas and bring them to a larger audience as I do now.

Is there any wonder why those who wish to drive white supremacy have made our campuses into their battleground? These attacks are increasingly commonplace: Under arguments of budget restructuring and religious liberty, the University of Southern Florida and the Texas A&M University sought to defund services for LGBT students; under Trump, historically black colleges are increasingly threatened by funding cuts; and all across Canada, conservative movements are attacking the infrastructure established by Public Interest Research Groups arising from the civil rights era to support student-led social justice research and activism.

When ‘Free Speech’ Kills

Strategies for reinforcing institutionalized discrimination and inequity have evolved to avoid what is now politically unacceptable, but that means that our understanding of these tactics must also evolve accordingly. To do so requires vigilance: We must resist the temptation to overlook issues because they do not directly concern us, and think critically about the impact of policies instead of accepting easy rhetoric at face value.

I was heartened when so many took it upon themselves to denounce the white nationalist rallies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But the desired outcome of these movements is the forcible exclusion of marginalized people from our society, and we need to understand that this goal is advanced on multiple fronts. Even though it may be the most jarring when it is enacted through violence and intimidation, exclusion is still exclusion when it is enacted quietly through policy.

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