Cement the Freedom Square plaque or get rid of it

Photo Credit: Gabriel Yeung

Last week, thousands of new graduands walked across the Academic Quadrangle to Convocation Mall to receive their degrees from SFU. On their way, they passed through perhaps the most historically significant location at our university, which was made famous as a rally point for the struggle for academic freedom: ‘East Convocation Mall.’

At least, that’s what you would think it was called if you were a visitor to our campus last week. Though for the rest of the year this area is known as ‘Freedom Square,’ and during the time that SFU receives more visitors than ever, the podium and explanatory plaque were unfortunately re-settled to a dark corner next to the AQ.

Although the plaque was just “temporarily moved for convocation ceremonies” according to officials at SFU through their official Twitter account, this ‘temporary move’ is the latest act in a long line of disrespect for the plaque, which increasingly suggests it should just be taken away for good if it isn’t going to be treated with any reverence.

While few students really know the history of what occurred at Freedom Square in 1967, the legends of the plaque’s misadventures have been well-documented. Just this fall The Peak covered its latest triumphant return, after it was ‘discovered’ by the student society.

While this account (which mirrored a very similar recovery story reported by The Peak 15 years prior) highlighted the time the plaque spent as a TV-stand at UBC after their engineers stole it as a prank, it neglected to mention the biggest opposition to the plaque becoming a permanent fixture: SFU’s administration.

The idea to commemorate, with a bronze plaque, the rallies that occurred following the firing and reinstating of five TAs who publicly defended a local high school student who was suspended for writing a satirical poem, was first approved by SFU’s student society in April 1967, and purchased that summer before being delayed by administrative bureaucracy.

The student society’s original plan was for it to be “installed in the cement on the Mall” but since permanent fixtures had to be approved by the university (or else removed), the project was delayed for over a year as the society jumped through bureaucratic hoops; eventually, the plaque was placed on the front of a podium instead of the ground.

Since then, the Freedom Square plaque has never stayed mounted for very long, and while pranks are partially to blame, SFU has been in possession of the monument for the past 15 or more years, making minimal effort to keep it up.

The plaque should just be taken away for good if it isn’t going to be treated with any reverence.

Observing the convocation ceremonies last week, there’s no way the podium would have been in the way of anything (if our pipe band is as good as we always say they are, they should’ve been able to work around it), and there was clearly no real reason to move it. But as always, it seems obvious that SFU’s administration, past and present, just isn’t interested in a public recognition of Freedom Square’s legacy. Why is this so?

As a public defender of academic freedom, doesn’t president Andrew Petter like the idea of a plaque that commemorates “the students, teaching assistants, and faculty who gave themselves in the cause of academic freedom” being front and center during convocation?

Or is the idea of students and teachers fighting up to control their school like they did in ‘67 too frightening for SFU’s administration? On that note, shouldn’t our student society, who so proudly returned the plaque this fall, work harder to keep it visible during major events?

I can understand why the administration would not have been in favour of the plaque back in 1967, when the climate of radicalism was reaching extreme highs. In fact, at that time the plaque may have even gone a little too far in pushing SFU’s buttons.

Commemorating an event that occurred less than a month prior with a bronze plaque was certainly an excessive gesture, and the name Freedom Square probably came across as a little hyperbolic. Taking into account that the president of the ‘67 summer student society who ordered the plaque was Martin Loney, one of the five TAs dismissed in the incident, it was also a tad self-serving.

However, those elements of the story have long been forgotten and the plaque has evolved into a more expansive symbol than one based on a single event. Its message may be in recollection of a couple days in March 47 years ago, but what is most important is that it is a tribute to academic freedom.

Academic freedom was fought for in many ways throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s at SFU, and the plaque and the name Freedom Square are some of the only reminders of how much our community once valued those ideals.

It’s a fight that isn’t over either and needs to be revitalized now more than ever. With the TSSU (Teaching Support Staff Union) once again in the midst of early strike action, issues surrounding academic freedom and the fair treatment of our TAs resemble quite closely the problems of our past. We need to be able to look to Freedom Square and what it represents as inspiration for the future, but a roving podium and plaque make such a process difficult.

The significance of Freedom Square is something that all students should be aware of, and although it may not seem like a big deal, this plaque is an important link to our past and a crucial reminder to continue to make academic freedom a priority in our future.

SFU is soon to celebrate 50 years, and it’s time for this plaque to either be cemented to Freedom Square permanently or be removed entirely.

Or maybe we could just give it back to UBC. At least it seems like they respected their TV stand.