Student criticism of SFU’s Town Hall is misdirected and unproductive

More nuanced complaints are better directed at lower-level administrators

Answers from the livestream were reasonable given the situation we're in. Screenshot: Nicole Magas/The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

On May 26, SFU Student Services hosted an hour-long virtual Town Hall to address some of the most prevalent student concerns about the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Judging from the comments on the live stream alone, one would think that university administrators suggested that students just get over it and dump wads of cash into the AQ pond. And it may just be because my brain capacity for outrage has utterly short-circuited due to the ever expanding game of apocalypse bingo that 2020 is turning out to be, but I can’t help but feel that student criticism of the Town Hall has been a combination of uncharitable, unreasonable, and a bit misdirected.

Like any other liberal university student, I have a healthy skepticism of power and authority. It just comes with the territory. I have been critical of the university administration in the past, and I remain, as a general rule, doubtful of its motivations and decisions. And certainly pandemic times aren’t any excuse to blindly accept that those in power are doing everything correctly, or even for the good of everyone involved. However, the reality of our current situation does call for realistic expectations that I think a lot of current student criticism — although well meaning — simply lacks. So forgive me for giving the university administration the benefit of the doubt here, but I think Andrew Petter’s introductory statement was about as honest as anyone could possibly be right now:

“While we don’t have the capacity to solve all of these problems, we do have the capacity to help where we can.”

And it was clear from the answers that were given over the next hour of the Town Hall that the university is trying to help — insofar as it has the ability to do so — as many students as it can. At the very least it is aware of its students’ concerns, and is willing to consider them. It can’t fix every problem that may occur in any conceivable situation. It can’t even really do much to address all the substantial difficulties that groups of students are experiencing; counter to how it may seem as we shell out thousands of dollars in tuition every four months, SFU is not sitting on a vault of liquid assets that can be shifted in a heartbeat to provide instant relief to students. That’s just not how lumbering businesses like universities work. It sucks, and I don’t think that this is how the system should be, but we can only work with what we’ve got at the moment. SFU has 30,000 students, and administrators at the very top have to make decisions and answer questions with an amorphous, generalized Student Body™ in mind.

This isn’t a satisfying thought by any stretch of the imagination, I get it. And I understand the desire to lash out at what feels like vague answers that seem intended to dodge responsibility in a crisis. But criticizing the university for not issuing sweeping mandates on how all instructors ought to accommodate their students, for example, fails to recognize that top university administrators have to produce policies that are vague or generalized enough to leave room for reasonable flexibility lower down the chain for any sort of situation that may arise — especially in this dynamic environment. In essence, students are asking top levels of university administration to have more consideration for individual student needs, while at the same time criticizing them for “vague” responses that give room for more specialized services to do just that. 

And I want to be clear that I don’t wish to paint student activists with a malicious stroke any more than I wish to do the same with the administration. We’re all angry, frustrated, scared, and uncertain right now. Student activists are doing their best to advocate for their fellow students and that is more than admirable. But all of us also have to make sure our expectations are reasonable, and that our frustrations are being channeled in the right direction, in places that can actually help. 

So while I applaud those students who have been vocal about their concerns and have made student hardships known to university administrators, the critique of SFU’s reasonable response is misguided at this time. More focus is needed at the lower level, through democratic action in classrooms, meetings with department heads, advocacy through the SFSS, and recourse via the student Ombudsperson. These are the people who actually have the power to address more nuanced issues, and through whom collective student action will yield the most productive results.