Knowledge / Institution: Protest at York University – A Comparison of Events in 1968 and 2005


The 1960s was a time of student unrest in Canada. Students at York University participated in the growing movement against university administrators.  Primarily opposition to academics at York had to do with the hierarchy of administration, student input in their education, and the dominant capitalist ideology of the university as an institution (Saywell 120). Students wanted a greater say in how their education was carried out. They called for “people generated courses” that did not require grades or examinations (Saywell 121). Specifically, regarding the role of York as a new campus, the students felt that administrators were returning to the old ways of doing things under the guise of a new façade. In a 1968 issue of The Excalibur, Ross Howard, a student activist expressed the following:

“At York there isn’t any confrontation between the old and the new. There isn’t even anything very new. Just thousands of happy children and jolly faculty hashing out the old seem really to have lost the desire to see something new come alive. They seem to have lost the belief that the new ideas are here, and come sooner, and more clearly, when urged and openly welcomed.” (Saywell 123)

Jurgen Habermas was actively aware of the antiquated system of education during the 1960s. He writes about students growing disinterest with hierarchical systems of administration in education in his book Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics. Habermas posits that the university falls under “structures of the nineteenth century” and it is inherently an institution that inhibits the “creative development and rational planning of teaching and research” ( Habermas 17). This was the same sentiment of the old not making room for the new at York during the 1960s. Habermas, additionally, argues that because students are unhappy with the structure of education, they will also mistake these issues with problems in society at large. However, protestors at York during this era did not aim to solve societal issues but instead focused on aiming their resolve at the immediate problems on campus through writings in The Excalibur, in-class disobedience, and manifestos in order to get their point across.

Thirty years later the nature of protest at York University had changed dramatically. Over the course of those years York became known as a place of protest and political action. The early 2000s saw clashes take place between groups over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (O’Connor 2). Not only were students protesting against the university administration but they also used the space of the university to express their political contestations.  The battle over spaces of political protest came to a breaking point in 2005. In January 2005 a small group of student activists gathered in Vari Hall to protest the inauguration of U.S. president George W. Bush (O’Connor 1).  The protestors were quickly dispersed by hired police officers and allegations of police brutality came to the forefront (O’Connor 1).

This proliferation of political protest at York is reminiscent of Habermas’ notion that student protest tends to lose meaning when they deal with issues of political significance. In his chapter on the movement of student protests in Germany, he argues that the space of the university does not replicate society as a whole and thus protest within the campus dealing with issues outside of the university serves no useful purpose. He further elaborates that from the space of the campus, the protesters force their rhetoric into a false vision of a global framework (Habermas 35). Habermas would argue that the George W. Bush protestors at York were overreaching their roles as student’s protestors by trying to approach an issue that is ultimately out of their reach. By overstepping their bounds the protestors were corroding their own legitimation and effectiveness (Habermas 41).

The problematic nature of this protest also stemmed from the designation of public space on the campus. The protest in 2005 took place at Vari Hall. Vari Hall is centrally located on the York campus and is designated as the main unstructured gathering space on campus (O’Connor 20). Thus, this construction of space would seem to be the inevitable location of student expression on campus. However, months before this protest took place at Vari Hall, the university administration instated the Temporary Use of University Space policy, requiring students to notify the administration when they were going to use a campus space for a specified period of time (O’Connor 10).  This policy systematically stripped students of their rights and privilege over space at the York University campus.

The differing nature of student demonstrations during the 1960s and contemporary examples elucidates the position of campus space for protest. It calls into question what type of protest is appropriate within a university context and how effective will it be within that framework. Although, the 2005 protests at Vari Hall were definitively within the bounds of the York Campus, the incident reveals questions of power, administrative hierarchy, and use of public space in a larger context. Therefore, it must come into question whether Habermas was right in denouncing the space of the university as a microcosm of larger society and instead we should recognize the validity of struggles within the campus realm.


O’Connor, Clare. Pedagogies of Space: The Contestation of Vari Hall. , 2009. Print.

Saywell, John T. Someone to Teach Them. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008

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