Editorial: STU blocked The Aquinian from covering senate and that’s not OK

Dear St. Thomas University senate,

It’s time we have a full and frank discussion about about how you treat The Aquinian at St. Thomas University’s monthly senate meetings.

It’s been two years since The Aquinian started covering senate meetings and we’re still being treated like shit.

In 2017, then Editor-in-Chief of The Aquinian Hadeel Ibrahim attended a senate meeting to report on possible changes to the student timetable. Professors gave her sideways glances, patronized her and ultimately passed a motion to stop The Aquinian from recording.

Not much has changed in two years. We attend and record every senate meeting now, but we still get sideways glances. Professors still refuse to speak at senate because of the “media presence.” Sometimes they stare at us and whisper too.

At the most recent senate meeting on Jan. 17, we were told we couldn’t report on senate discussions related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Before the meeting began, Kim Fenwick, vice-president academic, told us we could stay in the room when the senate members broke off into groups to discuss the TRC, but we couldn’t record.

We decided we’d sit through the first part of senate and record until we were asked to leave the room. I planned to make a stand when we were asked to leave.

We were never asked to leave.

Instead, the typical 40-minute meeting lasted about seven minutes. A list of events was given to everyone, but not us (as usual).

“In terms of announcements, I just want to mention that Dr. Jean-Philippe [Ranger] asked me to mention the Aquinas lecture on January 24. We’ve added this to the announcements, which we’ve put on this handout that people received as they came in,” said the Chair of the meeting, University President Dawn Russell.

A couple other items were rushed through before the president moved on to the student report.

“We have in the materials a written report from the student senators and we’ve talked to them and asked if we could take that as read, unless there’s anything you’d like to highlight. We’ll assume that people did read it. It’s a pretty good identification of various items they’ve been working on,” Russell said, rolling right into the next item on the agenda – the Bachelor of Social Work grad list.

And that was it. Seven minutes, 56 seconds. The part of senate we could record was over, and because we don’t have access to the list of events and the student report, there was little we could salvage from the meeting to write for our weekly briefs. The managing editor Cassidy Chisholm and myself left the room infuriated. 

Earlier in the day on Jan. 17, we were told by Jeffrey Carleton, spokesperson for the university, that we wouldn’t be able to record the TRC discussion part of senate. When we asked why, he used New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as a guideline for justifying the university’s decision to block us from covering the discussion. 

“[The president is] asking a governing body to provide her with advice for recommendations on a particular issue, both of those circumstances are situations in which it’s considered to be confidential,” Carleton said.

“The recommendations that the president is asking for, I know that many individuals on senate, faculty members and others, certainly want a forum or opportunity to discuss things in a full and frank manner and perhaps they may not feel they can do so with the media present where their comments or views may be reported.”

As the student newspaper, we should be allowed to report on what professors have to say on topical issues at public meetings like senate. We have an obligation to do that.

I wish I could say the Jan. 17 incident was out of the ordinary and unexpected. It wasn’t.

In September, two Aquinian editors were told “the media sits at the back” by someone at the meeting. We’ve been sitting at the front for the past year at least.

In fall 2018, The Aquinian was denied access to a copy of the senate agenda, a multi-page document outlining and detailing what will be discussed at the meeting. We requested access to the agenda (and all future agendas) so that we could get basic facts right, like the spelling of names. The university said no, stating they can’t give us that because it’s considered confidential until it’s voted on. 

At senate meetings, sometimes the president poses questions to faculty. Some faculty will look at us, whisper to each other, look away and decide not to answer the question.

One professor on senate has admitted to us they don’t want us there.

The Aquinian can deal with passive aggressive stares and whispers from profs we used to look up to, even though that behaviour is childish, inappropriate and humiliating. But I have a bone to pick with the university for blocking us from recording discussions on the TRC and not giving us the documents we need to accurately report on senate.

Other university governing bodies provide their students with live streams of senate meetings and copies of the agenda in advance.

McGill livestreams its senate meetings, the University of Toronto live streams its governing council meetings and Western University posts a full copy of its senate agenda online one week in advance of their meetings. And that’s just a few examples.

It’s not OK to block The Aquinian from reporting on important discussions at senate, even if you think we’re nasty journalists who will misconstrue what you say. 

Listen, we get it. You don’t want the media present because you don’t want to be held accountable if you say something out of place in the heat of the moment. You don’t want to say your (full and frank) opinion about a class or program or the TRC and see that horrific comment in all it’s glory printed in the student newspaper and attributed to you.

Well, too bad for you because it’s our job to hold the people in power accountable. We know you probably hate us. We know we’re pesky; we’re supposed to be. We’re journalists and we’re not going anywhere. Get used to it.

Kindest regards,

Sarah Morin

Editor-in-Chief, The Aquinian

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