Higher Education politics: from sustainability to strikes

I had planned to blog about  the March 7 Women In STEM event celebrating the Faculty of Science's 50th anniversary. I'll do that next time.

Instead, I'm posting, at the end, some of the chapter abstract that I, and two other York University professors, submitted to a book about the politics of sustainability in higher education.

The reason for writing this chapter is, that from 2012-2014, it was becoming increasingly clearer, that the always political sustainability research space at York University was escalating in terms of its politics, especially as they related to constantly changing messages from members of the university administration. I had also witnessed attempts by different individuals and factions to take credit for different research and engagement activities relating to sustainability, while excluding the work and contributions of others. This was quite shocking. The book chapter, with Professors Embleton and Alsop, attempts to make sense of this, by placing it in the broader context of what many people consider to be a crisis in higher education, perhaps manifested most publicly in Canada, by the firing of University of Saskatchewan's president in 2014.

A lot of what's been going on since York University TAs and contract faculty went on strike two weeks ago, resonates with my recent experiences as director of IRIS, York's pan-university research institute in sustainability: the chief characteristic of which, is confusion over what the university administration is saying and doing.

The university president was interviewed on Tuesday March 3rd on CBC's Metro Morning. It makes for some uncomfortable listening. It is well worth listening to and reading all of President Shoukri's media interviews, like this one in the Globe & Mail, or, this one, about York University's newly negotiated Strategic Mandate Agreement with the province. Then, if you have time, do read York University's submission for graduate student funding, to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) and compare it with Ryerson's and University of Toronto's. NB, that York University received no increased graduate student spaces, while U of T got 580 and Ryerson got 256. This is the policy background of higher education in Toronto and Ontario.

Meanwhile, On Campus...
Although classes were cancelled on March 3rd, York University's Senate Executive yesterday, apparently ruled that classes should resume, despite the absence of collective bargaining to settle the TA's contract. This ruling has, as of yesterday, been questioned in a memo signed by 24 senators.

The York University senate policy for students affected by a labour dispute says that they can't be forced to attend classes until after the labour disruption is over. In the past, this continuation of classes during the 2001 TA and contract faculty strike both caused a lot of confusion for students and, also, a ton of extra work for professors who weren't on strike, and who were course directors (that's myself and colleagues in YUFA, the York University Faculty Association). The latest online information from York University's administration can be found here.

I discovered, yesterday, that YUFA has filed a grievance against the York University administration for violating no less than 10 articles in my collective agreement. What's not obvious, but is notable, is that the two Chief Stewards who signed the YUFA memo aren't exactly academic lightweights. Professor Penni Stewart is former president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and Professor Sheila Embleton is former vice-president academic and provost of York University.

Déjà Vu, All Over Again
For me, what's been happening, is simply more of the university administration often not following its own rules and/or those of other institutions. When they are called out on it, the default setting is to say "we didn't know", as if that is a valid excuse. For example, a year ago, I was part of a search committee that spent weeks interviewing candidates for a tenure-track assistant professor's position and also CRC Tier 2 Chair. At the end of a long, very rule-driven search process, we proposed to hire Dr. Kyle Elliott. In unilaterally rejecting the search committee's recommendation York University's vice-president research paved the way for Dr. Elliott to be subsequently hired at McGill.

Another example of the university not following its own rules came at yesterday's senate meeting, where Prof. Ricardo Grinspun made a speech calling for the university's senior leadership, both administrative, and at the level of senate executive, to address its shortcomings (quoted with permission).

"Later I raised my hand and asked to speak. The Chair responded that non-senators are not allowed to speak. While I interjected that that’s not the case according to Senate rules -- that the chamber can approve of a speaker --, President Shoukri was telling her that non-senators speak at the end, after all senators have spoken. I reiterated that this is not the case. The Chair then called a vote to allow me to speak, saying it requires 2/3 majority to pass. When the votes were counted, she declared that majority was not reached. When it was clarified to her that according to the actual rule, a simple majority suffices, she had to backtrack and allow me to speak....

...There is a context to this. The union busting mentality that drives current actions is part of a larger corporate mentality that is eroding higher education. It is an agenda to transform the majority of faculty members into freelance teachers, while the shrinking tenure track core is overburdened with administration and increasingly submissive to managerial control. It’s also embedded in the idea that students are consumer clients, and the role of the university is to put market needs at the core of our institution, throwing out the window this university’s mission of critical intellect and social justice.

This is just one example of that mentality; recall the scandalous failure of the AAPR exercise? What an enormous cost in terms of human and financial resources. Worse, it was a process designed to instill fear, pit one faculty against another, and one unit against another, while creating disarray, confusion, lack of transparency, arbitrariness, and alienation. All this was done, supposedly, in the name of achieving “efficiencies”." (Prof. Ricardo Grinspun, notes from his speech at York University Senate meeting March 16 2015).

So, the question for me, at this stage is, how and at what point are highly paid senior university administrators to be held accountable for their actions?

From Bazely, Embleton & Alsop, draft abstract:
"Why is it so difficult to achieve the shift in the academic cultural norm that is required to walk an authentic institutional intellectual talk on sustainability?
Dawn R. Bazely (Biology), Sheila Embleton (Linguistics) and Steve Alsop (Education)
York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto ON M3J 1P3.

We propose that through an analysis of our experience in the sustainability research and teaching space at York University, we can bring some clarity to the inherent tensions, dilemmas, conundrums and conflicts that characterize the higher education sustainability space.

York University, Toronto, is the third largest university in Canada and has the oldest Faculty of Environmental Studies in Canada. In 1999 a presidential task force on sustainability was struck and then-president, Dr. Lorna Marsden, signed the Talloires Agreement in 2002. Yet, shortly afterwards the York Centre for Applied Sustainability (YCAS), in the self-described “interdisciplinary” Faculty of Environmental Studies, was closed down, due to internal differences among its Faculty and serious budget difficulties. In 2004 the pan-university Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS), was launched, to recognize that sustainability is a cross-cutting theme across the entire university, regardless of discipline or faculty. Interestingly, there were, at the time, divergent views amongst the senior university leadership, regarding the specific relationship between YCAS and IRIS.

After 10 years of community-building and trust-building, both within and beyond York University, and a Senate Charter renewal process in 2013-14 in which 3 external reviewers recommended renewing IRIS as a pan-university organized research unit, the VP Research & Innovation informed the relevant Senate committee that he did not support renewing the charter and struck another task force on how to do sustainability research at York University. In the intervening period (2009-11), there had also been a VPRI task force examining the contribution of ORUs to the university.

In this chapter, we will situate the contested area of sustainability research and teaching in the broader context of the shifting political landscape of higher education policy, across the global north, during the last 25 years. We will explore the evolution of how diverse groups within the academy have viewed sustainability, with respect to Giroux’s (2007) analysis of The University in Chains, Tuchman’s (2009) Wannabe University and Ginsburg’s (2011) The Fall of the Faculty. We propose to trace the evolution of sustainability from a subject viewed with suspicion by Marxist and more right-leaning social scientists alike, to its current status as a desirable property both to environmentalist academics and university administrators. We argue that the status of the higher education sustainability space parallels the evolution of both corporatization and green washing within the academy and beyond."