York's enemies of higher education
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 January 2009)

Faculty at York University in Toronto may in future run into a spot of trouble when they discuss abstract questions of justice while teaching disciplines such as law, political science and philosophy. They may find their students responding with cynicism, possibly expressed in bursts of bitter laughter.

York's students have come to realize that they are themselves victims of a grave injustice, visited upon them by a strike staged by teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants that has paralyzed most of the campus for 11 weeks, so far. They are also the victims of the York University Faculty Association, which has mindlessly and pusillanimously supported the strikers.

These two groups have betrayed the 50,000 students who signed up, duly paid their fees ($5,500 a year) and now discover they are deprived of the teaching they were entitled to expect. Some students will likely lose a year of their education -- a year that many can't afford to repeat. Foreign students who can stay for only a limited time in Canada may even be deprived of graduation. This week, a first-year political science student remarked to a reporter that "It truly feels like they're wasting my life" -- a melodramatic way of putting it, but understandable under the circumstances.

Cruelty to students, while appalling, is not the only ugly result of the strike. York, the third-largest university in Canada, has suffered as an institution and will suffer more, even if the newly appointed provincial mediator brings the warring parties together. Already, student applications for admission have fallen seriously, no doubt because York has become known for ruinous strikes, much like the post office in the bad old days. This diminished reputation also calls into question York's plan for a medical school. The Ontario government may well be reconsidering its support for that idea.

The 3,300 teaching assistants, etc., are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the largest union in the country. They have created a tangled, messy, intractable strike by insisting on far more concessions than the university can possibly deliver. Not only are their wage demands preposterous, but their demand for a role in reorganizing the teaching staff threatens the autonomy of universities. In particular, they want to bargain many of their members up from contract faculty to full-time tenured status, based only on seniority. This would mean the university would lose its right to choose which teachers become permanent. If this power grab succeeds at York, CUPE will try to impose it elsewhere a year or two from now.

In this time of crisis, the performance of tenured professors has been a disappointment. Long ago, tenure was established not just to provide academics with lifetime incomes but to give them the independence to speak openly. With the university threatened and the students robbed of their rights, the professors might have been expected to argue vigorously against the strike. Most of them, alas, are missing in action.

After the university offered a reasonable settlement, and CUPE refused to submit it to the strikers, York asked the province to order a vote.

This dangerous whiff of democracy horrified CUPE -- and the faculty association took CUPE's side. When the vote went ahead anyway, 282 current and retired faculty (the association has 1,442 members) signed a letter urging the strikers to accept the offer because it was fair and because York's academic reputation was threatened. The faculty association executive, on the other hand, came out against both the vote ("forced by the Employer") and the offer itself. The strikers voted heavily against the offer, continuing the strike.

Why, if the professors are assured of permanent employment at good salaries (an average of $116,500 per year) no matter how the strike is resolved, do they remain silent? My guess is that they fear being unpopular with the strikers, with whom they must work in future. I talked recently to one tenured professor who regarded the union's demands as amusingly excessive. He didn't once mention the word "students."

The National Post editorial board has suggested that the Ontario boss of CUPE, Sid Ryan, should be impeached because he said Canadian universities should ban Israeli scholars unless they disown Israeli policy in Gaza. The Post is right, but that's Ryan's lesser transgression, a symbolic gesture that reflects nothing but his love of publicity: Ryan knows that any dean who embraced his idea would be committing academic suicide. York's strike, on the other hand, is no symbol -- it's already had disastrous effects and threatens much worse in the future. It's union empire-building carried to the point of destructive irresponsibility.

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