Schulich exchange students to return to class

Past the picket lines and into the heart of the campus sits the Seymour Schulich Building, home of York’s famed Schulich School of Business, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 21. Inside the picturesque, five-year-old building, graduate students are busy – studying, meeting, collaborating and researching. For them, there’s hardly a strike at all.

When York cancelled "all academic activities" as the walkout began, it exempted its two highest-profile programs – graduate studies at Schulich and classes at Osgoode Professional Development’s downtown campus.

And yesterday, the York Senate announced those programs would soon be joined by all the Schulich undergraduate international students, whose exchange time is running out, and any domestic undergrads who are preparing for exchanges themselves. Each of those new groups will return to school next week, regardless of negotiations. Meanwhile, all the University’s other undergrads will require an extended term in some form, according to Senate policy.

Schulich, it seems, is somewhat immune to the strike.

"They told us immediately that if it [a strike] were to happen, we wouldn’t be affected," said Ryan Smith, 25, a first-year international master of business administration student at Schulich. Waiting to meet group members for a project, Smith drank a Timothy’s latte he didn’t have to wait to get – a rare luxury. He sat this week at coveted study tables in the main atrium, empty chairs surrounding him. "It’s actually been, as bad as this sounds, a positive experience for me. There’s no one on campus."

Around Smith, many tables were free. Precious laptop plug-ins were available. Study rooms, named for such companies as Procter & Gamble, Invesco Trimark and KPMG, sit uncharacteristically empty without the undergrads.

Silver linings, but some students ask quietly, even in a business school – is this crossing a picket line? "Oh for sure, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Some of these [striking] people are peers," said Sukhy Mahl, 26, a second-year Schulich grad student. "But I’m kind of forced to. I don’t want my classes extended into summer. It’s a double-edged sword."

The undergraduate classes added to the exemption list yesterday are exempt so as to not disrupt exchange programs. Postgraduate courses at Schulich and Osgoode were exempt from the closing because professors tend to be working professionals and none of the striking workers are involved there. Students also tend to pay the most to attend the high-profile schools – tuition for a two-year Schulich MBA is more than $40,000.

"It’s considered to be exempt," said York spokesperson Alex Bilyk, director of media relations.

That exemption doesn’t sit well with the union, although its members, grad students themselves, don’t teach at that level. "They’re high-profile, highly funded schools. The University is prioritizing those programs," said Punam Khosla, a CUPE Local 3903 spokesperson. She believes the issues for which they’re striking – job security for contract staff and increased wages for TAs who make, at most, $16,000 a year before tuition, and aren’t allowed to work second jobs – could soon spread to the grad programs at Schulich and Osgoode if the union doesn’t take a stand now.

The treatment of contract staff who teach undergrads is a major sticking point for the union, which lambastes the school for focusing too much on graduate education and research at the expense of basic teaching.

Meanwhile, some Schulich and Osgoode students continue to study as usual. "This is hard evidence that the University is prioritizing one or two professional schools over the entire campus," Khosla said. "This is driving wedges between students, saying that some students are more important than others, and we have major problems with that."

But all is not entirely normal at Schulich. Career fairs have been cancelled, as have talks with business executives, who don’t have the time to drive up and wait at a picket line.

"[The sessions] are just a good ‘in’, and those have all been put off," Mahl says. "They’re things you pay for when you come to Schulich."

So in a twist, it may be Schulich graduate students, many of whom finish next month, who are hardest hit by the strike, even though their classes have continued. They say they’ve missed out on a chance to line up a job, a luxury in today’s economic environment.

"I think the Internet [job] search engines are going to become your best friend," said Inder Powar, 26, a second-year student who came from British Columbia to study at Schulich. "The lack of [student] volume is nice. There’s room to study, so that’s nice. But that’s it."

  • Course timelines at York University are being adjusted as the educational institution enters its third week of a strike, wrote CBC News online Nov. 21. Officials are examining how to shorten exam periods and reduce the number of course assignments because of the strike, a University official said Thursday. The exact nature of the adjustments has yet to be determined and will depend on the length of the disruption, the official said.

Innovation key to pension reform: report

Ontario needs a full-time pension champion to get more workers into big, sophisticated pension plans, says the province’s Expert Commission on Pensions, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 21. But the new generation of private pension plans foreseen by commissioner Harry Arthurs, professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and a former president & vice-chancellor of the University, would likely be less generous and have fewer guarantees than the traditional defined-benefit plan.

They would set a target for retirement income that could be adjusted if investments turn sour, as can happen with existing multi-employer pension plans that are common in the construction, food processing and supermarket sectors. Employers would not be on the hook to cover a funding shortfall.

"If innovative designs can arrest the decline in pension coverage – as I think they may – they will make a significant contribution to Ontario’s social and economic policy," he writes in A Fine Balance: Safe Pensions, Affordable Plans, Fair Rules, the report released yesterday.

Arthurs proposes strengthening existing pension plans by cutting costs and limiting disputes – by ending the requirement, for example, to have plans share surplus funds with laid-off workers. He suggests workers laid off or fired individually should qualify for early retirement benefits once they meet the requirements – a right that now only applies in cases of mass layoffs.

He suggests the Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund should cover pensions of up to $2,500 a month when a plan sponsor goes bankrupt, but that the fund should be supported by premiums from pension plans, without a government subsidy. That would leave large-scale bailouts, such as if General Motors of Canada were to fail, to be handled by the government if it felt that was appropriate.

Arthurs, the former dean of Osgoode, argues in his 222-page report to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan that broader pension coverage would do more for the economy and citizens than would leaving workers to fend for themselves. "People that receive pensions have lives of dignity," he told reporters. "The communities they live in benefit from the fact that they live those lives, that they have money to buy goods and services…that they pay taxes."

  • A sweeping new report urges the Ontario government to implement reforms to "persuade" and "tempt" companies to expand pension plan coverage, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 21.

An expert commission, headed by former York University president & vice-chancellor Harry Arthurs, recommended yesterday the province approve new pension plan models that are more flexible and appealing for employers. "Let’s try and make the system more attractive to employers and persuade them and tempt them to join the pension system," Arthurs told reporters as he released his study.

The report said the percentage of Ontario workers covered by occupational pension plans has declined from about 40 per cent in 1985 to just under 35 per cent in 2005. That decline tracks the drop in unionized workers in the province, it says.

  • An expert commission established by the Ontario government is calling for the creation of a new regulator to watch over the province’s pension system, wrote CanWest News Service Nov. 21.

Comparing pension regulation to the levee system in New Orleans, commission chair Harry Arthurs said the people in charge of Ontarians’ retirement savings need better oversight and better internal governance. "The job of regulation should be given to a commission that only regulates pensions," said Arthurs, a former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School.

"We think the regulatory machinery needs to be tweaked," Arthurs said. "It’s clear we’ve got to fix a number of things with the present system. (The new regulator) has to be a commission with the resources to get the job done."

  • Shoring up Ontario’s pension system with pledges of temporary relief and stronger oversight is too tempered a response to a report that calls for sweeping reforms amid concerns over shortfalls for retiring workers, critics charged Thursday, wrote The Canadian Press Nov. 20.

In his report, Harry Arthurs, former president of York University, said Ontario’s current pension procedures are too slow and cumbersome for people who must switch pension plans or those left with none at all. He also recommended the government require pension funds to have assets equal to 105 per cent of their liabilities before they can stop putting funds into the plan.

While his report was completed before the financial turmoil of recent months, Arthurs said his findings were relevant because they address pension plans, which have a longer shelf life than any one dip in the economy. “By better designing the system I think we can move ahead,” Arthurs said. “People may not like the metaphor, but thinking about the design of the levee system in New Orleans came to the top of the agenda.”

York student’s kin are taking a petition to Queen’s Park

The Varghese family’s quest for answers into events surrounding a double murder on Thanksgiving weekend, [which York student Sarah John survived], starts at a rally at Queens’s Park tomorrow, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 21. A petition, signed by about 3,000 people demanding a public inquiry to find out why they weren’t told of the accused’s violent history before he moved to the area, will be given to Premier Dalton McGuinty. A copy will be given to Prime Minister Stephen Harper next week, said Prince Mookkanottil, a priest at St. George Syriac Orthodox Church in Brampton and chair of the campaign.

It’s even tougher for John, who is still terrorized. George Varghese, who lives in Philadelphia, said his niece hasn’t returned to school and has no clue when she’ll be ready. Sarah is a second-year York University English major. He said she is so frightened she can’t be left alone even for a few minutes. Sarah hasn’t talked much about what happened that morning.

Middleton says Michelle Obama has ‘star quality’

Every time Michelle Obama wears one of her unusual dress selections on television, the item flies off the shelves, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 21. Experts say it is she, not her president-elect husband, who will be setting fashion and cultural trends when the couple reaches the White House.

She nixed getting a designer pooch, saying her kids would adopt a rescue dog, and will continue this thrifty, socially conscious pattern throughout the term, predicts marketing guru Alan Middleton, professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University. "She’s saying, ‘You don’t get much more down-to-earth that I am’, " says Middleton. He predicts there will be "a number of symbols that say, ‘I am one of you’."

The American-made family car, a Ford Escape hybrid, is a perfect example of this, he points out, as it is both patriotic and environmentally responsible. "It’s smart and good value," Middleton says, "and I can see that in everything she does. This is the Hollywood side of politics. It’s that old star quality."

On air

  • Jean-Mikael Michaud, president of the Glendon College Student Union, spoke about students using food banks on university campuses, on Radio Canada (Toronto) Nov. 20.