Students return to free hugs and votes on essays

How do you welcome back students after a bitter three-month strike? asked the Toronto Star Feb. 3.

If you’re Dennis Raphael, a professor in York’s Faculty of Health, you let your third-year class vote on a new marking scheme for the rest of their shorter semester. (Applause.) And you say you’ll even consider "curving" the final marks up by five per cent if it seems necessary. (The crowd goes wild.)

In one of the dozens of York lecture halls Monday that hummed with learning for the first time in 12 weeks, Raphael decided to give students some small say in an academic year in which many felt they had lost control.

"Who wants to have the final essay worth 50 per cent and the two short papers worth 20 per cent each?" the health policy professor asked 150 students in his course on the social determinants of health. Not a hand.

"Who wants to have the final essay worth 40 per cent and the two short papers worth 25 per cent?" he tried. Sold.

"I did it to help smooth the transition back to class," said Raphael after the first three-hour lecture he has held since Nov. 6, when York’s teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants walked off the job for better benefits and job security.

All 50,000 students were back on campus Monday after the Ontario government ordered Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 back to work last week and sent the dispute to an arbitrator.

The halls were jammed Monday with students reuniting, but some wounds may not heal.

"I love this school but I’m seriously thinking of switching out to another university because I’m afraid of another strike in 2010," said one first-year student.

CUPE 3903 is seeking a two-year contract that would expire in 2010 alongside units on other campuses to give it more provincewide bargaining clout.

Amid the crush of returning undergrads, the York Federation of Students gathered names on a petition for a 12 per cent tuition refund – the school year has been clipped by 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, a new student coalition called Drop YFS gathered names for a petition to impeach the York Federation of Students for supporting the union’s position in the strike.

Teaching assistant Tyler Shipley, the union spokesperson during the strike, was preparing to teach his first political science tutorial Monday on the basics of democracy. CUPE has offered tips to members on how to handle resentment from students in the first days back.

"They’ve suggested we be patient, that we be good listeners, that we give students a few moments to vent, even through writing in journals if they want," said Shipley. "I’ve had my share of stares today, but I’ve also had some support and thanks from people who appreciated what we were doing."

Second-year student Sandra Fahim was upset to learn her biochemistry course is cutting two labs from the program for lack of time. "The trouble is when we go on to the next course, we won’t have had that first-hand experience and it really matters," said the biomedical science major.

First-year student Mike Senra said the strike has made him embarrassed to tell people he’s at York University. "You just sort of put your head down. It’s put a downer on first year," said the environmental studies major. "You look forward to your first year, but this got all messed up."

But some just wanted everyone to get along.

Kinesiology student Mona Nasiri, part of a school spirit group, held up a sign offering "Free Hugs" in the main rotunda. More than 70 students had taken up the offer in the first half hour.

York back, but mix-ups irk students

Fifty thousand York University students – including many from the Hamilton area – returned to campus Monday amid simmering frustrations caused by the three-month strike, reported the Hamilton Spectator Feb. 3.

"I don’t know if what we learned before the strike is still relevant," said Lindsay Monture, a first-year film student from Brantford. "And I’m scared there’s a chance this might happen again next year."

In the student centre Monday, representatives from the York Federation of Students urged passersby to sign a petition demanding a 12 per cent tuition refund. Only metres away, a second group of students yelled "YFS has to go" and waved petitions demanding it be removed from power for not pushing the students’ interests more forcefully. The two groups were closely supervised by campus security officers.

The school year has been extended to June 2 as a result of the strike – about one month later than normal. The University – Canada’s third largest – has also extended library hours and expanded counselling services.

Kasia Rudziejewski, a fourth-year criminology and sociology student from Burlington, said her first day back at class was "confusing". Rudziejewski said her criminology professor handed out a syllabus that didn’t take into account Family Day or the University’s exam schedule. "Even our teacher was confused," she said. "I wanted it to be better organized."

Several other Hamilton area students said classes were spent explaining rejigged schedules – there were new deadlines for some assignments but other dates such as midterms remain up in the air.

Monture said she’s worried about starting her summer job search later than other university students this year. The film student says one fellow student from Denmark returned to his home country rather than waiting out the strike and completing his year.

Monture is all for the back-to-work legislation. "I was OK with the strike for a while, but after a while you get really frustrated and we were really uncertain about whether we were going to keep our year."

CUPE leader ‘not happy to be back’ in classroom

After 85 days on the picket line and at the bargaining table, union official Tyler Shipley bitterly returned to teach his first tutorial at York University Monday, reported The Toronto Sun Feb. 3.

The CUPE 3903 spokesperson was surrounded by two dozen of his first-year Introduction to Politics students, who lean in to listen to their teacher. "I’m not happy to be back," Shipley said, scribbling on the chalkboard. "I’m here for my students but wish I was back on different circumstances," he added after class.

York’s 3,400 contract faculty, teaching and graduate assistants were forced back to the classrooms under back-to-work legislation after the province’s chief mediator, Reg Pearson, said the union and University were too far apart to negotiate a settlement.

As a result, 45,000 students returned to class for the first time Monday since talks broke off Nov. 6. The school year will now end in June instead of April.

Food courts, libraries and classrooms were at full capacity Monday. "Business is great. People were lined up since we opened at 10am," said Wendy’s cashier, Taha Tariq, counting a handful of $20s to bring to the bank. During the strike, Tariq said, earnings slumped to a quarter of what it was normally.

Students appeared excited to return to class but showed empathy for their teachers. "The first semester has been compressed into two weeks and a lot of people are just anxious to move on," said Vik Sood, 25. "(Back-to-work legislation) leaves the TAs without any changes. The University kind of got away scot-free, I think," said Sood, who said apathy about the strike was prevalent in the classrooms, but outside, there was angry sentiment.

In front of the Student Centre, the York Federation of Students union was tracking signatures for a 12 per cent tuition refund. A group of undergraduates circulated a petition to oust the student union, alleging there was a lack of representation during the strike.

  • Given the costs of forcing striking workers back to work – an overriding of collective bargaining rights, a potentially damaging precedent for future labour disputes and a potentially toxic work environment at York – the NDP felt it was important to speak up against back-to-work legislation and to urge the government to get the York administration to bargain in good faith, wrote Rosario Marchese, NDP education critic, in a letter to the Toronto Star.

We understand the serious inconvenience that students at York have experienced. But surely a few days of democratic debate on damaging and potentially illegal back-to-work legislation is less to blame for the length of the strike than is the fact that the York administration only bargained on 11 of the 84 strike days, or the failure of the McGuinty government to adequately fund universities, which contributed to the impasse in the first place.

  • Margaret Wente characterizes as not entirely unfair the popular faulting of "richly subsidized tenured radicals who are overpaid and underworked." This blame is misplaced, argued Willem Maas, political science professor at York’s Glendon College and chair of Glendon’s Faculty Council, in a letter to the Globe. 

A US education survey found that professors worked 53.4 hours a week on average. Meanwhile, new doctors, lawyers and graduates with MBAs routinely earn as much as a professor nearing retirement. Furthermore, the lowest-paid professors are those in liberal arts fields.

Wente also claims that "a vast proportion of the student body neither wants nor needs a traditional liberal education." Perhaps. But while this year’s applications to all other York University faculties are down, the number of students selecting Glendon (York’s bilingual liberal arts college) as their first choice is up nearly 13 per cent.

Action by students violates free speech, pro-life group claims

Free speech versus a woman’s right to choose: The issue is coming to a head – again – on university campuses across Canada, reported the Toronto Star Feb. 3.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is campaigning to overturn decisions by several student unions to withdraw funding and resources from pro-life organizations. The civil liberties group, though "strongly pro-choice" on abortion, says the students’ move violates an even more important democratic right – freedom of expression.

"At issue, in our view, is nothing less than the viability of free speech on the university campuses of this country," the civil liberties group’s general counsel, Alan Borovoy, writes in a letter that was sent to student unions across Canada. It notes that the right to free speech gave many pro-choice groups their start on campus.

The student union at York University says the civil liberties group has it all wrong. "Student unions democratically made a decision not to give their space or resource to groups that want to criminalize a woman’s right to choose," said Kelly Holloway, president of the Graduate Students Association at York University.

The rights fight started last June when the York Federation of Students adopted a motion denying certain pro-life groups access to student resources, such as meeting facilities. It occurred after a group called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform was denied access to a student-owned building to participate in a debate about abortion.

The group compares abortion to the Holocaust and uses violent images to make its point, Holloway said. The decision to shut down the debate was made on "safety" grounds, Holloway said. "It was not in violation of free speech."

But the civil liberties group said just because their view is disturbing isn’t sufficient reason to shut them out. "These may be valid reasons to challenge anti-abortion organizations, but not to muzzle them," the civil liberties group writes in its letter. Instead of trying to starve these organizations of access to meeting facilities and campus newsletters, students should challenge their views in public debates, it says.

Holloway says the Bio-Ethical Reform group was later able to present its views at a different location on campus, one not owned by the student union, so it wasn’t banned from presenting its views.

But Borovoy says that’s not the point. "One of the central tenets of a university education is the adventurous search for truth. This means that faculty and students must be free to ask challenging questions and to express provocative opinions," Borovoy writes.

The York student union later succeeded in persuading the Canadian Federation of Students, an umbrella group for all student unions, to endorse their actions and support any other schools that followed their lead. Since then, several university student unions have adopted similar policies, including those at Carleton, Lakehead, Guelph, Memorial in Newfoundland and Victoria in British Columbia.

By going public, the civil liberties group says it hopes students will lobby their leaders to overturn their decision.

What’s good for Israel…

Here’s a question for Sid Ryan, CUPE, the York University Federation of Students, Britain’s academic unions and Naomi Klein: When do we all start boycotting Sri Lanka? asked the National Post in a Feb. 3 editorial.

As most of our readers will know, the government of Sri Lanka has been locked in a civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels for more than a quarter-century. During that time, 70,000 people have died, including hundreds who have fallen victim to Tiger suicide bombings. The war may finally be coming to an end, however: In recent months, the Sri Lankan military has gone on the offensive and is now closing in on the Tigers’ last remaining bases.

As in any conflict of this type, there have been civilian casualties. Over the weekend, for instance, nine people were killed when artillery shells repeatedly hit a pediatric hospital in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu. The episode is just the latest instance in which the government has been accused of perpetrating "war crimes" against civilians who are hemmed in between advancing government troops and besieged Tiger forces, who themselves are accused of using innocents as human shields.

Does all this sound familiar? It should: If you switch "Sri Lanka" to "Israel", and "Tamil Tigers" to "Hamas", the account runs roughly analogous to that of Israel’s terror-suppression mission in Gaza last month.

But there’s one crucial difference: Sri Lanka’s campaign against the Tamil Tigers is mostly being ignored in the West – or reported in the back pages. There are no mainstream organizations, unions or prominent media columnists in this country agitating to boycott Sri Lanka – or trying to shut down cooperation with Sri Lankan academics. Why?

Ivory towers in freefall

The picket lines may be down at York University but that wily band of strikers may have taught the whole province a 12-week-long lesson about the looming storm ready to batter the province’s universities, reported The Toronto Sun Feb. 1.

Ontario finishes near the bottom when it comes to provincial funding for universities and is on track to be the most expensive place to attend school, according to student and faculty organizations.

That’s problematic enough in good economic times, but as the economy goes down it’s poised to take some of those ivory towers with them.

The Council of Ontario Universities is predicting the economic downturn will hit its schools, helping rip a $511-million operating hole in this year’s budgets. Council president Paul Genest warns the unprecedented shortfall could be enough to cause some universities to close. "We’ve been hit by a perfect storm," Genest told the Sunday Sun this week.

There’s a combination of factors feeding the storm – the flatlining of provincial operating revenues and the stock market meltdown that has dropped endowment revenues by $180 million and created sky-high solvency payments for schools’ pension funds.

To weather the storm as best they can, universities are facing cuts. "Every university is looking at 4 to 5 per cent cuts per year for the next three years," Genest said. "You’re looking at close to 12 to 15 per cent cuts by the end of the third year."

Ironically, as the universities sink into the red, demand for their services remains high and has never been higher. As in other recessions, more non-high-school applicants are trying to come to university, a 10 per cent increase this year.

The council asked the province for cash earlier this month. They will find out if the one-time, $270-million request pays off in the upcoming budget.

Shelley Melanson, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, laments that "Ontario is on pace to be the most expensive province in the country to go to school."

She points to the York strike as a sign there are problems. "This is a symptom of chronic underfunding in our postsecondary institutions."

Melanson says the province’s universities were already facing underfunding problems before the economic downturn and have been hiking student tuition to help make up the shortfall. Ontario has the second most expensive tuition fees in Canada. The federation says Ontario is in last place for per capita funding for postsecondary education and second last when you look at per student funding.

Training, Colleges and Universities Minister John Milloy paints a rosier picture. "I think we (in Ontario) have an excellent story to tell," Milloy said. "We have some of the finest universities in the world. We are leading edge."

Milloy said the Liberals have made postsecondary education a priority, unlike the previous NDP and Conservative governments. With the government’s Reaching Higher program, operating funding to universities has increased 58 per cent, he said, a $1.1 billion increase. 

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the crunch to fund core operating expenses is still the biggest issue. "That has been falling, if you measure on a per-student constant-dollar basis," Turk said.

He doesn’t shoulder the province with all the blame – he splits it between Ontario and the federal government. "The federal government has cut back significantly on its transfers," Turk said. The association estimates the feds would have to shell out an additional $1.2 billion to fix the funding problem.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, universities got half of one penny for every dollar created by the Canadian economy. Turk calls that the fairest measure. "To get back to that level of funding, feds would have to put in $4 billion each year."

As the feds clawed back funding, Ontario followed. As the transfers got smaller, universities raised tuition and ramped up efforts to build up endowments – the same endowments that are now failing to provide a good return. "There’s just no possibility in anybody’s lifetime that the federal and provincial governments’ cutbacks are going to be made up in private donations," Turk said.

The need to do more with less government dollars has pushed universities to change who they use to teach classes – dipping into a cheaper labour pool. Which brings us back to York University.

The 3,400 contract faculty and teaching assistants from CUPE Local 3903 are part of the growing trend at North American universities of non-tenured faculty. "They’re a cheap pool of labour," Turk said.

How many contract academic staffers Ontario universities employ is a mystery. One indication is the US where 68.2 per cent of faculty at degree-granting institutions are non-tenure, contract faculty. "The trend is the same here as in the US," Turk said.

The minister responsible for the sector said he knows tenured faculty are still being hired and it’s more a choice for the publicly funded universities rather than the government footing the bill. "There’s a degree of autonomy the institutions have in terms of identifying their mix of instructors," Milloy said. "It’s not always a given that you need to have or that the best education experience is going to come from a tenured professor."

But Turk warns the growing number of contract teachers that teach a class at one institution then another and then another, do come with a price – the quality of the education universities are offering. "It’s hard to do well," he said, adding many contract "road scholars" end up driving and teaching with little time to do research that might get them a tenured position. "They’re only paid for their time in the classroom," he said.