President Lenton, we can see an end to this academic disruption. The incoming Ontario government has already announced it will engage the back to work legislation you have so eagerly sought. What may become a highly troubling right wing government is delivering you your objective.
From day one, the purpose of this strike, planned by you and the Chair of a Board dominated by corporate interests, was to cripple a union. This union has been a respected leader around contract faculty and graduate student issues supported by leading faculty organizations across North America and internationally, and academic associations across Canada have demanded that the university negotiate fairly with the union for this reason. But the union busting goal has been pursued at any cost.
Despite your rhetoric, the union’s demands were similar to the terms of the last collective agreement, which you had signed as former provost. These terms were not detrimental or harmful. According to your own statements as provost and president, and key Senate documents approved last year, the university was thriving. Although you labelled the CUPE 3903 demands as unreasonable, the academic and reputational costs of this strike dwarf the cost of a few conversion appointments and other key items required to settle early on. You have stood by your ill-advised principle that there shall be no settlement at the table. If you claim victory, you achieved it with reckless disregard for the consequences. This is a pyrrhic victory, as both undergraduate students and members of CUPE 3903 know very well. You believe that CUPE 3903 has been defeated. Anyone who has gone out to the picket lines knows that your management of this strike has radicalized a whole generation of younger scholars and students.
Your steering of this strike has led to severe academic harm to this university, for which Senate Chair Lesley Beagrie, together with Senate Executive, bear some responsibility. The administration usurped academic decision-making when the strike began, ignored the legal and conventional obligations of Senate Executive and Senate, violated Senate policy and overstepped the authority of the Board of Governors. Academic decisions were displaced in favour of tools to fight the union, beginning with the continuation of classes “when they can.” If there had been a total suspension of classes, as many demanded, the disruption necessarily would have been short, with minimal impact. Instead, Senate Executive deferentially approved a series of decisions that maximized pressure on the union. Most telling, a series of announcements and letters about the cancellation of summer semester, a complete reversal of the initial position on “no class cancellation,” were engaged to threaten striking instructors. Any pretence of academic criteria driving such crucial decisions has disappeared.
The Chair has presided over a dramatic erosion in the power of Senate. Her approach, supported by Senate Executive, has been one of deference to administrative priorities, creating rules out of thin air if need be, with the purpose of discouraging dissension and shaping what is, in essence, a forum for top administrators and their supporters. Her role in negating the legal division of responsibilities between Senate and the Board stands as the most troubling of all. In essence, she has not defended collegial input and rights as enshrined in the York Act, which is our expectation from Senate representatives.
We are far from understanding the full extent of the damage that has ensued from your refusal to negotiate a contract with CUPE 3903. Senate has received no data regarding the number of courses disrupted or cancelled, students who have dropped courses, or who cannot graduate, who are receiving fake grades to allow their graduation, who are taking courses in other institutions, or who have simply transferred somewhere else. Senate policy requires that Senate Executive keep Senate appraised of these matters, but we have learned nothing of them. We are only starting to get a sense of how severe the fallout will be in terms of lower enrollments and the reputational standing of York.
Recently the administration’s approach has become punitive. It threatens to punish those who participated in strike support or civil disobedience actions, utilizing the full arsenal of policies and laws to promote a witch-hunt against students and instructors and encouraging their supporters to launch complaints. It is ironic the administration is making blanket allegations of illegal action while its own usurpation of the powers of Senate is itself illegal! This approach not only aggravates divisions, but also stands in contradiction to their calls for civility, tolerance, healing and overcoming the divisions. It also has a chilling effect on academic freedom in campus, a matter under the direct responsibility of Senate. I encourage my fellow senators to make their voice heard on this crucial post-disruption matter.
If there were democratic accountability in our institutions, a truly representative and responsible Board of Governors would have insisted on a more constructive and conciliatory approach to a difficult strike, or would have asked for the resignation of those who have dragged labour relations to a new low point at our university. It is no surprise that vast sectors of the York community have expressed no confidence in them.
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Acknowledgement: I would like to thank several colleagues who provided useful feedback and Jody Berland who worked to improve an initial draft of this statement.