KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In a time of unparalleled socioeconomic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dalhousie University students find themselves caught in the middle of hostile collective bargaining negotiations between full-time faculty, represented by the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA), and the Dalhousie Board of Governors.
The hot-button issues at the centre of these negotiations relate to proposed “strategic” changes to faculty defined-benefit pension plans, and a lack of tangible support for instructors who feel burnt out and overworked in the new virtual teaching reality. In sum: tensions concerning benefits and workload. But while Dalhousie faculty and the administration duke it out, students and grant-paid employees are left to wonder what the outcome may mean for them.
Literally. Students and grant-paid employees have no idea. At least, they have not received any explicit explanation from the University about next steps. Unlike individual faculty who address strike concerns to their classes or research teams every working week, Dalhousie has not been forthcoming about the impact of a potential strike on students. There has been no news release about how students will be impacted in terms of funding, jobs, grading, or more. Instead, the University has made vague promises in wordy news releases about doing “everything we can to ensure the academic term is completed.”
And yet, Acting Provost and Vice President Frank Harvey and Assistant Vice-President Human Resources Jasmine Walsh also wrote, “In the days and weeks ahead, you can expect to hear more from the university about strike preparations, including implications for courses, access to campus, research, and other areas of our operations.”
This release seems to indicate that there is currently no plan to ensure term completion. Students and grant-paid employees haven’t even been provided a strike contingency plan by the University. Labour action could occur as soon as November 6! Shouldn’t it be good administrative practice to already have a defined plan of action in place to support students and grant-paid employees?
Based on this alone, one can conclude that the University is entirely unconcerned not only with the well-being of their faculty, but they are equally unconcerned with the well-being of its students and grant-paid employees. In a time when the pandemic has made everyone vulnerable, the Board is attempting to exploit this vulnerability to achieve unexplained financial objectives.
This pattern of behaviour isn’t new. There is a pattern of exploitative and opportunistic behaviour from the Dalhousie Board of Governors more akin to a multi-million-dollar corporation than a university. For example, this is the same Board of Governors that reported a $39.5 million surplus in 2019-2020. Though in June they reported a potential budget shortfall due to lower enrolment and other factors, a summer update reported enrolment was better than expected and could result in a better financial outlook. Enrolment numbers remain unclear as of September 21, but were “higher than expected.”
This is also the same Board which imposed another year of tuition and administrative fee increases on students, many of whom lost their jobs and were reliant on federal financial aid due to COVID-19. And let us not forget, this is the same Board of Governors accused of entrenched racism time and time again by students and other Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. Now these folks are willing to “restructure” our instructors’ pensions and livelihoods and, by extension, are willing to disrupt the lives and learning of students to meet their financial bottom line in a time when students have taken a chance on online learning.
It is clear that the Dalhousie Board of Governors is not focused on governing a not-for-profit post secondary institution. These folks are here to make a buck at faculty, students’, and grant-paid employees’ expense.
To the students reading this: these negotiations and a potential strike are more than a Faculty-Board issue. A potential strike is also a student issue. And it’s an issue in which students should support our Faculty to the fullest.
A statement issued by the Dalhousie Student Union in support of the DFA clearly articulates why faculty deserves our support. They wrote, “The DFA’s working conditions are our learning conditions. For students to succeed in academic studies, Faculty must have access to a working environment that supports and respects them and their work.”
When our faculty lack the support needed to maintain a reasonable work-life balance and implement effective virtual learning, our Board and Executive team have a fiduciary responsibility to step up and support them. Instead, the Board is largely ignoring our faculty and trying to mess with their benefits, just like they ignore students and increase their tuition year-after-year.
Students need to show solidarity with faculty during these negotiations. While our Board focuses on the margins over the quality of learning, our faculty want to make sure they have the tools and supports they need to deliver the education we, as students, have paid for and worked endless hours to receive.
Noel Guscott is a Master of Arts in Political Science student at Dalhousie University.
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