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Pandemic opportunism at Dalhousie – “People feel completely disrespected”

Françoise Baylis. Photo Wikipedia

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – It’s difficult to understand why the Dalhousie Board of Governors is so relentlessly pursuing a bargaining agenda that seemingly can only lead to a work stoppage, be it in the form of a lockout or a strike by faculty.

See also: Conciliation between Dalhousie and faculty fails, making strike more likely

But the board’s insistence that the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) agree to major concessions in terms of its pension fund suggest that sometime after November 6 teaching at the university may very well come to a halt. 

Earlier this week more than 95% of the DFA membership voted to reject the offer made by the Dalhousie Board of Governors during conciliation last week.

2020 is not a good year. At the university staff is putting in very long hours to accommodate the switch to online teaching, while students deal with financial pressures. Yet when the DFA asked to postpone bargaining for a year the board refused.

For ethicist and Dalhousie University research professor Françoise Baylis the board’s approach can only be explained as a deeply cynical move, a pandemic opportunism that strikes when it believes its opponent at its weakest, no matter the emotional toll and no matter the long term consequences.

“There have been so many overtures on the part of faculty to the board to say, look, can we delay this for the year, and the response is always no. And so doing it this year is about something else. At some level it’s an exercise of raw power. The board is doing this because it can,” Baylis says.

“This is not about faculty aggressively demanding a raise, we just don’t want to be any worse off. Our perspective is that it’s pandemic opportunism. You’re just seeing that people are already vulnerable, and so you’re going to attack while they’re vulnerable, says Baylis. 

Is it really about money?

As it does each year, the DFA commissioned a professional analysis of University finances. 

What it found was a university in good financial shape. The university had a 2019 Operating Fund surplus of nearly $39.5 million, its largest in a 17-year streak of surpluses.  

Just 10% of that surplus would have been enough to reduce student tuition by 2%, the DFA notes. Instead, tuition was raised by 3% in this academic year and most of these surpluses are moved into the Capital Fund.

Meanwhile, academic salaries are lower as a percentage at Dalhousie when compared with the other main research-intensive universities in Canada.  

People feel completely disrespected

“You can have respectful disagreements about contentious issues, that’s what bargaining is about. But you have to pay attention to the background conditions. And in that context it is unconscionable to do this to students and faculty,” says Baylis.

In fact, long term damage has already been done, even if this is resolved before the strike, or if it’s resolved shortly after a strike starts, Baylis says.

“People feel completely disrespected. Because of the pandemic people are working harder than they probably ever have, for the benefit of the students and for the benefit of the institution. We’re doing so much with so little, and this is how they treat us. They tell us how grateful they are, yet this is how they show their gratitude.” 

DFA president David Westwood told me earlier that concerns about an increased workload were roundly dismissed by the board. There’s a price to pay for that stance, Baylis says.

“People who can leave will leave, and the people who leave may not be replaced. And then when you look at recruitment, you’re not going to get the best candidates, because if they have a choice, they’re going to go somewhere else. At the end of the day, maybe the end game is to actually reduce our faculty, and have them do it willingly,” says Baylis. 

“Universities have changed over the years into corporate entities that bring corporate strategies and corporate goals to the table. A university is not about making money, yet it tries to become that. Meanwhile its core business are our students and the people that actually serve this core business, our faculty. So why would you attack your core business?” 

See also: Letter: A strike at Dalhousie is also a student issue

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