President's Column: Collective action plays key role in academic life

Beth MacDougall-Shackleton

President's Column

UWOFA’s membership is not cut from whole cloth. It includes people with a diversity of appointment types, lengths of service, demographics and political views. Although each of us may have somewhat different priorities, ultimately academic staff unionize because we share a set of core values in support of teaching, research and collegial governance – the three pillars of the academic mission.

We support academic freedom and equity because we know that post-secondary education is a public good and that universities are agents of social progress and fair labour conditions. Our ability to advance these shared values is particularly apparent during negotiating years, but the strength of our solidarity also applies during turbulent times like today. As the world responds to the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of unity and a common purpose has never been clearer. Closer to home, recent events at Western have illustrated this theme.

Just over a year ago, UWOFA learned that the administration was pursuing negotiations with Navitas, an Australian developer of international pathway colleges owned by a multi-billion dollar private equity firm. Privately-owned pathway colleges such as Navitas generate profits for shareholders by using the university’s name and reputation to recruit international students who do not meet the university’s first-year entrance standards.

Students of pathway colleges are charged very high international tuition and fees, and are often misled as to their chances of being admitted to the university itself. For their part, the colleges use not only the brand and reputation of the university but also libraries, classrooms and other publicly funded infrastructure. Accordingly, private pathway colleges and their role in corporatizing public education have been criticized by faculty associations and student groups alike.

At UWOFA’s spring 2020 Membership Meeting, Navitas was the topic of lively discussion. Members expressed dismay about the company’s recruiting tactics and the further commodification of international students. They also criticized the company’s use of precariously employed non-unionized instructors, and the implications these working conditions have for academic freedom and quality instruction.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, with chaos in our professional and personal lives, our members mobilized to oppose the Navitas deal. Over the spring, summer and fall a series of motions opposing private pathway colleges were proposed, voted on, and overwhelmingly passed at Faculty Councils. By January 2021, the motions had passed at six of Western’s eleven Faculty Councils -- always by overwhelming margins and with remarkably high voter turnout. At the January meeting of Senate, the administration acknowledged the opposition of the academic community and stated that the Navitas file was closed. This is a powerful lesson that collective action and membership mobilization play key roles in the collegial governance of the university, beyond the context of bargaining a collective agreement.

Our members have also been united in holding our Chancellor accountable for disregarding public health guidelines and pursuing non-essential travel overseas. News that Linda Hasenfratz – a member of the Ford government’s vaccine rollout task force -- had embarked on a Barbados vacation at the height of the pandemic hit like a bombshell at Western. For nearly a year, faculty, staff and students were asked to make sacrifices to their working and learning conditions. Some, in good faith attempts to respect the travel advisory, had said their final goodbyes to loved ones over online video links.

Faculty, librarians and archivists were appalled by the Chancellor’s actions, and by the lack of meaningful consequences imposed by the Board of Governors. UWOFA’s call for Hasenfratz to resign generated enormous solidarity and support from our members, students, other employee groups, alumni, and Londoners. The scandal culminated in Western’s Chief Marshall of Convocation resigning his post in principled protest of the Chancellor’s conduct.

Convocation is a ritual designed to unite the university community. Time will tell whether the Chancellor will be able to preside convincingly over this event, given the damage her hypocritical conduct has caused to the office. But ironic as it may seem, in a way this sordid affair has indeed united us. We can all agree that we should aspire to be a place where nobody considers themselves to be above the public good.