Toward a stronger, more united, more engaged Association

Beth MacDougall-Shackleton

As I write this column, it’s been seven months since the World Health Organization announced the Covid-19 pandemic. In the days and weeks following that announcement, campus life at Western and elsewhere changed beyond recognition. In the spirit of solidarity, UWOFA members rallied to help our students salvage their winter term courses. We transitioned rapidly (if not always smoothly) to the new world of remote instruction. We radically revised our expectations of students, in many cases abandoning the final exams we had prepared and quickly developing alternative assessment tools and grading systems. Over the spring and summer we worked from home, many members balancing the responsibility of family care against the ever-expanding workload associated with remote teaching. Research-active faculty shuttered labs, and counselled graduate students as they struggled to come to terms with their projects being disrupted, and in some cases lost entirely. We mourned the loss of our own plans for summer research and conference travel.

None of us asked for this pandemic: not the administration, not our students, not other employee groups, and certainly not members of UWOFA. Even for those of us fortunate enough not to have lost loved ones to Covid-19, the pandemic has brought suffering and hardship to us all. But times of crisis are times of opportunity.

For the administration, the pandemic created an opportunity to plead austerity when justifying cuts to the University’s core academic functions (despite the budgetary surplus of $148.2M posted in Western’s most recent combined financial statements). An opportunity to pursue partnerships with privately owned multinational companies such as Navitas that would circumvent Western’s first-year admission standards, further commodify international students, and contribute to increased employment precarity. And an opportunity to erode collegial self-governance, as decisions around the re-opening of campus are made without meaningful input from faculty and other employee groups.

Finally, the administration saw an opportunity to divide our membership.  This became clear during negotiations surrounding recognition and compensation for increased teaching workloads. In a recent UWOFA questionaire 90% of faculty respondents reported they were shouldering a heavier load because of disruptions caused by the pandemic. Armed with these data, UWOFA tabled proposals to compensate faculty members who could demonstrate increased workloads. Tenured, tenure-track, and limited-term members could request future course release, and contract faculty with Limited Duties appointments could request financial compensation. After initially refusing to consider any such requests, arguing that “a course is a course”, the administration agreed to do so … but only for tenured, tenure-track, and limited-term members. Save for the minority already receiving Tier 1 and 2 support, the administration’s early proposals did not allow contract academic staff holding Limited Duties appointments to request workload consideration.

UWOFA had seen this “divide and conquer” strategy before from Western’s administration. The attempt to deny appropriate compensation to most contract academic staff – who consist disproportionately of equity-seeking groups – was jarring in light of the current administration’s stated commitment to equity, but it was not new. UWOFA maintained that all of our members with demonstrably increased teaching workloads should be fairly compensated. In the end, after six months of negotiations, we reached an agreement allowing all faculty, not just those with secure employment or in resource-rich Faculties, to apply for workload recognition and compensation. UWOFA is committed to supporting our members through the process and ensuring transparent and equitable outcomes.

Although the pandemic provides the administration with new opportunities to advance an agenda of austerity and privatization, it also presents opportunities for UWOFA. As we navigate emergency remote teaching and other challenges, faculty members, librarians, and archivists have come together to share their expertise and coach their colleagues in adapting to our changed working conditions. Many of our members are contributing to efforts to manage the pandemic, for example through engineering vaccines, developing models to predict disease severity, and donating personal protective equipment to front line health care workers. Others are conducting important equity studies, investigating how the pandemic and lockdown affected research productivity differentially along the lines of gender and family status. One thing is for sure: our members are more keenly aware of their working conditions than ever before. With solidarity, resolve, and open communication between UWOFA leadership and membership, we can emerge from this pandemic as a stronger, more united, and more engaged Association.

Beth MacDougall-Shackleton is president of UWOFA and a professor in the Department of Biology