Is York University really running as usual?

We’re in Week 4 of the strike by CUPE 3903, the union representing contract faculty and graduate student employees at York University. YUFA members are concerned that this will be an even longer strike, especially in the wake of public statements by the University administration that they do not intend to be flexible at the table. The administration insists that 55% of classes are running, but there are strong indications that a majority of classes has been suspended and that others are continuing without the participation of Teaching Assistants or graders (see here). The administration has engaged in particularly aggressive public relations to polish its public image during this difficult time. In addition to misleading the public, the administration, for the first time in any labour disruption at York, has tried to usurp the power of Senate and pre-emptively announced there will be no general suspension of classes, as was the case in some previous labour disputes. In two striking new developments, the administration has requested a forced ratification vote from the Ministry of Labour, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has issued a letter of concern to President Rhonda Lenton and a questionnaire for students, picketers, and other members of the York community regarding surveillance by a private security firm.

Misleading communications

A recent open letter from the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations (OCUFA) notes that York’s administration has engaged in misleading communications during the strike. The administration maintains (incorrectly) that they are not seeking concessions from CUPE 3903. They have alleged that 55% of classes are running normally, when less than half of the courses are continuing. The Keele campus is largely empty and Glendon College is even more so. They have also alleged (incorrectly) that CUPE refused to drop any of its major demands during negotiations, and refused to seriously bargain. They have charged (incorrectly) that the Administration cannot afford to make serious offers in regards to CUPE’s demands for conversions for contract faculty and summer funding for graduate students, while evidence shows ample funds in its budget surplus and contingency funds, and aggrieved students have begun to circulate exposés of extravagant personal spending being charged to university budgets. The administration has also misled the community by providing incorrect analysis of Senate’s power during an academic disruption, and it has failed to provide accurate, timely information to students about which courses are open and which suspended.

YUFA is very concerned with this hard-line approach to contract negotiations and to communication in general. We are now entering bargaining to renegotiate our own collective agreement, and the tactics used against CUPE 3903, including delayed bargaining, intense public relations, a forced ratification vote, and heightened, possibly illegal security measures, may well be employed against other campus unions such as YUFA and the York University Staff Association (YUSA). In addition, the constant dissemination of aggressive administration messaging, combined with the chaos surrounding the academic term and its remediation, has become extremely stressful and divisive for members of the university community and particularly injurious to our students, according to their reports.

Closed Senate meetings, tight security, and unnecessary force

On March 22, faculty, CUPE 3903, and student Senate representatives were blocked from entering the Senate Chamber to participate in a scheduled meeting of Senate, creating a tense situation. These events were captured on video (see here), showing a member of the senior administration holding the door against people attempting to enter the Senate chamber. One graduate student Senator was held in a choke-hold by a security officer when he tried to enter Chamber.

According to Senate rules, meetings are open to members of the community. Despite the intense interest in the Senate meetings on March 8 and 22, non-Senators were asked to congregate in an overflow room, and on March 22, some of the people temporarily blocked from entry were members of Senate. It is worth noting that Senate meetings during some earlier strikes were moved to larger venues as Senate leadership acknowledged that many members of the community who were not Senators might wish to attend when issues related to the strike were being discussed. In those cases, there were no scuffles with security or violent incidents as a result of excluding people from the Chamber.

These events were followed by an occupation of the Senate Chamber by undergraduate students, hoping to persuade administration to bargain fairly and end the strike. The group is also circulating a petition that demands a tuition refund, stating that “We don’t believe that universities should be run as a business. But if they are going to run it as a business, we are going to demand a refund.” The administration has contracted a private security firm whose guards have surrounded Senate and is closely monitoring students and visitors coming and going. These security guards are also watching and filming CUPE members on the picket line. Staff in Kaneff Tower are subject to a daily lockdown of the building and are monitored by the private security force. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has issued an open letter to President Rhonda Lenton expressing its concern about these developments and is asking for input in a questionnaire from all members of the York community. The occupation of the Senate Chamber by “Students for CUPE 3903” continues, although media have been banned from entering the 9th floor of the Ross Building.

Governance crisis: Senate’s authority threatened

As reported last week, a motion submitted to Senate at the start of the strike to suspend all classes was blocked by Senate Executive on procedural grounds. A challenge to this ruling was closely defeated in Senate during the March 8 meeting in a controversial vote conducted without due regard for rules of order. In the agenda package and during the meeting, Senate Executive stated that “Decisions regarding the business and affairs of the University are vested in the Board [of Governors] even where they may have an impact on academic policy.” Furthermore, they added, Senate “policy does not give express authority to Senate or Senate Executive to take the action of cancelling all classes at the commencement of a disruption.” However, this was Senate’s undisputed role in past strikes, and the statement about jurisdiction combined with the blocking of a vote in Senate raised alarms among many Senators. In denying the Senate’s power to decide on course cancellations on the basis of academic integrity during labour disruptions, the administration described labour disruptions as equivalent to weather disruptions, which like other “business matters” are under the purview of the Board of Governors.

In the following Senate meeting, on March 22, a motion was presented that proposed that Senate, the body at the University with governance authority over academic matters, affirm its authority to suspend classes on academic grounds during a labour dispute. This motion passed by a 65% margin, following a debate that featured strong support from faculty and students. Senior administrators presented arguments about the limits of Senate’s authority. The Chair of Senate mentioned a letter from the Chair of the Board of Governors to the Senate Executive that laid out a case for imposing new limits on Senate’s authority. The Chair of Senate has not made the letter available to Senators, and requests have been sent to the Senate Executive and University Counsel to disclose its contents to members of Senate. This is necessary if all members of Senate are to be given the opportunity to participate in any debate about university governance. It is also necessary if the administration is to be in compliance with the YUFA Collective Agreement (including Article 17.02) that protects members’ participation rights within the university’s governance process.

There appears to be a shifting definition of the powers of a representative academic Senate and a self-appointed Board of Governors, with the Board moving to limit the powers given to Senate under the York University Act of 1965. This governance crisis is occurring in the wake of members’ approval of YUFA’s bargaining positions in its February membership meeting, which aim to reform the operation of the Board of Governors and to restore a more democratic and socially diverse Board composition.

Individual decisions by faculty members about courses

In the absence of course suspensions declared by Senate, Senate reiterated the policy that any suspension of classes should be determined by individual faculty members using their own professional judgments guided by considerations of academic integrity. This policy of assigning academic responsibility to individual faculty has, unfortunately, in a number of cases, been contradicted by the University’s ensuing actions. YUFA has been made aware of cases in which the Deans/Principal required teaching status forms from individual faculty members and then proceeded to reject or challenge the submissions. Departments and faculties that resolved to suspend classes have been ignored. YUFA has already issued advice on this matter in previous advisories (see here, here, here, and here). A future discussion of this application of the concept of academic integrity may be warranted, for a majority of York students have evidently determined to suspend their own attendance as they wait for this impasse to be resolved.

A shortened version of this post appeared as a media release on Canada News Wire. Read the release here.