The ‘in-between’ university: York’s vision for research?

How York is opting for a narrow, competitive and selective approach to supporting research

There is growing concern among YUFA members that the York administration is rushing to embrace the call by the provincial government and advisory agencies to be more selective and narrow in supporting the research activities and ambitions of our faculty members. This has become manifest in two new developments:

(1) The disappointing rollout of the Research Release Program in Article 18.15 of the new Collective Agreement;

and

(2) The elimination of Graduate Assistant (GA) positions to support York’s research culture.

Research Release Program:
The Employer’s attempts to distort research support

One of the key achievements in the 2015-16 negotiations was the establishment of a research-based teaching load reduction for professorial stream faculty in units with a 2.5 FCE teaching load. The purpose of the program is to provide enhanced access to teaching releases intended to “support research/scholarly/creative activities.” Unfortunately, there are indications that the Employer is trying to introduce much stricter qualifying criteria than is required by the language we negotiated and to make the program far more narrow in application than we have seen at other similar universities where most faculty teach at 2.0 load or lower. This calls into question whether our administration is truly interested in enhancing York’s standing as a research institution.

Chairs and Directors of schools and departments have submitted criteria for defining eligibility for research releases, yet in most cases their Deans have refused to approve their submissions.  The Employer has explicitly said that it believes that the program should be suspended for this year if departments do not adopt the more stringent criteria preferred by their Deans. YUFA objects to this pressure tactic in the strongest possible terms. We  also contest the refusal by Deans to agree to take the matter to a dispute resolution panel which we negotiated specifically to make sure the program can go ahead despite disagreements about criteria.

In contrast with York’s public commitment to broad support of our vital research culture, there are strong indications that the administration is trying to re-cast the Research Release Program as a way of selectively concentrating research support. There is some concern that the Employer may try to impose ‘scoring systems’ which formally assign numerical and comparative value to activities that will be used to certify which faculty members are research active. The Deans seem reluctant to allow faculty members to submit their own individual statements of current research activity to be evaluated and reviewed on their own merits. Such an inclusive approach has long been in place in those departments at York that already have existing research release programs.

In addition, the Employer is now claiming that graduate supervision will not be recognized in the eligibility criteria, which clearly conflicts with expectations that we had when we negotiated the program and seems an arbitrary exclusion of grad supervision as a research-related activity. We gave up credits for grad supervision in Appendix O of our Collective Agreement based on this understanding. If graduate supervision is seen exclusively a teaching activity, then units will have to individually submit revised teaching load documents so that grad supervision counts towards fulfillment of at least part of a faculty member’s normal teaching load. So far we have not heard of any Deans entertaining this option.

At a recent YUFA Stewards’ Council meeting, our colleagues expressed deep concerns about what looks to be an unexpectedly selective approach to research releases. This was seen as indicative of the direction of academic and research planning at York, and beyond. It seems to reflect the kind of approach proposed in a recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). The report, entitled The Differentiation of the Ontario University System: Where are we now and where should we go?, recommends that governments and institutions seek “efficiencies” by selectively assigning and recognizing differing degrees of research intensity for each type of institution. That same report classified York as one of four “in between” universities and the administration’s handling of the Research Release Program thus far suggests an implicit acceptance of this categorization. Any effort to prioritize areas and types of research will only isolate York from the broader research community.

Rolling back GAs at York

Another development that appears to foreshadow a more selective and competitive approach to obtaining research support is the elimination of the vast majority of Graduate Assistant (GA) positions. We know that GAs support a myriad of research activities at York, including conference organizing, research administration, journal publication and working with individual faculty members. One obvious and troubling consequence of these changes is that GA support will likely only be available to those with external funding, thereby ending an important source of broad-based research support at York. For all of these reasons, YUFA has released a statement opposing this development, including our concerns about the consequences of replacing paid work with volunteer student labour.

Even those seeking external grants, however, will face a challenge with respect to including GAs in their proposals. Not only has the administration withdrawn GA support and radically reduced matching funds programs, they will now impose a charge of almost $100 per hour for GAs on those researchers who wish to hire them. Researchers must pay a minimum of $12,725 to hire a GA while only $5,826 will be paid in wages to the GA. There are serious concerns that these costs will lead granting agencies to look unfavorably upon applications from YUFA members.

Have your say

We urge members to report to YUFA (by email at yufa@yorku.ca) any meaningful losses of research support related to the dramatic scaling back of GA work. In fact, such losses could be the subject of a grievance under Article 18.13 of our Collective Agreement, which guarantees adequate levels of support. We are also planning to address these issues–in particular, the implementation of the Research Release Program–at a General Membership Meeting in October, the details of which will be announced shortly. Finally, we have requested an opportunity to meet with the relevant Deans to explain why so many of our members are concerned that the Research Release Program–which was clearly designed to provide broad-based support for research–may be under threat.