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Frustration mounts among faculty amid return to in-person learning

A lack of consultation from university administrators is leading to labour relations tensions at some institutions.

BY HANNAH LIDDLE | FEB 18 2022

In early February, the University of Waterloo’s faculty association hosted a virtual meeting that drew over 300 members. The purpose was to discuss tensions with the university’s administration as the institution geared up for a return to in-person learning. It was the first of this type of event since the onset of the Omicron variant and Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science, said emotions were running high. “I’ve been at the university nearly 10 years now, and I’ve never seen this much anger directed at the university,” said Dr. Macfarlane. “There was, overwhelmingly, concern about vulnerable people and about families.”

When the rate of Omicron infections started to pick up speed in early December, many universities announced they would be extending their winter break or starting the new term remotely. The U of Waterloo administration made the decision to bring students and staff back to campus at a gradual pace, starting Feb. 7 – a decision which its website says is supported by advice from public health officials.

While there is mixed reaction to returning to campus among faculty, staff and students, frustration about a perceived lack of consultation between faculty specifically and administration is playing out at many universities across the country.

The pandemic has already caused unprecedented disruption on campuses, with professors having to pivot between online, hybrid and in-person learning for the past two years. Susan Wurtele, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), said that while the hybrid model of teaching may work well in the short-term, members of her association feel that their concerns about their workload, their mental health, and their ability to keep themselves, their families, and their students safe have been “discounted.”

In Quebec, the provincial government has maintained that university campuses are not at risk for spreading the infection, and asked universities to reopen their campuses on Jan. 17, granting a two-week exemption which most universities accepted. Christopher Buddle, associate provost, teaching and academic programs at McGill University, said that returning to in-person education was a shared goal between the province and the institution.

“We agree that education is the priority, and in-person education is of paramount importance,” he said. “I am very confident that we have in place the right layers of protection to make the learning environment safe for our community.”

‘Unidirectional’ communication

The amount of consultation between university administrators and faculty regarding COVID-19 measures is varied across the country, but Dr. Wurtele argues that at least in Ontario, decisions are being made “without adequate consultation.” While universities have joint health and safety committees making recommendations regarding COVID-19 health measures, she said in many cases this is not where those final decisions are being made. Neither are they being “discussed appropriately and adequately” in the university senate and other governance bodies.

At the U of Waterloo, administrators sent out a survey to all university employees in late January to ask how they felt about returning to campus. The survey showed that 58 per cent of people felt “less than okay” about the return, while 24 per cent felt “better than okay.” While Dr. Macfarlane described the survey as a positive step, he said that in general, communication with faculty has been “unidirectional.”

Nick Manning, associate vice president, communications at U of Waterloo said that he and his colleagues are aware that the Omicron variant caused significant fear and anxiety, and that administrators hosted a number of forums for faculty to learn about the university’s plans.

“But most of the time in the pandemic, the timelines for the decision-making haven’t really lined up to those normal procedures that exist in an academic environment where we’re able to consult very broadly and in open forum and open discussion to have those long-term planning decisions come about,” he said. “And that’s what really been, at any point in the pandemic, the situation we’ve faced. So they’re not really well suited to making these very quick decisions.”

Ken Steele, Canadian higher education strategist and author, echoed that sentiment, saying that limited dialogue with faculty is likely the result of administrators having to make complex decisions quickly during a public health crisis.

Potential longer-term impact

Others, however, feel the lack of consultation with faculty is a symptom of long-simmering problems with university governance. David Robinson, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that this could have an impact on labour relations. “[Faculties] see it as a symptom of lack of proper adherence to collegial governance structures and shared decision-making at the university, which is a long-standing issue,” he said. “Faculty often feel they are disrespected in that they had to move quickly to teach online, which required a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice.” Now, he said, some universities are seeing this play out in labour disputes.

At the University of Manitoba, faculty members ratified a wage agreement in November which included a one-time payment due to extra work caused by the pandemic. Last week, the Acadia University faculty association began a strike, with its president Andrew Biro saying in a press release that its members have gone “above and beyond” throughout the pandemic.

Mr. Steele said that such examples show how pent-up emotions are seeping into labour relations. “During the pandemic [faculty] put their personal demands aside in order to put students first,” he said. “Now, as we emerge from the pandemic […] there is a real release of that frustration in the collective bargaining process.”

Mr. Steele said that there is no question that faculty members have been doing extra work throughout the pandemic to deliver their courses online, and that in most cases they were not paid for that extra work. But what is also adding to the tensions is the ongoing conversation over whether online or hybrid course delivery will become a permanent fixture in Canadian universities. Faculty members, he said, are worried that “emergency approaches [to education] will become permanent expectations.” Going forward, according to Mr. Steele, university faculties will be looking for precise language in bargaining agreements regarding online course delivery.

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