This year is York University’s 50th anniversary, but in the wake of the 12-week strike by teaching assistants, part-time faculty and graduate research assistants, no one is yet singing “Happy Birthday!” As classes resume, I hope that York students and the community at large will rediscover the university’s dynamic qualities, which are abundant and impressive, though at the moment scarcely on display. As an alumnus with two degrees followed by more than 25 years as a faculty member and administrator at York, I know from experience that the university has a story to tell – a story that might help explain why this strike erupted and why it matters nationwide.
York began in 1959 as a small liberal-arts institution but was soon confronted by a tsunami of Metropolitan Toronto baby boomers graduating from high school and seeking further education in the 1960s. The Glendon College campus in mid-town Toronto spawned a gigantic offspring which opened north of the city in 1965 in a barren field bordered by an industrial park to the east and farmland with grazing cows to the north.
Almost from the moment of its inception, York was an exciting and fractious place. Its founding president, Murray Ross, was a proponent of general education, an approach that required students to broaden their intellectual horizons instead of specializing early in a single academic subject, which was the normal practice at older universities. York encouraged faculty and students to work outside intellectual silos and to explore the potential of “interdisciplinary” studies. Its academic innovations included the creation of a faculty of environmental studies and Canada’s first faculty of fine arts. It pioneered “concurrent” teacher education, which enabled students to pursue a teaching degree and an arts or science degree simultaneously. Professors from one faculty frequently taught in other university programs, something unheard of in most universities. As Michiel Horn’s new history of York University, The Way Must be Tried, illustrates, York encouraged and facilitated academic innovation, and it still does.
As an “alternative” university with a growing interest in social justice and social change, York attracted opinionated, stimulating and at times cantankerous faculty – a number of whom resigned in 1963 over personal and policy disputes with the president. The search to replace Murray Ross in the early 1970s was troubled, culminating in the choice of a compromise candidate, who resigned in 1973 in the midst of a budget controversy after only three years on the job. Not long after, York’s faculty unionized, followed soon by its teaching assistants and part-time faculty. York encouraged a culture of critical inquiry, something that has enriched teaching and learning and that at times has been turned inward, triggering the kind of conflict we have just witnessed.
Despite these internal tensions, and sometimes because of them, York has thrived academically in a range of areas. It has done pioneering work in space science and vision research; its business and law programs (at Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School) are renowned internationally; many of its writers, artists, historians, legal scholars and psychologists have achieved iconic intellectual status; and the university has developed exceptional community outreach programs in education and other fields. It has a well-deserved reputation for fostering cultural diversity and social reform. With more than 200,000 alumni, York has become an essential educational hub in the Greater Toronto Area.
York can only continue to thrive by hiring the best full-time faculty it can find – excellent scholars and teachers who can raise the research bar and help strengthen graduate and undergraduate programs – and, like other universities, it must now do this in an era of diminishing financial resources.
This brings us to the core issue of this unfortunate strike. Rather than employing the principle of academic excellence, CUPE 3903 demanded that a significant portion of new full-time appointments be awarded to part-time faculty exclusively on the basis of seniority. The heavy dependence of universities on part-time employees is a national issue and merits serious attention, but CUPE’s “solution” would be unacceptable to virtually every university in Canada.
I was disappointed by the union’s unrealistic demands and paralyzing tactics. It turned down a reasonable contract offer; its job security proposals threatened the integrity of the university’s appointments process; it continuously denied the university’s financial challenges; and it bargained ideologically, not pragmatically. If its passion was admirable, its judgment was questionable. There are lessons to be learned from this experience; one can only hope that they will be.
York will begin anew the rebuilding process. The country will be reacquainted with the university’s outstanding (not only its eccentric) qualities, and before the year is out, a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” will be heard near the fields where the cows used to graze.
Paul Axelrod is an educational historian and was dean of the faculty of education from 2001 to 2008.