An Academic ‘War Measures Act’

Above: A Classroom at Lash Miller, University of Toronto.

As we stand on the cusp of a strike, the University of Toronto is prepared to violate its’ members freedom.

Imagine, for a moment, that it is January 2012. Not a far trip back, surely, but an important one. You are an administrator at the University of Toronto, having a bit of breathing room from the last major student labour bargaining rounds. In your backyard, the major student unions are either asleep or in disarray, while the biggest student labour union is beginning to recriminate itself over its internal divisions.

The administration itself, mind you, only has a limited time left—both President Naylor and Provost Misak (along with others) will soon enough be gone, but they see beyond themselves too. York was not so lucky (in the administrative view) and delved into periods of disruption that you would not want to repeat in your backyard. So, even though you’ve been called on breaking faith with academic freedoms before (see: Access Copyright, then), you decide now is the time to act—while everyone else isn’t looking.

Shifting to the present, you must wonder: “but what did they do exactly?”. In their desire to suffocate future labour actions (and provide potential options for other, actual catastrophes), the Administration and then-members of Governing Council created the Policy on Academic Continuity. That sounds innocuous enough, surely. We all want to continue our academics. But, this policy—I would argue—creates a situation wherein the academic freedom of our whole community is in jeopardy and where the basic understandings of labour relations are tossed to the wind.

This policy states that it exists so that it “will guide the University in enhancing its ability to fulfill its academic mission in the face of potential threats to academic continuity”. But, where shall it guide us exactly? The policy gives near-unlimited power to the administration “to declare that a state of disruption has occurred”, to end that status, to coordinate between all faculties and departments, and “to make changes to any aspect of its academic activities including the delivery of courses and programs, course and program requirements, modes of evaluation, and the length of the academic term” either through Academic Board or through the sheer and sole will of the Provost.

Now, what is this so-called “state of disruption”? It can be anything from pandemics to volcanos to, apparently, labour disputes. Surely, you see the issue here? Labour actions may be unpleasant for those losing out on immediate access to services, but they are a fundamental means to improve the quality of life of so, so many. Simply put, we lose much of what we enjoy as labourers and students alike, if we allow such rights to be quashed. One of the demands of the policy requires that, if certain academic duties cannot be done by some instructors, that local admin “identify an alternate instructor”. Outside of a labour dispute? Fine. Inside one? A call for scab labour.

In such a supposed state, mind you, the University will have no problem stepping upon students’ rights either. Gone is your right to class consensus to changes in your syllabi! Instead, your remaining instructors will be called upon to alter “course procedures, requirements and methods of evaluation in consultation with academic administrators to help ensure academic continuity”. Out of your hands go the very reigns of your academic term. Similarly, the policy is worded as compulsion for the professoriate to comply—their academic freedom too, throughout the policy, is left in tatters if enacted.

Through its ponderously vague statements, we are led to premise all of this policy’s aforementioned capabilities upon the idea that the University would never act in bad faith. I would ask Nancy Oliveri or David Healy or the hundreds unlawfully rounded up from the GSU Building (with the University’s complicity) during the G20 if they rest so easy. In the wrong hands, this policy has the power to be an academic ‘War Measures Act’—overriding basic rights and freedoms for the supposed greater good.

But, there is no threat here to life or limb. Instead, this immediate scenario is just a challenge to some idea of continuing forward academically. If this policy is enacted, where exactly are we moving forward to? I honestly don’t know. I call on Governing Council members to change this policy: clarify language and remove its ability to be used in civil procedures, like labour disputes. If this policy stands, we’re merely waiting until the Provost dares us to simply watch as this University tears academic freedom apart.

This piece was originally submitted as an op-ed to the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s central student newspaper, and released in an edited format. It was later published in full at Toronto Media Coop.The image used above was taken by Nayu Kim on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

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