Education at the heart of Mount Allison strike

Written by Dave Thomas on February 5, 2014

MAFA

Students supporting their professors on the picket line at Mount Allison University in Sackville in early February. Photo from MAFA’s Facebook page.

Professors, librarians, and archivists at Mount Allison University have been on strike for 10 days

A labour dispute between Mount Allison University and the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) has culminated in a faculty strike. The strike is the result of fundamentally divergent visions of education at the institution.

Representing roughly 154 full-time and 54 part-time academic faculty, librarians, and archivists, MAFA is committed to defending the working conditions of its members, which can also be understood as the learning conditions for students. MAFA’s contract expired on July 1, 2013, and bargaining with the employer began three days later.

With very little progress at the negotiation table, MAFA requested the provincial government appoint a conciliator on Aug. 8th in order to help the two sides reach an agreement. The conciliation process was unsuccessful, and the conciliator filed her report on Dec. 9th indicating that the two sides were at an impasse. A mediator has subsequently been working with the two parties since Dec. 20th but intensive negotiations failed to produce an agreement. On Jan 13-14th, 86% of MAFA members voted in favour of strike action with a high voter turnout: 99% of full-time and 88% of part-time faculty voted. A strike deadline was issued and without an agreement, the strike began on Jan. 27, 2014. Now in its second week, the strike has resulted in the cancellation of all classes.

So what are the underlying issues or problems that have led to this impasse between the employer and MAFA?

First, there is a difference of views on the financial state of the University, and thus its ability to contribute more funds to the academic mission of the institution. The Administration has repeatedly asserted that Mt. Allison is in a precarious financial position, and regularly insinuates that it teeters on the brink of financial crisis. Based on these assertions Administrators claim there is no money for any of MAFA’s proposals that would build a more enriching and engaging academic climate for students.

In 2013, MAFA commissioned a study of Mt. Allison’s finances by a team of associate professors of accounting from the University of Manitoba. The Executive Summary  of the report states: “The Mount Allison Administration has been generating what appear to be substantial and sustained unrestricted surpluses every year, a large part of which is being put in the bank for some unspecified purposes. We can find nothing in the financial statements to explain why at least some of these surpluses cannot be used to support the operations of academic units through increased hiring.”

Further proof of ability to pay can be found in the fact that the University is constructing a new $30 million building and just spent $1.3 million to renovate the President’s house. Given these financial circumstances, MAFA believes that more should be spent on desperately needed academic programming.

Another concern is that the Administration’s negotiating team tabled proposals that would fundamentally transfer power and control away from faculty and to administrators. For example, some proposals seek to alter the processes of granting sabbaticals, tenure and promotion. While the Administration argues that this is meant to “streamline” the processes and save faculty time, MAFA is intent on defending collegial governance mechanisms. Mount Allison faculty take great pride in the fact that much of the University is governed by collegial, accountable, and democratic processes. The Administration’s desired reorganization of decision-making structures is at odds with MAFA’s commitment to collegial governance.

Thirdly, the Administration has suggested that faculty members’ guaranteed annual step increases in salary should be tied to “satisfactory” performance, using the language of accountability and quality. Several important questions have been raised regarding this proposal. Who will measure such performance and how will it be measured? Will collegial processes be used, or will single administrators make these decisions? What will the decision be based on?

Of particular interest is the question of if student evaluations of teaching will become more central to measuring performance. Ultimately, faculty could start teaching in a way that would ensure they score well on the evaluations instead of adhering to what they professionally think is required in their discipline.

MAFA has repeatedly stated: “The faculty are seeking to protect academic control over our own work, and ensure that the processes by which we are evaluated are fair and collegial.  The life of the university is not enhanced by measures which increase the discretionary power of administrators over academic work.” Tying salary increases to highly questionable measures of performance will not strengthen, but rather deteriorate, the quality of education at the University.

Fourthly, workload issues are critical to the faculty. Heavy workloads mean that faculty members cannot devote the time and energy to students in a way that will sustain Mount Allison’s outstanding reputation. One of the reasons Mount Allison attracts such exceptional students is because of the amount of time faculty spend with them one-on-one and in small classes. MAFA is seeking to strengthen provisions in the collective agreement regarding workload issues, but the employer has been unwilling to negotiate on many of these issues. Once again, the employer argues that MAFA’s proposals would be too expensive to implement.

Finally, both sides are also still working to bridge the gap between proposals on salary, benefits and pensions. While they are perhaps not the most important issues of divergence in this particular round of bargaining, they remain unresolved. The labour dispute involves fundamentally contrasting visions of how the University should be governed, what the key priorities of spending should be, what defines a quality education, and who should be in control of faculty members’ academic work. These issues are being debated at post-secondary institutions across the country. Unfortunately, these crucial questions will not vanish with the eventual ratification of a new collective agreement for MAFA, but will remain deeply contested issues over the coming years.

MAFA remains on strike. For more information go to: http://mafanegotiations.ca

Dave Thomas is an Associate Professor in Politics & International Relations at Mount Allison University and a member of MAFA. This article does not represent the official views of MAFA, but rather his own.

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