I love UNB. Before the recent job action, I couldn’t say I felt that way. I loved my job. I loved my students. I loved that working at my job at UNB gave me the opportunity to work in this lovely, quiet corner of Canada called New Brunswick. I loved that I was compensated well for doing intellectually engaging and creative work, and that every year, I was able to introduce wild and dangerous ideas to a new crop of eager minds. But I can’t say that I loved UNB. I didn’t love UNB, because I didn’t really know UNB. Despite working here for 14 years, and serving a term on Faculty Senate and on many inter-faculty and faculty committees, I couldn’t say that I felt connected to the institution. And that was because, working in a small and cloistered academic unit, I didn’t know the institution’s essence.
Three weeks on the picket lines has changed all that. Yesterday I sat in a room with about 300 members of the AUNBT and heard the terms of the tentative deal. There was some relief in the room and a sense of accomplishment, but also anger, confusion, and frustration. This myriad of emotions and perspectives was voiced articulately and passionately by our members. And this is what a university is about. This is what a university is supposed to be. It is a place where the fierce clash of ideas can occur, but where we respect one another’s different views and continue on working for the greater good. This group of professors and librarians, while a fraction of the UNB family, is its core and its essence. We could not do our jobs without the support of technicians, building and grounds crews, food service workers, recruiters, development and front office staff and hundreds of others, but we are central to the mission of the university and some have forgotten that. We professors and librarians are all there for the common purpose of discovery, illumination, experimentation and the creation of new knowledge. We are charged with the awesome responsibility of educating the youth (and increasingly curious adult learners) of this province, and also those from away who choose to study here. We are paid by student fees and provincial tax dollars for the public purpose of making New Brunswick a better, smarter, richer place. For the first time, I feel connected to this group and to our collective greater purpose. By working in our little corners of the rabbit warren that is a university, we never get much opportunity to build connections across faculty or disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes the university budget process has felt like a zero sum game, with others having to lose for your own academic unit to win. As such, we have sometimes view one another with jealousy, or suspicion. All the while, administration was pulling the strings, crying wolf (of “structural deficit”), denying new faculty hires, diverting funds into non-academic pursuits and keeping us divided.
I fear that there may be some backlash to the experience of this job action, and that some of my colleagues may choose a negative frame for this event. They may choose to NOT love UNB. One colleague wrote on Facebook, “My UNB email is back up, but I am never going to use it again.” I understand the sentiment. The university administration denied us of our ability to communicate with one another, with our students, and with our community stakeholders. This disruption struck at the core of what a university is supposed to be about, communication, dissemination of information and understanding. But I would encourage this colleague (who laboured tirelessly during the strike) to work to make it so UNB could not or would not ever pull a stunt like this again. Rather than turn our backs on UNB, we must embrace it, love it, and commit to its long-term viability and integrity.
For students, it is hard to put a positive spin on this job action. They justifiably feel betrayed by the administration and faculty members alike, but we faculty are on the front lines. I am on sabbatical this term and won’t be returning to a classroom to face the students, but I plan to make myself available to them. When I do, I will tell them that we fought, not for money, but for a principle. That principle is comparability, equality, and the right to call ourselves a national comprehensive university. Some will believe it, some won’t, but if we follow through on the myriad of ideas brought up on the picket lines for how to make UNB better, we can be role models for fighting for principles. What better group to do that than the creators, purveyors and custodians of knowledge that make up our union? In the final analysis showing how to fight for a principle could be the best and most powerful thing we could teach our students.
So, I would like to issue this challenge or invitation to my colleagues, whichever way they would like to take it. Let us make this strike/lockout be the crucible from which a better, stronger and more democratic UNB is born. Rather than turn our backs on UNB and work to rule, or something akin to that, let’s recommit. Let’s take back our university for the purpose it was originally intended. Ultimately, that will be the greatest service we can provide to future students, and if we pull it off, the current students whom we have greatly annoyed and inconvenienced may one day look back with pride and say, “I was there when UNB turned the corner. I was there for that piece of history.” I am not sure how I will fit in to this effort of re-making and “taking back” UNB, but I want to play my part. I hope my colleagues will join me. If we take our pay increases and go back into our dark corners of the rabbit warren and do nothing to alter the course the administration has charted for our institution, we will only prove our naysayers right. So let’s let the end of the strike/lockout be the beginning of something. Something big and something better. As far as I am concerned, the fight has just begun.
First published on the AUNBT website.