A raw deal for York students

As a cash-strapped undergraduate plugging through the last semester of my degree, I feel for the students of York University. Not only did they get cheated out of the education they paid for this year, but it looks as though they’ll have to forfeit the right to secure summer employment and internships in order to compensate for their stolen semester. Students can expect their spring graduation plans to be put on hold.

The CUPE 3903 strike is entering its 12th week. While there have been talks about legislating an end to this ongoing saga within the coming week, the damage—to student psyches, to York’s public image, and to the union’s credibility—has already been done.

At this point, we’ve mostly forgotten the union’s reasons for striking, which amount to higher wages for TAs and longer contracts for sessional professors. Improving working conditions are reasonable grounds for action, but enough is enough, and even these reasonable factors don’t seem relevant anymore. What began as a strike to improve labour conditions has devolved into a war of attrition, an endless conflict sustained by pride. At the end of the day—or months, more like—the undergraduates are the ones who suffer, abandoned by the teachers and administrators who were trusted with their educational advancement.

I don’t mean to dismiss CUPE’s cause. Being a graduate student is undeniably a highly demanding full-time job, especially with the addition of teaching responsibilities. Yes, many graduate students also have families to support, and, yes, it would be ideal for universities to provide their graduate teaching staffs with, at the very least, a living wage. It’s also true that year-long contracts for lecturers are doubly disadvantageous, both in terms of practicality and diminished job security. But surely there must be a way to work this out without having to burden 50,000 students in the process.

Who will emerge the winner in this situation? Not York University, whose enrollment has dropped considerably. It won’t be CUPE 3903, either: though they will likely receive marginal upgrades through some process of forced arbitration, fewer students mean fewer teaching positions. And it will most definitely not be York’s undergraduates, although it appears they were never really considered in the first place.

At the very least, the end is near. On Tuesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that he intends to resume legislation to end the union’s strike, marking the first government-mandated strike cessation in the history of Canada’s university sector. A beacon of hope for beleaguered students, perhaps, but the return to class will probably not restore faith in the integrity of York University’s administration, or the union’s professed commitment to the provision of higher education.

Backwards budget benefits few

Tuesday’s budget was surprising enough to make a Torontonian trip over an uprooted TTC floor tile.

What Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty proposed is backwards on so many levels. It was counter-intuitive to Conservatives, to designating funds, and to our future. We are lucky that Ignatieff has recognized this backwardness and has called Canada to work together.

The first degree of reversal is in Conservative policy. Luckily for Canada, Harper has released his most Liberal-style budget. Although he insists he still values conservative financial policies such as small government, lower taxes and less intervention, he has pushed these aside in proposing bailouts, larger legislation, and interventionist policies.

Prior to the budget, mayors from across Canada urged Flaherty for more funding to look after their pre-planned, pre-budgeted, shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Instead, the budget proposes funding that must be designated along administrative lines set by the federal government.

Plans must be re-made and cities must designate certain percentages of their allotted sums to projects in order to receive funding. The potential delays could very well mean that these projects will never see the light of day.

Some of these shovel-ready projects include improvements to crumbling TTC stations (think uprooted floor tiles) and money for new transit options.

But what’s most surprising to the average Torontonian is that Harper is investing in cities—yes, the despised, non-oil producing, left-leaning metropolises. This is obviously an effort to break new ground in the next election, and yet these measures seem in opposition to Harper’s policies.

There are plenty of decent proposals in this budget if you live in the ever-growing suburbs, including funding for extracurricular activities. Although there are no childcare improvements, a $2,000 per-child tax credit, extending RRSPs, and allowing more money for RESPs have been proposed. In addition, $2 billion has been budgeted for repair and maintenance projects at post-secondary institutions, 70 per cent of which is for universities.

But not much is left for those outside infrastructure-boosted cities and suburban zones. Those who live in poverty, in addition to those who have been recently laid-off, have very little to gain from this budget.

Another backwards move by the Conservatives is proposing specific objectives to a malleable economy. Flaherty seems to predict some sort of magical boost to the Canadian economy next year, and an end to the recession in Canada within five years. Because of this arbitrary prediction, our budget is not suited to withstand the possibility of a deeper recession.

Another concern is the environment. Although one billion dollars are to be slated for environmental development programs, this is merely a fraction of the potentially hundreds of thousands of green jobs resource-rich Canada could be developing.

These concerns for the future have called Canada’s role in the world into question. Where will we be as a nation in five years? A decade? Twenty years? The changing economy, forthcoming Olympics and new presidential dynasty are all setting the stage for a new Canada. Harper should have seized this opportunity to define which direction Canada should head in.

Ignatieff came forward yesterday with an amendment to the budget that will benefit Canadians. He wants quarterly updates on the cost and results programs proposed by parliament. Each of these would be proposed as confidence motions, meaning change that does not satisfy Canadians may result in an election. This will help ensure that propositions, especially infrastructure projects, see results. It will also certainly put the Conservatives in their place and allow time for the Liberals to reorganize.

Ignatieff seems to be the voice of reason. The Conservatives have broken ground with a revolutionary budget, and the Liberals want to see the results while taking them to task. Although he wasn’t keen on last year’s coalition proposal, Ignatieff said yesterday that it “has shown that we can work together. Canadians need to get used to the idea that we can work together.”


Pro-choice camp overwhelms anti-abortion protest

The pro-lifers were outnumbered and backed into a corner at this year’s annual face off between pro- and anti-abortion protestors at Harbord and St. George. A group of 25 from the Centre for Women and Trans People drowned out the five from U of T students for Life, as both sides chanted and waved posters.

Clad in pink shirts and raising placards that read “Women have the right to choose!” and “Choice matters,” protestors braved the heavy snow and passed out flyers and pins to students passing one of the highest traffic areas on campus.

The campaign by U of T Students for Life was not publicized, but pro-choicers say they found out about it early enough to prepare a counter-protest. The lifers, who held the event to protest the 20th anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision that legalized abortion, held posters reading “Abortion kills children” and chanted, “Women united will never be defeated.”

The pro-choice protestors said abortion is not the murder of a person, as defined by Canadian courts, a fetus is not legally considered a person. On moral grounds, they added, forcing a woman to have a child against her will is against Canadian values.

Students for Life also holds a yearly protest late in the winter semester called the Genocide Awareness Project, where they compare abortion to genocide. GAP has seen admin objections on campuses due to graphic images. At U of T, the annual protest traditionally takes place at St. George and Harbord.

Bell curve this

If there is a hell, entrance will certainly be bell-curved, and University of Toronto students will be particularly well prepared. U of T’s great leaders are altering students’ grades with little regard for the ethical status of this practice, or what questions it might raise about the university itself.

As a student assistant in a college registrar’s office, I’ve dealt with the issue of grade adjustment more than once. Without fail, the affected student wants to know what he or she can do about it. The answer I have to give is squat. The system is stacked firmly against students, as it so often is at U of T. Bureaucrats and bureaucratically-minded professors make the rules—all we can do is follow them.

The Faculty of Arts and Science Calendar outlines the procedure for adjusting grades. It states explicitly that “the departmental review committee, through the Chair, and the Faculty review committee, through the Dean, have the right…to adjust marks where there is an obvious and unexplained discrepancy between the marks submitted and the perceived standards of the Faculty.” Students take note: administrators have the right to change the grade you earned if they don’t like it. And there is nothing you can do about it.

Several important issues are raised here, including the autonomy of our instructors. As U of T students, we’ve all heard the adage that at Harvard, if a professor gives out too many C’s, she has to go before a committee to defend her grading policy. At U of T, the inverse holds true: if a professor gives out too many A’s, she has to go before a committee to defend her methods. This could cue a discussion about our inferiority complex, but more importantly, it demonstrates that professors are not truly in control of the grades they hand out. Concerns about “Faculty standards” outweigh worries about an instructor’s professional judgment, eroding the fundamental relationship between teacher and student on which a university is built.

The premise that the grade you earn should be the grade you get is perfectly fair. Alterations to earned grades, whether they are inflated or deflated, are faulted in both the simplest sense—students do not receive what they have earned—and in the sense of the long-term value of a university education. If marks are no longer based solely on a student’s performance as evaluated by a professor, it breaks down that fundamental relationship.

For anyone who cares deeply about the future of higher education and about the University of Toronto specifically, grade alteration ought to provoke outrage. A university of this size invariably has a small army of administrative personnel, including many professors who have become administrators in one capacity or another. However, the threat that this army poses to the relationship between students and professors cannot be ignored. If the university has any hope of remaining relevant—and I’m sure that it does—we have to protect the autonomy of instructors and the rights of students. Among these rights ought to be the right to receive a fair, unadjusted grade reflecting your performance, not the perceived standards of the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Province orders York union back to work

Things are looking up for students at York, who may be back to school on Monday.

Last night at 10 p.m., the TA’s union announced it was dropping its lawsuit against the Ontario government for creating back-to-work legislation.

“We have done everything in our power to stand up for the quality and accessibility of education at York in this round of negotiations but, for now, it’s time to get our students back to class,” said CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley.

Bill 145, “York University Labour Disputes Resolution Act,” will have its third reading today at 10:30 a.m. The soon-to-be-defeated union is holding a rally at the same time to “celebrate and honour all that we have done and achieved over 85 days of strike,” according to its website.

On Sunday, Queen’s Park held a special sitting to propose the bill. After the NDP blocked the first reading, the bill needed a second and third reading. Had it passed at the first reading, students would have already returned to class.

Once approved, the bill will need royal assent by the Lieutenant Governor, followed by a 24-hour period before students can return to class.

York’s last strike record was some 76 days, which took place in 2000-2001.

The union, which represents 3,300 striking employees, warned it would continue pursuing negotiations in the future.

“York has never been committed to the process,” Shipley told The Varsity. “There was no deadlock here. There was simply one side that refused to bargain.”

York’s struggle is seen as a prelude to a possible province-wide university strike in 2010 that would affect 330,000 students.

CUPE has worked to synchronize most of its Ontario university contracts to expire next year. This raises the possibility that multiple university unions will unite in labour negotiations and collaborate on a strike if dissatisfied.

Although some CUPE unions only represent secondary staff, such as food and custodial workers, others, including U of T and Ryerson, represent teaching assistants and contract faculty.

The York Federation of Students has faced criticism for siding with CUPE. YFS recently offered all 50,000 undergrads $100 each as part of a relief fund and is petitioning university officials to refund students for lost tuition.

The union also launched the “Don’t Pay a Cent” campaign, urging students not to pay any fees, although the university had already postponed payment deadlines until classes resume. Their constituents are way ahead of them. “I do not feel represented by Osman and Co. so will I get my membership fee back?” wrote Amrisha Sharma in the York Strike Info Facebook group.

A class-action lawsuit was announced Sunday against York University, on the basis of violating the Consumer Protection Act.

The strike, which started Nov. 6, has been a source of much media attention, generating over 50 Facebook groups. Endless demonstrations have taken place, including a Tuesday march from the Ministry of Labour to Queen’s Park where four people were charged for assaulting and obstructing police.

Shipley said the arrested “were victims of police incitement” who have since been released.

With files from Saron Ghebressellassie

Pie in the sky

Nothing pierces the veneer of the powerful like a cranberry crumble

As you might have guessed, Wikipedia defines “pieing” as the simple act of throwing a pie at someone. But there’s meaning behind the dollop of strawberry rhubarb staining the corporate bad guy’s sleeve, or the apple cobbler soaring onto an elevated podium. Originating from slapstick comedy, pieing is now used for political purposes—a relatively harmless way for the powerless to express political angst.

Lately, the practice has made a comeback. Recent victims have included rebellious English journalist Jeremy Clarkson, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, one-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and writer David Horowitz. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was creamed just before presenting a speech to Brown University.

While pastry-hurling may be undignified, it serves as a statement more than a criminal act. The cranberry crumble is not hurled with the intention of bodily damage, but as a symbol of absurdity—a way of laughing in the face of the powers that be.

Pieing is activism. It urges members of congress to make choices that benefit the majority. It disrupts a speech, exposing the shadowy speaker for what he or she really is. The act of throwing a pie is not a personal attack. It is an attack on hubris, corruption, and greed. The shame it causes to politicians can be constructive: it can motivate authorities to change their behaviour. Indeed, pieing exposes lies, misdeeds, and injustices by harnessing disorder. How delicious.

U of T to buy back planetarium

As proof of changing times, a property given away in 1967 now costs $22 million. U of T announced on Monday that it is buying and developing the planetarium south of the Royal Ontario Museum as part of an ongoing expansion of the St. George campus.

The McLaughlin Planetarium was given to the ROM from U of T in 1967, free of charge. Since 1995, the building has been closed to the public and used as office and storage space. Though there has been considerable interest in the location, all development projects so far have been stifled.

The first major commercial proposal for the space in recent years was withdrawn after public opposition that then-director of the ROM William Thorsell called “too deep and broad” to defeat. Eighteen months later a 46-storey condominium tower was proposed. U of T’s decision to buy the building officially marks the termination of any such plan.

Some of the strongest criticism of a residential project came from the university. There is speculation that it played a significant role in stalling the various development projects, although until now the university has not expressed interest in the location.

President David Naylor called the situation “a win-win for U of T, the ROM, and the public,” claiming that “the acquisition will deliver long-term benefits to our students and our community and provide much-needed room for the expansion of U of T’s academic facilities.” The specific use of the site remains undetermined. University spokesperson Robert Steiner said the land would ease the “massive space crunch at the St. George campus.”

VIC411: from ‘Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature’ to ‘Natures of Documentary’

Courses often change their designations while maintaining a more or less consistent syllabus, but never to my knowledge has a course maintained its designation while completely changing the course material. Until now, that is. Graduating literary and film students, as well as curious students like myself, signed up for VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature during the summer. We looked forward to a course that was highly praised by those who had taken it in the past. Unbeknownst to us, and much to our dismay, someone had decided that VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature was to be VIC411: Natures of Documentary. This someone made the change without notifying the students enrolled, telling departments cross-listing the course, or even updating the information on ROSI (not that ROSI is by any means reliable.) Today the course still appears under the designation, VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, on ROSI. Not even the slightest effort was made on behalf of graduating students, not to mention students taking the course to fulfill a program requirement.

The only alert to undergrads about the change was far from sufficient: an update to the one paragraph course description on the Victoria College website. It was as if the department had tried not to freak out students by announcing the sudden and rather drastic changes. The course was renamed Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature: Natures of Documentary, yet the syllabus makes no reference to either postmodernist theories or literature. Not only that, but no other department/program website where the course was cross-listed was updated, meaning that the departments partnered with Victoria College had not been notified of the change either. The Cinema Studies Institute has not recognized the change, despite the course being part of its Category D: Interdisciplinary Courses.

This lack of communication is not only disrespectful, it is incomprehensible. The matter was not discussed or negotiated with students, the major stakeholders. The administration covered their tracks with a disclaimer: “All course descriptions are subject to change”.

Part of our frustration is that we do not understand the reason for the changes. Students were told that the course was modified because Julian Patrick, the professor teaching Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, is on sabbatical. According to the regularly updated Victoria College website, Julian Patrick is currently teaching courses both at Victoria College and in the English Department, which means he is not on sabbatical. If a professor is unavailable to teach a course, for whatever reason, the course should either be cancelled or a replacement professor should be recruited—to teach the same course. This is not only a matter of miscommunication, but deliberate misinformation.