As we stand on the cusp of a strike, the university is prepared to violate your freedom

Imagine for a moment that it is January 2012. Not a far trip back, surely, but an important one in light of the ongoing labour dispute between the University of Toronto administration and graduate teaching assistants.

President Naylor and the departing provost Cheryl Misak will be gone soon enough, giving them little time to prepare in advance of the next labour contract negotiations, and the inevitable re-emergence of strike threats. Having seen the dire situation at York University unfold into a period of complete disruption, an opportunity arises to prevent the same from occurring at U of T in the future during a period of relative calm, without the entire university looking over the administration’s shoulders.

Brad Evoy. PRIYANKA SHARMA/THE VARSITY

Brad Evoy. PRIYANKA SHARMA/THE VARSITY

But what did they do exactly? In their desire to suffocate future labour actions and provide potential options for other 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 I would argue that this policy creates a situation wherein the academic freedom of our whole community is put in jeopardy and the basic understandings of labour relations are tossed to the wind.

This policy states that it exists to “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 the Academic Board or through sheer force of will on the part of the provost.

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 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 some instructors cannot fulfill certain academic duties, that local administration “identify an alternate instructor.”

Mind that, in such a supposed state, the university will have no problem stepping upon students’ rights either. Gone is your right to class consensus to changes in your syllabi as a result of this policy. 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.”

Through its ponderously vague statements, we are led to think that all of this policy’s aforementioned capabilities hang upon the idea that the university would never act in bad faith. 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. I call on the members of the university’s Governing Council to amend this policy: clarify language and remove its ability to be used in civil procedures, like labour disputes. If this policy stands, we’re waiting precariously until the provost dares us to simply watch as U of T’s administration tears academic freedom apart.

Brad Evoy is a master’s student in the History of Education at OISE. He is also a former member of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s Executive and Litigation Committees, as well as the former Students with Disabilities Constituency Commissioner for CFS-Ontario in 2012–2013.

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