Last week, U of T administration decided to reverse a policy that would have required all instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) to be available for in-person programming in the fall, even for those teaching entirely online.

The decision to roll back the policy came after a meeting with CUPE 3902, the union that represents contract academic workers at U of T, including TAs and student and postdoctoral instructors. 

U of T expresses regret

The policy, which was outlined in an email from Labour Relations, Division of Human Resources & Equity titled “Update on Hiring CUPE 3902 Unit 1 TAs and Course Instructors,” would have required TAs and course instructors working on an academic contract to be “situated within a geographical proximity that would allow for attendance on campus,” even in the case that “the employee will perform some or all of their duties remotely.”

The email further explained that if the employee could not meet this condition within a month of their contract start date, their department would have been required to rescind their offer of employment because the employee failed to meet “fundamental conditions.” 

University officials met with CUPE 3902 on August 18, after which U of T issued a “clarification” on the policy. In an email to The Varsity, Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat expressed regret for the “confusion caused by the memo of August 13, 2020” and asserted that employees living in Canada will be able to work remotely, should their supervisor agree that the work can be completed remotely. 

The university will work on a case-by-case basis with those living outside of Canada who cannot return due to the pandemic.

“The University’s intentions were, and continue to be, to balance supporting employees by offering flexibility to work remotely during the pandemic with legal requirements in various jurisdictions,” Hannah-Moffat wrote. 

Criticism of policy

The Varsity spoke with Amy Conwell, a medieval studies PhD candidate and the chair of CUPE 3902, about the reversal policy. Conwell said that she was informed of the policy through members of the union who found it alarming. They immediately reached out to schedule a meeting with the university to discuss the policy.

Conwell felt that the policy “would discriminate against, particularly, our international members who tend to be especially precarious, often racialized, and more financially unstable.” 

“We got a lot of support from department chairs, which was really heartening and fantastic,” Conwell said. “Clearly, they put a lot of work into ensuring their programs can go forward and ensuring their students can be supported and have work, even if they have to be remote because of the pandemic.”

A physics professor at U of T, A.W. Peet, agreed with the university’s decision to reverse the policy but added that “it would have been better if they had had a better policy to begin with.” Peet also said that this and other policies raise “general questions about how various workers on campus are treated.” 

Concerns about the policy creating unequal conditions for those who may have financial concerns or are facing travel restrictions is compounded with general safety concerns about in-person activity on campus this fall. 

A petition from six U of T unions has been circulating, asking for the university to move courses entirely online due to concerns about safety from the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think the professors should speak up in solidarity with them,” Peet said, in reference to the petition. 

Graduate students, TAs still face uncertainty

Though the policy requiring TAs and course instructors to be in geographical proximity to the campus was rescinded, some graduate students have expressed other concerns about the university’s reopening plan for the fall semester.

In an interview with The Varsity, Morgan Vallieres, a second-year PhD candidate in chemistry, described the university’s communications with graduate students as “ambiguous.” “They don’t want to answer any questions specifically, in case they’re held liable, but they obviously expect you to follow the rules once they lay them down, which in this case, obviously, was just that they were forcing people to live close to campus,” Vallieres said.

Vallieres planned to work as a TA in the fall to cover her expenses, as many PhD candidates do. However, according to Vallieres, the chemistry department announced that it would need fewer TAs, meaning that many PhD candidates do not yet know if they will have TA positions in the fall. Vallieres relies heavily on the stipend from working as a TA for her rent and other expenses. 

“I settled some stuff with my supervisor, but it’s still not really in a contract, currently, as to how much I’m going to be getting paid starting in September. So, I think that the main anxiety is that you’re signing a contract not really knowing where you’re going to stand come January, even,” Vallieres said.