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Tenure or tightropes: Why a student campaign is protesting U of T’s faculty employment policies

No Precarious Employment group describes university labour policies as “intentionally nefarious”
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITYProfessors at OISE protest nefarious employment practices
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITYProfessors at OISE protest nefarious employment practices

Contract lecturers and non-tenure-track professors have often faced termination, and the No Precarious Employment campaign, organized by students at OISE’s Social Justice Education (SJE) department, aims to battle this. 

The movement fights for the rights of several professors at the SJE, including Vannina Sztainbok, who expected a contract renewal after seven years as a contract professor, but was not granted one. 

Sztainbok was terminated after a seven-year career at OISE 

On April 29, 2021, the SJE informed Vannina Sztainbok that her role as a contract professor at OISE had come to an end. Sztainbok had taught 12 courses at the SJE, three of which she had originally designed, alongside doing service work and supervising seven master’s theses to completion. Sztainbok was in the middle of supervising two master’s theses when her contract was not renewed.

A spokesperson of the No Precarious Employment campaign described Sztainbok as a widely-regarded favourite among SJE students. A number of students immediately protested her departure from the university,  but their concerns were abated when SJE stated that Sztainbok might be hired again the year after. 

However, in a welcome email to all the SJE students that fall, the department mentioned that Sztainbok “may or may not join us this year.” By then, the department had already decided not to rehire her. By spring 2022 — spokespeople of the No Precarious Employment campaign say that — there was no indication that Sztainbok would be rehired for the 2022–2023 academic year.

The spokespeople of the campaign also urge that any faculty member who is not on track to tenure may be subject to Sztainbok’s fate. This past March, Sztainbok called out the university’s policies on part-time employment in a public statement, and a group of SJE students launched the No Precarious Employment campaign. This campaign urges the university to amend its employment policies and to reinstate Sztainbok. It also requests that the university grant her a study leave for her research and a minimum of $10,000 in funding.

As Sztainbok noted, the SJE was just following the rules when it decided not to renew her contract. That in itself, she argues, is the problem: “I realize that my situation is not unique, but systemic… I guess people in my position are supposed to quietly go away, so as not to burn any bridges and avoid missing out on other precarious offers in the future.” 

U of T’s nefarious policies hurt part-time and contract lecturers

As per the university’s Policy and Procedures on Employment Conditions of Part-time Faculty, faculty members outside the tenure stream “should not expect continuation of the appointment” beyond two years, maximum; their contract may be renewed, but they may also be dismissed by the department without cause. 

On the other hand, a part-time member’s contract cannot be renewed beyond six consecutive years unless their department awards them continuing status — in which their contracts extend to four-year terms. As for how faculty might qualify for continuing status, they are “expected to have made achievements in teaching and research/scholarship during the course of their employment.” 

The No Precarious Employment campaign argues that these provisions are “intentionally nefarious.” Sztainbok explained in an email to The Varsity that, “despite the fact that my contract was 100 per cent teaching and service, and I was not eligible for grants or course releases, I was implicitly expected to have the same research productivity as faculty who had secure positions and lighter teaching loads. It was a catch-22. I was even told that I ‘focused too much on teaching.’” In other words, her contracted duties interfered with her ability to qualify for continuing status.

Furthermore, precarity surrounding contract employment can throw a wrench into the study plans of graduate students. “Every year, I had requests for supervision and I had to let students know that, due to my precarious position, I could not guarantee that I would be there the next year,” Sztainbok described. 

No Precarious Employment also flags the concerning politics of the university’s dependence on non-tenure faculty, noting that precarious employment disincentivizes academics from engaging in controversial work. Sheryl Nestel, who taught at OISE for 11 consecutive years before her contract was terminated without cause, echoed that concern. 

She explained that she had supervised a controversial Master of Arts thesis that was attacked in national media, and her contract was terminated shortly after. “I am not claiming a link between my termination and this event,” she wrote, “but it cannot be ruled out.” The university’s policy does state that faculty can appeal their dismissal if they believe their right to academic freedom is specifically being infringed. 

A U of T spokesperson told The Varsity that hiring decisions involve careful consideration of the department’s “academic needs” and “financial sustainability considerations.” They also declined to comment on the specific circumstances of professors’ dismissals, on the basis of privacy concerns. 

The campaign 

To protest the employment conditions of non-tenure track faculty, the No Precarious Employment campaign has developed a blast tool for users to send emails to university representatives. The tool provides a sample message, which argues that Sztainbok made important contributions to her department, and that her dismissal demonstrates the unjustly precarious nature of non-tenure employment. Users have the option to customize the message and send it to a selection of nine university representatives, from U of T President Meric Gertler to SJE Chair Njoki Wane. 

The university, including the OISE and SJE departments, has not acknowledged the No Precarious Employment campaign at this time, according to their spokesperson. The email blast tool was used 293 times as of September 3, with the organization’s goal set at 400.