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York University's Two Towers tell real story of TA strike

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At the sprawling campus of York University, in the far northern reaches of Toronto, there are two towers.

One is the Ross Building. Stretching to a height of nine stories, it overlooks the Scott Library, which nestles in its shadow. Arguably the heart of campus, it's full of classrooms, seminar rooms, faculty and departmental offices. The bottom floor is a feverish corridor of activity. Tables cram one beside the other, Computer Science Society here, Korean Culture Club there, a bustle of students and spirit. The Black Student Alliance sells cupcakes; the Women's Empowerment Club distributes pamphlets. The benches are full, so students sit on the floor, eating lunch, studying, talking philosophy or engineering. The press of bodies is echoed in the adjacent library, where an empty table or seat is never to be found after 9:00 a.m. or before 9:00 p.m., and where students cram shoulder to shoulder on the floors, negotiating a bit of sitting space to do their readings and sharing power outlets for their laptops. If a maximum capacity has been set by the fire department, it is exceeded on a routine basis.

Across campus stands the other tower: ten stories of glory that was originally known as the 'Research Tower' but recently re-dubbed 'Kaneff Tower'. Not because good old Mr. Kaneff paid for it; he donated to the Engineering Building that's under construction instead. But the Engineering Building already had a donor who out-bid Kaneff for the name, so the Research Tower was a sort of consolation prize (poor old humanities!). One wonders what Kaneff thinks of this, and whether he has in his possession a t-shirt that reads "I donated $5 million to York Engineering and all I got was this crummy social science research tower."

Only the tower is not crummy; it's pristine as a freshly scoured septic tank. It abounds with comfy sofas, fancy chairs, kitchenettes with working microwaves and massive seminar rooms with the latest intelligent walls and IT technology.

It's also routinely empty: all ten stories of it. If the fire department set a capacity for the building, it's never come remotely close.

Students are not welcome in this tower. The glass-walled lounges are locked (just to show students what comfy sofas they're not allowed to sit on); stairwell entryways inaccessible; and all the doors in the building automatically lock at 5:00 p.m. and weekends for those who don't have pass-cards. This shiny, clean, hi-tech erection is for administrators, along with the few research centres that cajoled their way into the tower's lower levels. You won't find students sitting on the floor, or even on the comfy sofas, because you simply won't find students. When a student slips into an elevator to attend a meeting in a research centre, the suit-clad bureaucrats stare in surprise and suspicion at the out-of-place, backpack-toting youth, and an awkward silence ensues.

The contrast between these two towers is a stark reflection of the misconceived priorities of today's universities. On the one hand, an upper strata of administration technocrats with ballooning salaries decked out in all the bureaucratic finery of a cabinet minister, absorb an astonishing amount of university (read: public) funding. On the other, far across campus students jostle for a bit of floor-space on which to eat their lunch, while their underpaid contract instructors and teaching assistants grade papers right next to them (undergrads, being friendly, and not thinking of themselves as cabinet ministers, are usually courteous enough to offer a bit of bench-space to their instructors wherever possible).

Of course, right now both towers are mostly empty; Kaneff Tower because it is always mostly empty, and Ross because there's a strike underway and classes have been cancelled. The disparity between the towers is symptomatic of why a strike is underway. Public funding – inadequate though it is – is disproportionately absorbed by an administrative bureaucracy that's unwilling to spend it on core priorities: teaching, research and students. This isn't isolated to York: teaching assistants at University of Toronto are on strike too. As Zane Schwartz wrote in Wednesday's Globe and Mail: "at U of T contract faculty and teaching assistants do 60 per cent of the teaching but make up 3.5 per cent of the budget."

To pinpoint the problems of a dysfunctional organization, one normally doesn't need to look much further than the people at the top. And the fact that York University's President Mamdouh Shoukri is the fifth-highest paid president in Canada reveals the scale of the problem (Macleans reported his salary as $494,431 in 2013). This is the president who's managed to provoke no less than two strikes during his tenure, and yet remains, inexplicably, the darling of York's Board of Governors.

Meanwhile, graduate teaching assistants and contract instructors who do most of the instruction eke out a precarious living which for many of them is below the poverty line. "But they earn $40 an hour!" declares an administrator, shaking his head woefully. Well yes, but when your hours are capped and you're only paid for a fraction of the work that you do, your annual salary still winds up below the poverty line.

Will there be a quick end to these strikes, so that the towers can return to their normal routine? The provincial government has made reassuring comments that in York's case, both sides are not far off. But government is playing a disingenuous role by pretending to be an objective intermediary and ignoring its own complicity. Yes, the university administration is irresponsible and intransigent. But the provincial government is to blame for the chronic under-funding of post-secondary education, which is rapidly destroying Ontario's aspirations to offer 'world-class' institutions. Ontario's universities are crumbling and their reputations in jeopardy.

What quality remains is thanks solely to the commitment and determination of those who are now on strike, and who care enough about the future of post-secondary education in this province to actually put themselves on the line to protect it.

Hans Rollman is a doctoral student in Gender, Feminist & Women's Studies at York University. He is a writer and editor with TheIndependent.ca, and has been published in a range of other publications including Briarpatch Magazine, PopMatters, and rabble.ca's UP! Labour series.



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