Could U of T implement unilateral changes to course evaluations without consent?

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Photo: flickr/OFL Communications Department

As CUPE 3902 Unit 1 approaches the fifth week of its strike, the shadow of academic continuity hangs over the University of Toronto.

On March 23, 2015, undergraduate students at U of T received an email from Dean of Arts and Science, David Cameron. The message informed students about the ongoing nature of CUPE3902's strike and claims that the university will possibly assign "general letter grades (A, B, C, etc.) or CR/NCR in place of numeric grades" where teaching assistant (TA) and course instructor (CI) labour remains absent.

The messaging was confusing for many undergraduates: does U of T have the power to implement unilateral changes across the institution without the consent of its professors, TAs and students?

What Cameron's email elides is the University's "Policy on Academic Continuity," a document that enables autonomous action on the part of the U of T administration. The policy, implemented shortly after the settlement of CUPE 3902's last contract in 2012, would make possible the unorthodox methods of evaluation proposed by the Dean's email.

The Provost's office can declare a university-wide disruption, or it can announce disruption in a division, a department, and even an individual course. A state of emergency has yet to be announced, but Cameron's email offers incentive for reflection on the existence of academic continuity policy and whether it has a place in effective university administration.

Undergraduate students at U of T have already expressed serious concerns about continuity measures, citing concerns over how CR/NCR grades will be assessed by top graduate and professional programs.

In as open letter hand-delivered to Dean Cameron, students expressed discontent unfairness over the lack of choice in the policy, feeling that complicity with continuity policies makes students into strike-breakers against their will. Students at U of T pay top dollar for their education but are offered no say in how continuity policy will be rolled out.

Personally, I am deeply concerned about my second-year English students, the majority of whom will be entering the senior portion of their undergraduate career next fall. How will they fare in upper year literature courses without meaningful feedback and direction on their final essays?

The University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) has stated its wish to remain neutral during the strike, and has reminded its members that altering syllabi or course requirements in struck courses -- those courses affected by the CUPE Unit 1 strike where TAs or CIs are legally withholding their work -- constitutes taking sides with the administration against the members of CUPE Unit 1. Imposition of the academic continuity policy would directly undermine the neutrality stance that UTFA has recommended for its members and seriously weaken CUPE's bargaining power.

Finally, the use of the policy risks irrevocable damage to employee-employer relations at U of T.

In the preamble to the Academic Continuity Policy, the university states that it "recognizes that events such as pandemic health emergencies, natural disasters, prolonged service interruptions, and ongoing labour disputes are potential threats to academic continuity." The inclusion of labour disputes as grounds for a declaration of disruption obscures the university's role in the production of strikes. The Provost's office cannot prevent a health pandemic, but it can avert a prolonged strike by engaging in good faith bargaining with its employees.

Unlike disasters, the current labour disruption at U of T had a transparent timeline, and the university knew exactly when CUPE 3902's contract would expire and about CUPE's February 27 strike deadline. Yet in the preamble's framework, a legal labour action becomes as unpredictable and dangerous as a hurricane.

We should not forget that the administration at U of T is a responsible party in the current labour dispute. We need their help to end the strike, not through reactive measures like academic continuity but through responsive engagement at bargaining table.

Make no mistake: academic continuity can guarantee completion of the school year only by robbing students of meaningful learning experiences. Implementation of academic continuity measures, whether through the declaration of a state of disruption or otherwise, damages U of T's reputation as a world-class institution.

Unilateral actions on the part of university administrations have the potential to be dangerously undemocratic in the context of labour disputes. The university's students, faculty and striking members have serious stakes in the decision to alter course evaluation and no emergency measure should silence their voices.

When the smoke from the strike clears, university members at all levels should lobby the administration to amend its continuity policy, as the damage it creates is far worse than the disruption it prevents. Retaining the "Academic Continuity Policy" gives the administration incontestable authority to act, but certain powers should not be boundless.

Cristina D'Amico is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Toronto. She is a proud member of CUPE 3902.

Photo: flickr/OFL Communications Department

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