Late last Tuesday (November 8th, 2016: election night in the USA), I flew in to Columbus, Ohio to attend the 41st annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which is the big higher education conference for North America. Or, in other words, it’s the American higher education conference (we have a much smaller one in Canada). I was mainly going to attend the pre-conference of the Council on International Higher Education, and then to see what the current hot topics in higher ed were south of the border.
Rumour had it that the Democratic Party was headquartered at our hotel. Upon walking through the doors just before midnight, however, it was obvious that there wasn’t any partying going on. My colleagues and I compulsively checked our phones for election-result updates for a few hours but I fell asleep before the results were called. I therefore woke up to a new reality in the United States, as did most people around the world.
Colleagues were visibly rattled. Stunned. Shell-shocked. That unpredicted election result sent palpable waves of bewilderment and despair throughout the conference. Dismay ran deep.
As a foreigner at a by and large U.S. conference, I observed and tried to make sense of it all as best as I could. I also reflected on our own national context here in Canada. But most of all, I listened. I listened closely to what was being said by our U.S. colleagues in the wake of this seismic political shift. What struck me—and fellow international scholars—most, however, was the deep sense of alienation we felt.
Yes, this is a U.S. moment, and yes, this is a largely U.S. conference, but the discourses were not only U.S.-centric (hence the alienation), they were Democratic-Party-centric. And that was what was most deeply unsettling. I am by no stretch of the imagination a Trump supporter – nor were my international colleagues – but there was absolutely zero space in the conference for anybody who may have voted for the Republican candidate. And given the number of attendees, it is quite plausible that a few U.S. colleagues in attendance had voted Republican. They must have felt a very deep sense of isolation.
What I wondered most about, however, was the following: if there, at the conference, there was no space for colleagues—fellow higher-ed scholars—to engage in dialogue around different electoral choices or leanings, what must the climate be like on campuses across the United States today? Is there truly a space for all voices to express themselves and be heard?
This, in turn, naturally led me to think about our own campuses here in Canada. We like to think that we’re a tolerant, multicultural society accepting of all, but when was the last time we took a step back to think about and observe whether or not all voices get equal airtime on our campuses today? What are we, as educators, doing to ensure that dialogue is happening in our classrooms, to ensure that all perspectives are presented and put forth safely, without being shouted down or descending into condemnation, stereotyping, mutual loathing, vitriol, or vicious personal attacks? This may also involve playing devil’s advocate in contentious issues in order to get to deeper meanings and a deeper understanding.
Similarly, what are we as scholars doing in our journals to ensure that same calm balance? Or on our academic panels? Or in our symposia?
In other words, have we taken a moment to really look long and hard, and to think about whose voices are (now) heard and whose are (now) silenced?
As we well know, and as history has shown us time and time again, silencing voices doesn’t make them disappear; it marginalizes them and drives them underground, only to have them explode later to catastrophic effects.
Our campuses and our classrooms, our journals as well as our academic fora are privileged places and spaces for difficult conversations. This is where we are meant to hone and instill critical thinking skills. Where we are meant to listen and learn, to grapple with difficult concepts, to confront challenging ideas head on, and perhaps most importantly, to try to come to a sense of understanding.
If we lose the ability to dialogue, to exchange ideas, to welcome dissenting viewpoints, and to listen calmly and actively to each other—really listen—how can we hope to move forward together peacefully in the future?
In the coming days and months, I hope we all take a moment to open up spaces for dialogue, not only for our students but also for ourselves. For isn’t that also part of our role as educators, to lead by example? If we don’t make the effort to engage in dialogue amongst ourselves, how can we expect our students to do so, either now or in the future?
By Merli Tamtik
At the University of Manitoba, a strike is on. Starting November 1, all faculty members, librarians and full time instructors belonging to the University of Manitoba Faculty Union (UMFA) are striking for a fair and reasonable collective agreement. Classes have been cancelled; all advising and administrative tasks are put on hold. Even accessing the university’s learning management system is seen as crossing the picket line.
Issues at Hand
The collective agreement between UMFA and the university expired in March 2016. Ongoing negotiations for a new collective agreement have not led to any significant outcomes. The collective bargaining focused initially around fair wages and salary increases, as the University of Manitoba (UofM) has one of the lowest salary ranks among tenure track professors of the U15 universities in Canada
Salary negotiations were put aside a few days ago when the new conservative provincial government took a strong stance, recommending UMFA members to return to work and asking for a one year extension to existing contracts at 0% in order to stabilize public sector compensation levels. That was seen as a direct interference to the university’s autonomy and the constitutionally protected process of collective bargaining.
The University of Manitoba’s President Dr. David Barnard and UMFA President Dr. Mark Hudson issued a joint communication to the UofM community about this dramatic development. Provincial intrusion enhanced the conflict between parties and eventually led to an impasse in negotiations, despite the fact that a third-party mediator was pulled in to reconcile the differences.
With money off the table, non-monetary issues have taken centre stage. Gradually increasing workloads, larger class enrolments, strict performance indicators to measure suitability for tenure and increasing management power are some of the core bargaining topics.
These issues are not new, surprising or unfamiliar to any faculty member working in post-secondary education across Canada. However, they raise worrying questions about the overall quality of education students receive. It was the expiration of the collective agreement that provided a small window of opportunity for UofM faculty members to voice those concerns and create greater awareness among the public.
What’s It Really Like At the Picket Line?
The night before the strike, everyone was assigned picket line duties at several locations around the main entrance roads to the university. I was scheduled for an early morning shift from 7-9 am. This shift was critical as it was the first shift of the first strike day and there was a lot of media coverage. It was also the time people were driving to work and potentially had the most impact in spreading the word about the issues at hand.
I was grateful that it wasn’t raining (like the day before) and still November with pretty mild temperatures (+5C) for Winnipeg. Everybody was given picket signs and we lined up on both sides of the road. When our picket captain, a professor in biological sciences, hollered with his deep bass voice “LINE ON!”, we marched into the road with the signs, walking in circles. That stopped the morning traffic for a few minutes and flyers were passed around. On the captain’s mark “LINE OFF!”, we backed up to the pedestrian path, waved to the cars and let passing traffic through. Security cars were present and observing developments.
It was crucial not to block the roads for too long, as then the traffic would have been reorganized by bypassing us, which would have made the picket line pointless. The reactions from the public were divided. Most people were really sympathetic, for example honking their horns or giving thumbs up to show their support. Others were upset, driving by with stony faces.
Unexpectedly, garbage was thrown at me from a rolled-down car window. My colleagues started shouting Assault! Assault! and the drivers’ license plate was recorded by UMFA members. Here’s ‘Friendly Manitoba’ for you, I thought. Yet I quickly had to reassess my feelings after a random car passed by handing us a canister of coffee, hot chocolate and two bags of donuts.
While regulations, policies and agreements are very important and provide the general framework for one’s work, it is really the people that create and shape the distinct culture and climate at a university.
My experiences with working at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, have been only positive since joining in January 2016. The collegiality and support among faculty members makes it a truly great place to be. As soon as I started work, I was informally assigned faculty mentors who have provided me continuous support in my new role. We recently hired another assistant professor and the two of us benefit from regular monthly meetings with our mentor. This is a great opportunity to discuss a variety of topics, get strategic institution-specific advice and calm our anxieties as we start building our tenure dossiers.
Teaching assignments are made on a ‘last come, first choice’ basis in our area group. When the time to assign courses came, the newest and least experienced faculty (me!) was given the first choice, to make sure I had the opportunity to teach courses I feel most comfortable with and not getting the ‘leftover’ courses nobody wants to teach.
Relationships with the administration have also been positive for me. I was surprised to receive an invitation to meet personally with the Vice-Provost, Academic. Meetings were scheduled with Associate Vice-Presidents Research and Partnerships, so that I could introduce my research to them and they could talk about different services and grant opportunities available by the university. Gaining federal grants is not easy and UofM has provided support that helps to build one’s research agenda locally to then become successful in federal grant competitions. We all met with the Ethics Coordinator, as the rules are more rigid and extensive here.
It is those little things that count the most. For example, all of our recent hires in the Faculty are newcomers hailing from out of the province. In order to make us more welcome, our Dean invited us to his home for a dinner one weekend. I was also invited to attend the University’s Homecoming Dinner to network and meet new people. As we are still exploring the city and the neighbourhoods of Winnipeg, our faculty secretaries have made it their personal mission to take us out to lunch once a month each time to a different place, so we can really start enjoying the city through its delicious food.
As the strike continues, it is not only the faculty members that are going to feel the pressures of strike. The students find themselves in difficult situations. Many need final course credits to graduate from their programs. International students are in danger of losing their full-time student status if the strike becomes a lengthy one. It could prove to make a serious dent on the university’s reputation.
Yet my own graduate students have been extremely understanding. Most support the strike, sending me ‘Hang in there!’ messages and in solidarity choosing not to cross the picket line. The negotiations, supported by provincially assigned conciliator, continue this week. Until then, the picket line stays strong.