Saturday, January 31, 2009

Atheists, Bus Ads and the United Church

The atheist bus ad campaign, originally launched in London as a protest against fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christian ads, is coming to Toronto. As a "recovering Catholic", I find this campaign to be a lot of fun. If nothing else, I think that atheists and agnostics have as much of a right to promote their world view as those with other belief systems. I don't think that there was a pressing need for this type of ad in Toronto, which is pretty tolerant and diverse, but I still find it amusing.

All that being said, I was tickled to see a full-page version of this ad in the centre of this morning's Globe and Mail front section.

The ad is being run by, which is a discussion board/webpage sponsored by the United Church of Canada. I like the optimistic attitude to religion that is promoted by the ad, and by the UCC more generally. My partner was raised in the United Church, and when I see ads like this one, I realize that I'd probably be a lot less anti-religion if the church of my childhood had been as open, accepting and positive in orientation as the United Church appears to be. These ads haven't changed my world view, but if people are going to be religious, I'd prefer that it be in this spirit.

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Recessions and universities

During recessions, more people tend to enroll in universities, both to improve their credentials and to wait out the tough economic times in a (hopefully) stimulating environment. At most universities across Ontario (with the notable exception of York), first year applications are up - by about 6% in the case of my institution, the University of Guelph.

This week, York University's contract faculty and teaching assistants were legislated back to work. The University of Toronto's contract faculty have struck a tentative deal on Thursday. While I did not agree with all of the York union's demands, both they and the university's president pointed to one crucial issue which is being overlooked. University funding is stagnating, as enrollment continues to rise. Promised increases in university funding, which were supposed to keep pace with inflation, have been halted by Dalton McGuinty's government. This is particularly troublesome when you consider that this is the same government that encouraged Ontario's universities to hire more faculty in order to grow their graduate programs. They did, and now the promised funding isn't coming through.

At the same time, the federal government, which also contributes to university funding (especially through scholarships and research funds) is also causing headaches. While the spend-o-rama federal budget included funds for capital improvement, it cut back on funding to the major research granting councils, and scrapped funding to the Genome project.

What does all of this mean? Well, unless one level of government or the other decides to think about the long-term implications of their decisions, it means that universities will be filled with more and more students, who are increasingly taught in nice buildings with massive lecture halls to accommodate huge class sizes. They will be increasingly taught by part-time faculty who don't have time to do research because their teaching load is so high. The lucky faculty who do land tenure-track jobs will also find themselves with larger class sizes, and fewer teaching assistants to help them grade and run tutorial groups. And they will be competing for an ever-shrinking pool of research funding - assuming that they have time to squeeze in a bit of research in between grading for the hundreds of students they teach each term.

I'm not optimistic that the next provincial budget will include increased university funding. Although more and more Ontarians are sending their children to university and college, post-secondary education is the poor cousin of the provincial budget, falling far behind health and primary/secondary education. Because its benefits are long-term, it probably won't be seen as a priority area for a "stimulus package", and it's not going to be perceived as a vote-getter. This is unfortunate, because the huge cohort of students flooding our universities will not be receiving the best education that they could.

Perhaps I'll be surprised, and Dalton McGuinty will show some long-term vision, and use the recession to improve how institutions are funded, with a view to the future. But judging by past experience at the provincial level, and the fingers-in-the-dyke approach to crisis management being demonstrated in Ottawa, I'm sadly not optimistic.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two big labour disputes - two nasty strikes

I've been following two strikes that have been causing major headaches in Ontario for the last few months. In Ottawa, the OC Transpo bus strike is now heading into week six - I arrived in the city for a research visit on day one of the strike, and got a first hand taste both of the mass disruption that it's causing and of the belligerence of the city's mayor. The union recently rejected the city's latest offer in a vote mandated by the federal Labour Minister. Meanwhile, in Toronto, CUPE 3903, the union representing York University's teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty has just rejected the university's latest offer in a vote mandated by the Ontario government. The initial response from the university is far from conciliatory. York's strike is now into week eleven.

I am not familiar with every single issue on the table in these two contract disputes, and I've long been hesitant to post anything on either issue. However, in both cases the two opposing parties seem to have dug in their heels - they aren't even at the negotiating tables anymore. Frankly, I'm worried for the union members. I think they're going to be in for a rough ride in the next few weeks as the toll of being limited to strike pay gets worse. And I don't think that either union is going to win public sympathy for their wage demands during a hotly-discussed recession.

While the York union's demand for increased full-time faculty positions is a serious one - more and more universities are relying on overworked short-term contract teaching faculty - the manner in which they have presented their case has alienated the permanent faculty members who might otherwise have been counted on for support. Automatic conversions (as the demand was initially presented, although this has been modified) of long-term teaching faculty to permanent status on the basis of seniority will never get the support of university faculty who have had the mantras of "publish or perish" and a meritocratic open hiring system drilled into them. I also am not completely convinced that university administrations want to move in this direction, but rather believe that they are at least partly forced in this direction by the governments that (under)fund them.

What's the next step? In both cases, I think a resolution is still weeks away. In both cases, public pressure for the respective governments (federal for OC Transpo, provincial for York) to legislate the striking members back to work will increase daily. I suspect that the smart move for each union would be to quickly present a comprehensive package to their employers - minus the most contentious ideological issues - in the hopes of salvaging a deal that is at least as good as the one currently on the table. I don't think that they will fare better in arbitration, which favors the status quo, and certainly not in a back-to-work legislation scenario. Unfortunately for them, the deal is stacked against the unions at the best of times, and a recession is not the best of times.

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CanCon on Inauguration Day

I've been holding my breath for the past few weeks, counting down the final hours of the Bush presidency. Now that it's almost over (a few hours more, by my count), I'm about ready for my first post of the year. And, in the spirit of cross-border relations, it's on the CBC's Canadian content playlist selected by listeners to introduce Barack Obama to Canadian music.

I don't feel competent to comment on the French-language tracks on the list. But for pete's sake, the English-language list is like a screaming ad saying "CBC's listeners are old". You'd be tempted to think that good Canadian music stopped being produced in the early 1980s. Granted, it does include a track by the Arcade Fire, and I'm pleased to see the Arrogant Worms' classic "Canada is Really Big". But "Rise Up" by the Parachute Club? The only place that song gets listened to is at gay pride picnics - and usually with a profound sense of camp or irony. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the contributions of Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Rush, the Guess Who (and so on), and it would have been criminal to leave Joni Mitchell of the list. But that list clearly skews to an older demographic - especially when the more recent tracks include songs by Michael Buble and Diana Krall.

I am fully aware that there is a raging debate swirling around whether CBC should be trying to target a younger audience, or whether it is best to cater to the audience that they have. But it does seem to me that if the CBC is trying to re-brand itself as an all-ages network, this voter-driven "best of Canada" list might not have been the best way to change its image.

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