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Interview / Alison Hearn

Interview / Alison Hearn

[Adela Talbot / Western News]

Tell us about yourself. What are your teaching and research interests?

I’m an associate professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University in London, Ontario. My research focuses on television, social media, and new forms of labour and economic value. I have also written about the university and the structural changes it has gone through over the last several decades. I’ve been interested in the university as a cultural and political space for a long time.

Last year, Western University made the headlines after the Ontario Sunshine List revealed president Amit Chakma earned nearly $1 million salary in one year, later known as “Chakmagate”. How did faculty respond?

Well, news about Chakma’s double dip spread fast after the release of the Sunshine List. I think it’s fair to say that faculty members were really angry, and there was real outrage right across the campus community in general. Coincidentally, a general meeting of the faculty association was scheduled just after the list was published. I was the faculty association president at the time, and at least two to three times more members showed up to that meeting than usual. At the meeting, a member from the floor moved that the association hold a no-confidence vote in the university president and the board of governors chair, which we did and 94% of our members voted non-confidence.

Was it all about the money?

Our concern was not about the money per se, but about what the president’s million dollar payout signified — a massive disconnect between the views of senior administration and the board, and the realities we were all facing on the ground every day. Chakma’s double dip was so egregiously out of step with what everyone else was experiencing on campus, we saw it as symptomatic of a real erosion of collegial governance. Collegiality had clearly withered to such an extent that the president and board really believed no one would object to the payout. They thought we would swallow it quietly.

Why do you say that?

These days, faculty are so busy and stres­sed, many don’t have the energy to get involved, or they feel as though service isn’t valued anymore so they don’t step up. Because senior administrators tend to want to run the show in a top down way, those faculty members who want to participate often feel dismissed and alienated. They think “what’s the point of serving on committees when the administration just wants a rubber stamp? My voice doesn’t matter.” But, amazingly, the campus came together to speak out against Chakmagate because the contradictions were just too obvious to ignore. Of course the issues Chakmagate revealed are not unique to Western. They exist at every university across the country.

In your view, what were some of the most significant lessons learned from last year’s governance scandal?

Never assume, always mobilize. Never decide that you know in advance what people believe, or that people are not ready to act. What I discovered was a common thread among my colleagues. Everyone just wants to do the very best job they can, and everyone is dealing with “austerity” conditions on the ground every day. It took Chakma’s bad decision to illustrate the contradictions of “austerity” — it exists for some, but not for others. Chakmagate also showed that faculty, students and staff really are committed to the university, really want to be involved, and really do care about having their voices heard.

Is there a future for collegial governance?

Some say that unions have come to supplant traditional collegial governance structures, like senates; they argue senates can’t be fixed and they blame unions for it. I disagree. Unions didn’t kill collegial governance. Bad management and wrong-headed priorities are killing collegial governance. Today, faculty need to get involved in senate and their union. Administrators like to hold themselves above accountability, as they demand accountability from everyone else. Faculty associations need to hold them to account, as do members of senate.

How can such accountability be restored on university campuses?

To restore collegial governance, we need to change the culture. Everyone across the university needs to recommit to its pro­cesses, and work towards revamping governance structures like senates by making them as representative and democratic as possible. They can start by working to fairly include all academic staff — tenured, contract faculty, and librarians and archi­vists. Administrators need to vociferously support collegial governance. Deans and colleagues should value and respect faculty who participate in senate. The faculty union should encourage a robust governance structure and make sure their members are properly treated when they engage in these forms of service. In the end, collegial governance and academic freedom go hand in hand; you can’t really have one without the other. Robust collegial governance protects academic freedom by ensuring that the people who are directly engaged in the core mission of teaching and research get to determine the parameters of that mission, and academic freedom protects the rights of faculty members to speak out when they fear the university’s core mission is being threatened.

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