Brenda Austin-Smith is a film studies professor and head of the English, theatre, film & media department at the University of Manitoba. She served on the University of Manitoba senate executive and from 2003 to 2018 in a variety of roles with the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, including two terms as president. In 2014, she was elected as member-at-large on the CAUT executive and subsequently served as vice-president from 2016 to 2019. In May, CAUT Council delegates elected Austin-Smith as president.
You’ve said that prior to your service with UMFA and CAUT, you were an “academic union sceptic.” What changed your mind about union activism?
I was not at all sure that as a teaching assistant in an English department I really needed a union. What convinced me was listening to others’ stories, many of them international students, afraid that if they complained about their working conditions, or agitated for better wages, they would be deported. I was compelled by those stories and by others to join the organizing drive and walked all over campus, knocking on doors, visiting labs and asking other students to sign a union card. I’ve never forgotten the formative experience of face-to-face conversation with bargaining unit members. Talking to others who shared my conditions of work taught me an enduring lesson: the power of personal contact with individual union members.
As you became more involved with your union, you also actively participated on senate at the university. Why?
I had become dedicated to the concepts of academic freedom, collegial governance and the notion that universities play a critical role in society that must be protected. The participation on senate by faculty is important to protecting these ideals, gives voice to faculty as a constituency on campus, and affords one a platform from which to broadcast opinions and views that otherwise might be stifled. I always try to be creative in how I sum up issues because I think it helps observers visualize the points I’m trying to make. At a senate meeting I once accused the administration of setting faculties against one another as if in some version of The Hunger Games; I still hear that story told regularly around campus even though it’s many years later.
Moving forward, what do you see as key to successful organizing?
The ability to contact and connect with our members is even more important today. That is the heart of the organizing model that CAUT adopted a few years ago, and that I believe is crucial to meet the challenges in front of us right now: endless austerity, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on extramural and intramural speech. Another critical connection we must make is between the profit seeking that wrings every drop of value from the work of our precarious colleagues, and the profit-driven depletion of resources that threatens to make human life on earth equally precarious.
What’s on your agenda for the next year as president of CAUT?
Advancing, and not just protecting, the workplace rights of academic staff must be the foundation of CAUT’s work. This requires us to think more strategically about how we can make member services — such as bargaining support and educational programs — available and useful to all members, but especially to contract academic staff members, whose conditions of employment make their need most urgent. Engaging CAUT members in this effort through a mobilizing model is the best way of achieving and sustaining these rights. The intersections of precarity with equity in the academy must also remain our shared focus, as CAUT’s recent report Underrepresented & Underpaid shows.
Canada’s post-secondary institutions are increasingly adopting a neoliberal vision. How do you see this playing out, and what needs to be done to fight it?
Continuing our critique of and resistance to the corporatization of post-secondary education should remain another priority for CAUT. Many of the difficulties we face — the imposition of metrics, the brushing aside of collegial governance, the increase in influence of private donors — flow from the increasing gap between public funding and the real costs of high-quality post-secondary education, and from forces attempting to re-cast and restructure our institutions as beholden to commercial interests rather than to public ones. Threats to academic freedom posed by both corporate and government intrusion into the post-secondary realm are on the rise. It is imperative that CAUT remain vigilant in its championing of this essential ingredient of academic work.