By Brenda Austin-Smith
The fall has always felt like the natural new year for colleges and universities, when students and academic staff alike return to campus, flowing from library to labs, and from classrooms to studio spaces. In previous years, it’s been an exciting time, when we meet courses full of new people, and connect again with colleagues and staff over coffee, to share teaching tips, and to take our places in committee meetings. But that was then, and this is now.
Debate and discussion over the best way to navigate the return (or non-return) to campus and to teaching has been top of mind for CAUT members, associations, and staff for weeks now. What has emerged is the necessity of consultation and vigilance in working out just how the new academic year will look, whether or not it involves teaching on a physical campus. In the early days of the lockdown, many Senates and Governing Councils passed motions allowing small groups of (mostly) administrators to by-pass collegial bodies in order to make rapid, emergency decisions. But as the weeks passed, member associations took note of the reluctance of some institutions to relinquish their extraordinary powers — granted on a temporary basis — and return to collegial practices. The scope of those so-called emergency decisions also expanded well beyond what was either contemplated by Senates in the early spring, or justified by the pandemic itself.
Unilateral declarations that remote teaching, for example, would permanently replace in-person instruction in years to come, or that teaching this year would be either completely synchronous or completely asynchronous, are outside the purview of administrative power. A pandemic does not justify dictating the delivery mode of instruction. Administrations need to engage associations and respect collective agreements, not to mention relevant provincial legislation, as the academic year unfolds in COVID time. CAUT has been active for months assisting associations in negotiating Letters of Understanding (LOUs) to temporarily waive articles on such issues, with the goal of making sure these arrangements are time-limited, and do not damage the workplace rights and academic freedom of CAUT members.
Nor does the pandemic mean that the range of workplace rights our collective agreements enshrine have suddenly vapourized, or become as virtual as our offices and classrooms were in the spring. We still own the content of the courses we develop, for example, whether taught remotely or in person. The grievance process is still in effect, regardless of what some might claim about the suspension of the rights described in various articles of our agreements. And if there were any institutional committee whose time is now, it is the local Health and Safety Committee, endowed with real power under provincial law to act to protect workers. Members must feel entitled to bring potential violations of contract language to the attention of their associations, and act on their right to safe workplaces.
These fought-for rights are more important than ever, given the variety of elements to consider in a return to teaching, however it is conducted. The health and safety of academic staff and their students is paramount. Accommodations, adjustments, and the provision of adequate PPE by the employer is critical. Just as important is the opportunity for associations to negotiate in-person instruction in professional and creative areas — art, music, performance, medicine, and physical therapy for example — under conditions that are conducive to safe and effective teaching and learning. And if conditions are not supportive of this, negotiating adjustments of teaching assignments without penalty to members will be necessary. The health needs of academic staff (and our students) are varied. Those with underlying conditions, who are immunosuppressed, or who are reluctant to enter classrooms for in-person teaching, need compassionate and effective representation. CAUT associations and staff will be there to provide guidance and advice on how to move through this complicated time, with academic expertise and safety for all foremost in those deliberations.