Dear Board members,
We are writing to you in response to the year-end statements by Paul Tsaparis, Chair of the York University Board of Governors, and by Rhonda Lenton, President of York University. Mr. Tsaparis’s statement was emailed to faculty members on November 30, 2020. President Lenton’s statement was emailed to community members on December 17, 2020 and appears online here.
While we appreciate the positive and hopeful tone of these messages, especially in these challenging times, we believe they fall short of recognizing the difficult and trying circumstances our students, staff, and faculty have faced in the last year and, more importantly, continue to face in the year ahead. In particular, this failure to acknowledge the lived experience of most community members deepens our concern that York’s administration lacks a meaningful plan to turn things around.
What York urgently needs now is an honest and sober assessment of the last year, and a reckoning with where we’re headed. As the challenges of the pandemic mounted, the groups that make up the Cross-Campus Alliance increasingly turned to each other for advice and support. In the course of those discussions, we were able to identify six areas where the experiences of our members, who make up the majority of the York University community, significantly overlap.
I. Workload fatigue
The most common concern we are hearing from members across all employee groups is the impact of heavier workloads. Although it is almost one year since York moved to remote teaching, learning, and working, the pace has not slowed and workloads have not returned to normal. By contrast, a large proportion of employees are feeling the stress of trying to deliver the same outputs under much more difficult conditions, without appropriate support or resources, and with little time to recover.
Our members are almost universally reporting that they are working significantly longer hours without additional compensation or overtime, and without the flexibility to adjust their work practices to make them more manageable.
Similarly, students are experiencing increased workloads as a result of having to share family resources–computers, WiFi access, study and workspaces, etc.–while dealing with the stress and anxiety of increased social isolation from their peers.
II. Increased pressures on mental health
The impact of the pandemic in general, combined with our members’ new conditions of work, continues to be underestimated by the Employer. Its weekly “Wellness Wednesday” memos, for example, do not provide practical solutions for the increased pressures on our members’ mental health and wellness. We applaud the University’s promotion of mental health issues, but we need real and meaningful measures that members may easily access.
The most meaningful measure that would improve mental health and wellness would be a change in how the Employer manages labour relations with employee groups and how it addresses workplace and workload concerns raised by members.
The same is true for students: the pressures on their mental health and wellness would best be alleviated by addressing their learning conditions.
III. Systemic Equity issues
Members of Equity-seeking groups continue to feel the impacts of the pandemic and our new conditions of work in disproportionate ways. And the challenges they faced before the pandemic have in no ways lessened. Indeed, they are much worse.
The University has made numerous public commitments to supporting these community
members, which has had the effect of raising our collective expectations about what that support would look like and how members would access it. In practice, those expectations have been dashed. For example, the Employer has demonstrated an unnecessary and unhelpful rigidity in response to the many requests for Family-Status Accommodation.
One of the issues entirely missing from York’s equity priorities is the plight of international students. Due to the nature of their study permits, international students can only work for 20 hours outside of campus. With the widespread decrease in available jobs within and outside of the university and the legal cap on their work hours, international students face additionally precarious financial circumstances with little to no safety nets available to them in the absence of family and community support in Canada. In addition, the COVID19 academic leave policies outlined by FGS are entirely beyond the reach of international students for whom continued enrolment is necessary to retain legal status in Canada, and who cannot return to their home countries in the presence of global travel restrictions.
Likewise, the Employer has repeated its public commitment to opposing systemic anti-Black racism, for example, but complaints continue to emerge across all employee groups, and especially among students. Particularly troubling has been the administration’s silence on issues relating to the safety and security of Black students, whose complaints that pre-date the pandemic remain unresolved.
IV. Flawed decision-making
All the Cross-Campus Alliance groups have observed the same pattern in the Employer’s decision-making process, especially with respect to changes in our members’ work conditions as a result of the pandemic: there is little to no consultation, even though our members are the people most affected by the changes. Decisions (and reversals) come rapidly and without warning. Different and sometimes contradictory information is shared with different groups by the same people. There is a lack of transparency and accountability in how and why certain decisions get made and by whom.
For almost a year now, graduate students have repeatedly and collectively voiced their concerns about York’s COVID-19 policies with regard to funding and extensions. Despite their pleas in a number of meetings and town halls, York introduced a woefully inadequate ‘one-term part-time extensions’ that effectively excludes graduate students workers from access to unionized work. As a result, our members are feeling sidelined and left out of the process.
COVID-19 has also had a huge impact on many YUSA staff. For example, hundreds of YUSA Unit 2 members have been unemployed since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of these staff have worked for years and given thousands of hours of service at the university. To help these workers maintain their employment relationship with the university, YUSA has asked for an extension of seniority rights and other timelines for members in Unit 1 and 2 who have been without work. Even though there would be no cost to the university to grant this request, the university has refused to do so unless the union accepts huge concessions to their vacation entitlements.
Almost a year into the pandemic, it is reasonable to expect a more coherent, coordinated, and consultative approach. Instead, it still feels as if the Employer is making it up as it goes along.
V. Erosion of collegial governance
On a similar front, this approach has significantly eroded existing democratic processes and existing practices for decision-making, such as collegial governance among academic staff, for example. As a result, it has created a much more top-down, authoritarian environment (see this OCUFA poll for similar examples at other Ontario institutions). There could be significant long term consequences for how the University is run in a post-pandemic world, unless our employee groups and students attempt to reverse this trend.
VI. Low morale among the community
The cumulative effect of these approaches to management and labour relations has been to provoke a crisis of morale among the employee and student groups at York University. We have drawn this conclusion based on the nature and frequency of complaints we hear from our members, which pre-date the pandemic and have largely worsened because of it.
But the evidence goes beyond our own observations, despite how consistent they are across all employee and student groups. For example, Forbes published on January 26, 2021 its list of Canada’s Best Employers for 2021. A total of 27 post-secondary institutions across Canada made the list of 300 employers, including 11 in Ontario alone: Guelph (4), University of Toronto (5), Queen’s (11), Sheridan College (14), McMaster (23), University of Windsor (31), Ryerson (36), Western (43), University of Waterloo (72), Wilfrid Laurier (84), and Durham College of Applied Arts & Technology (89).
But York is conspicuously absent. Why did the two other large-size universities in the Greater Toronto Area make the cut, but not York? What does it say about employee morale when not enough of us felt confident to recommend York as an Employer?
We are sharing these observations with you in an effort to minimize the gap between the administration’s characterization of the situation we face and our day-to-day experience of it. There is also an urgency to discuss these observations more fully, and to seek further feedback from the York University community. We are aware that, as President Lenton approaches the end of the fourth year of her appointment, the Board of Governors will be considering her renewal for another five-year term.
We urge you not to rush this process or bypass what should be a robust consultation of the wider community. Especially at this moment, where we have already drawn your attention to the perception among our members that major decisions lack transparency, accountability, and consultation, we need to go that extra mile to involve students, staff, and faculty in this critical discussion about the future of York University.
To that end, we propose that the Board of Governors host a participatory University-wide town hall (on Zoom) before the end of the Winter 2021 semester during which President Lenton could reflect on her first four years as President and motivate her vision for a second term. In addition, we invite President Lenton to meet with the elected leadership bodies of each of the member organizations of the Cross-Campus Alliance. In an effort to minimize meetings, we would be open to one meeting for students (YFS and YUGSA), one meeting for staff (YUSA, CUPE 1356, OPSEU 560, and OPSEU 578), and one meeting for faculty (YUFA, OHFA, and CUPE 3903).
Where meetings such as these have taken place in recent years, the parties have benefited from the opportunity for direct, honest, and open exchanges with one another. We are hopeful that the meetings we have proposed here will produce the same opportunity for further discussion and feedback from the widest segment of our community possible.
Finally, we would like to emphasize that we share these observations with you in good faith and out of our shared desire to make York University a better place to learn, to teach, and to work.
We don’t doubt the administration’s commitment to the University, or the sincerity of its efforts to respond to these unprecedented times. However, as members of this community, we all have the right to participate in discussions about the future of York, and for that participation to be meaningful and with consequence.
In that spirit, we look forward to your responses to our proposals for the kind of University-wide engagement and consultation that would achieve these ends. Of course, we respect the right of Cross-Campus Alliance groups to engage their members about these matters on their own terms, but we remain hopeful that a more collaborative process that includes all of us will be possible, too.
Thank you, and best wishes for the year ahead!
York Cross-Campus Alliance
The York Cross-Campus Alliance (CCA) is a University-wide coalition of employee and student groups, including:
• CUPE 1356
• CUPE 3903
• OPSEU 560
• OPSEU 578
• Osgoode Hall Faculty Association
• York Federation of Students
• York University Faculty Association
• York University Graduate Students’ Association
• York University Staff Association