Back-to-School (2017 Edition)

Okay, so — first day back…  Did you have fun?  Were the other profs nice to you?  Did you have lunch with anyone nice?

And your class sizes — let’s talk about those for a moment, shall we?  How were they?  Manageable?  Appropriate for an individualized student-centred learning experience?  Seriously — same as usual, better or worse?  Larger or smaller than 10 years ago?  And if larger, what steps have you taken (or been forced to take, depending upon the evaluations factors on your SWF if you’re full-time) to deal with the numbers?  Where have been able to adjust to deliver the same quality as before, or have there been elements where you have simply been unable to deliver the same quality?

Share your experiences anonymously at, if you’re so inclined.  Remember that we may be a LONG way from having ANY meaningful input on our class sizes, but the College Employer Council has made it abundantly clear that the long road towards that influence begins (but does not, I expect, end) with a strike authorization in the upcoming vote.  After all, the Employer has clearly stated that there are only two paths of negotiation: Either a) accept a status quo that leaves issues of academic freedom, college governance, and workload unaddressed in exchange for pay below the projected rate of inflation over the next four years, or b) authorize a strike.

Hey — if nothing else, I appreciate the clarity.

Anyway, yesterday’s post featured a new contributor speaking about the degree to which Ontario College professors have lost control of their profession.

That post elicited the following response from our most dedicated contributor:

While I share the sentiments and empathize with the passion of the writer of “Controlling Our Own Profession,” I think that the interests of accuracy can best be served if we do not mythologize the past. College teachers (and educators from pre-school to post-doc supervisors) have never been “professionals” in the sense that we controlled ingress, internal discipline, fee schedules and egress from our occupation. Accountants, architects, dentists, doctors and lawyers may share in such privileges; we do not and have not.

So, it is a mistake to claim that “management” has “managed to infiltrate our profession.” Going back to the beginning – before the Union – management had unrestrained powers and, of course, management retains virtually unfettered powers today.

This is not to deny the claim that we ought to have such powers. Nor is it to speak against making every effort to gain them. It is only to say that this would be moving into wholly new ground and any such movement would be something that not only management, but the Government of Ontario – regardless of party – would fight (almost) to the death to prevent.

If, however, we entertain aspirations of becoming a profession at some point (or even achieving the kind of co-management that the Union is endorsing), then we had better understand what we’re up against. As Canada’s most beloved philosopher once intoned: “Moral outrage is too precious a commodity to be spent in the service of anything but reality.” (Varsity Arena, October, 1965)

And while I’m opening up the mailbag, permit me to add the following reply from the same contributor to this post — my original reply to the Employer’s “Two Paths: Strike or Settlement” publication.  I notice that he does provide a comparison of class sizes “then and now”:

When I came aboard the Good Ship CAAT in August, 1969, there were no contract faculty at my college. Every one of us “Teaching Masters” (we weren’t called “professors” at the time) was full-time. True, individuals might occasionally ask to be put temporarily on a reduced load for any number of personal reasons (and were paid a proportionately reduced salary during that period), but cases of that sort were few and always initiated by the faculty member.

Now, in an era when the number of administrators/managers has ballooned by 50% and more, we are told that paying for full-time employees (both faculty and support staff) is no longer possible. The employer insists that up to 80% of the teaching must be done by overworked, underpaid and systematically intimidated precarious faculty who dare not complain lest they be “terminated without cause.”

How come? Tuition fees are way up, and salaries have barely kept pace with inflation over the past 50 years. Is the alleged fiscal crisis of the colleges to be blamed on hideously incompetent management? Or is something else going on.

One place to look might be the funding strategies adopted by the provincial governments (over decades and by all political parties). The success of the colleges and the “productivity” of professors are obvious. In my department, for example, average class sizes have more than doubled from 15 to about 35, and we now teach almost twice as many classes as we did “in the olden days” – 14 over three semesters rather than 8 over two. So, how come we never seem to benefit from “economies of scale”?

It seems plain either that the colleges are being short-changed or that the colleges are being mismanaged (or maybe both). In any case, the so-called “stalemate” is about more than employee demands and employer recalcitrance. Ultimately, the problem is political.

Voting overwhelmingly to give the Bargaining Team a strike mandate is the only way to show that we are serious about change in the way the colleges work is the first step to solving that political problem. Giving thought to who best represents workers’ rights and education and who deserves another kind of vote when the next provincial election come up less than a year from now is another.

Unlike an increasing number of managers, I may not have an MBA from some digital diploma mill far, far away … but I know this much: this ain’t no way to run a railway, nor an Ontario college system.





Labour Day Edition

The following is from a new contributor whom I’m delighted to welcome to the discussion.  I’m reprinting this submission in the interests of fostering a broad conversation about the factors impacting Ontario College education, but cannot attest to the accuracy of any claims therein.

Controlling Our Own Profession

The recent Academic Bargaining Update provided by the College [Employer] Council illustrates why it is necessary for faculty to finally control their own profession.

The Council frames the dilemma falsely as a choice between strike or settlement while ignoring the third option, which is an overhaul of the college system for the sake of justice; for the sake of better education for our students and our communities.

The Union proposals do focus on changing the structure of Colleges. This change is long overdue. Colleges are places where training, education and mentorship are provided. They are not institutions where incompetent managers should be allowed to dictate a vicious financial policy of austerity that only furthers the financial health of its elite while gutting the very people who provide education and training to students.

The current College system, which is overburdened with management, is no longer sustainable. Take the example of the Georgian College President who was awarded a $200,000 increase in salary this year while her College is millions of dollars in debt. Her response has been to cut faculty while promoting the same managers whose incompetence lead to the College’s financial difficulties. These examples can be multiplied across the College system.

If Legislation makes the College Board of Governors responsible for the governance of the College, it is time to change the legislation. It is clear that the legislation is unjust. The College Board of Governors should consist of faculty and not managers who fail to even have terminal degrees in their field and virtually no experience being educators. The University model where chairs are chosen among faculty professors and where accountants do the accounting is one that should be considered as a viable alternative to the current unjust method of “governance.”

If Collective Bargaining addresses the terms and conditions of employment then it is clear that the terms and conditions of employment need to be changed so that educators control the fruits of their labours. Administrators should be serving Professors in their efforts to educate students. The current inversion that has been in place for over fifty years is medieval in scope and unjust in practice.

The Council is upset that “the union demands control over academic delivery.” Professors are best at knowing what students require. The current system to use an analogy is like a butcher telling a brain surgeon how to perform surgery. This would not be tolerated in any hospital, yet it is exactly what management is doing in the College system. In fact it is even worse than the analogy because management has no clue of what is required to deliver proper education and yet they have managed to infiltrate our profession. Management has no business telling professors how to teach. They have no business being in an educational institution when they should be elsewhere such as the financial sector. Education is not fast food. Students are not clients. Professors are not frying up burgers in the marketplace.

How is it that professors have allowed their own house to be taken over by bureaucratic incompetence? Management through a number of clauses have given themselves the power to destroy lives and careers while relying on a part time work force that receives a course here and a course there. Management stuffs their pockets with government funds while telling us that there is no more money for full time hires.

The problem with the College system is the over-bloated and incompetent bureaucracy that needs to be transformed so that professors can once again control their own profession for the sake of their students and the communities in which they live and work.

If nothing else, this letter did inspire me to dig up my copy of the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act, 2002, to find out precisely what powers are given to Boards of Governors, and whether the Council is correct that the existence of Boards of Governors with duties prescribed by law somehow legislatively renders it impossible for me to determine, for example, whether students should be graded individually or through group assignments (something that faculty currently have no authority over, and something that the Employer seems to be arguing that current law utterly precludes our ever having authority over).

Anyway, a review of that legislation is indeed thought-provoking, and may become the topic of a future post.

Please submit your thoughts, either in response to today’s submission or on another issue, to

Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges (Part Two)

One of the curious details of this round of negotiations is the fact that it’s being carried on concurrently with the contract negotiations for Ontario’s high school teachers.  And in those negotiations, I think we can sum up the Ontario government’s current negotiating position as “Accept our offer, or we’ll criminalize your rejection of it”.

Certainly one detail that’s buoying the government’s position in its negotiations with OSSTF (and, presumably, college faculty) is the fact that the Catholic secondary school teachers’ union (OECTA) and the French secondary school teachers (AEFO) recently agreed to two-year deals that saw wages on the salary grid frozen, and a 1.5% salary cut in the form of three unpaid days off.

Worth noting, though (and almost completely unreported by the media, which focuses almost entirely on easily-digestible financial issues), is the fact that those two unions did manage to make some tangible non-monetary gains in the areas of Academic Freedom and Job Security — two areas that were ranked as very high priorities at the College Unions’ Contract demand-setting meeting back in April.

With job security, if I understand correctly, OECTA’s new contract specifies that new full-time hires must come from the pool of experienced contract teachers.  As for Academic Freedom, the new contract gives the teachers control over testing in their classrooms — a legal backgrounder describes the contract as granting “autonomy for teachers in applying diagnostic assessment“.

Are these significant gains?  Well, let’s note that the Catholic school boards seem to think so — two of the boards have refused to consent to the deals struck by the province, and are trying to overturn those deals, on the (seemingly valid, in my opinion) grounds that the school boards — not the province — are the teachers’ employers.  More specifically, they say that the province’s deal “strips the boards of important hiring and managerial rights”.

So, to recap, the province has currently offered the high school teachers a contract that includes salary grid freezes, offset with gains in academic freedom (in the from of testing), and job security (in the form of binding full-time hiring provisions).

And, to recap, the province has offered the College professors a contract that includes salary grid freezes, with no  gains in academic freedom (since faculty would continue to have no power over testing) and or in job security (since the security language proposed by the College management’s bargaining team would not concern the staffing of new full-time positions, and would also be easily circumvented by managers).

And so, amazingly enough, if the province got its way with its proposed contracts for both secondary school teachers and college faculty, we would end up with a situation where Elementary and High school teachers would actually have more academic freedom than College faculty, as specified in their Collective Agreements.

Which returns me to a theme that I had discussed before — how should we understand Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges — and why faculty and students both need it.  I spoke on this issue at an OPSEU-sponsored symposium in June, and I’m posting Part Two of  my remarks below.  You can find Part One of my remarks (posted earlier) here, and I’ll also encourage you to check out Marcus Harvey’s keynote speech on Youtube.  I also note an 2009 FAQ backgrounder on Academic Freedom from OPSEU here: The proposed contract language is out of date (from the last round of bargaining), but the first two pages offer some useful context and explanations.

My thoughts below.  As ever, feel free to respond at

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Part Two: The Fallacies that Underpin Our Current Lack of Academic Freedom

Currently, without academic freedom for college faculty, the model of educational decision-making power at Ontario colleges rests upon a false dichotomy: The notion that the content of education is divorced from its modes of delivery. 

To clarify, one of the preconditions of colleges’ grant degrees was the stipulation that 50% of the students’ classes be taught by faculty with terminal degrees in the field.  Clearly, PEQAB believed that it was essential (or at least 50% essential) to have trained, experienced experts deliver the curriculum to the students. At the same time, however, PEQAB did not feel that it was essential to have such experts shape the curriculum of those classes, or the class’ learning outcomes, textbooks, mode of course delivery, length of classes, or modes of evaluation.

The content of education was understood – or misunderstood – as independent of and unaffected by its form. And as a consequence, the vast majority of college professors currently have no official power or shared power to shape any of those decisions, and we can only appeal those decisions according to workload standards, not academic ones. 

The logic here resembles that of the shop floor, by which professors are understood as the manual labourers conducting a narrowly-circumscribed set of tasks, with no say in how the machinery is designed, nor the purposes it serves.

The false distinction between the form and content of a class upholds a second contradiction that shapes management-faculty relations: the college management’s belief that the same professors who allegedly possess the expertise and qualification to determine how material is taught are also simultaneously understood to lack sufficient ability or judgement to have the power to decide what material is taught.

One particular example of this false distinction between a class’ structure and its content concerns the determination of how students are evaluated in their classes. Currently, managers hold the exclusive power to determine, for example, whether students are evaluated using essays or using multiple-choice tests. While professors are understood to have the necessary expertise to decide how to deliver content in the classroom, the current model understands them as unfit to decide how best to appropriately evaluate the quality of the students’ learning and performance, and their role in the decision-making process is therefore merely a consultative one.

I chose this particular example because it led to a specific moment in the last round of bargaining that was, for me, particularly enlightening about the college management’s view of faculty. One of the union’s proposals was to have modes of evaluation determined collectively by the faculty teaching each course, with managers invited to decide if 75% of the faculty weren’t able to agree upon how the students in the course should be evaluated.

On CBC’s MetroMorning I heard a representative of the college management claim that that particular proposal would prove wildly expensive to the colleges. His reasoning would be that all faculty in all courses, in an effort to work less, would choose to give written assignments to their students (and thereby teach fewer students), regardless of whether, say, essays were appropriate to the subject matter, or an effective way to evaluate students’ understanding of it.

I’m not sure which confused me more – the idea that the people who are described in the colleges’ marketing material as being uniquely qualified to responsibly teach college courses are somehow unable to be trusted to select the best method of evaluating those students, or the misguided notion that making students write essays instead of multiple-choice tests somehow leads to less work for the professor.

But again, denying professors the academic freedom to effectively impact decisions about how to evaluate students rests upon a hard and fast distinction between what is taught and how it is evaluated – a distinction that is false (and probably nowhere less so than in the field of writing) and one that in my opinion finds no support in any educational research that has been performed since the 1970s.

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Follow-up: Apparently my comments at the beginning of the post (on the secondary and elementary school negotiations) covered ground that was already clearly discussed last week on the Union’s negotiations website,  That posting, moreover, has the additional benefit of discussing salary negotiations among University faculty and secondary school teachers.  I recommend that you check it out.

Some Thoughts on Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges (Part One)

Okay, well, sports fans, we’re getting ready for the puck to be dropped on this season’s round of Collective Agreement negotiations between the College Employer Council Wheat Kings and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology [Academic] Division) Dynamo.  Undoubtedly, I’ll have the chance to provide some colour commentary on the storied rivalry between these two teams before the final buzzer sounds, but for now, while the anthem-singer is sucking back one last G+T, let’s jump to a previously-filmed report on the state of the game.

Specifically, that report is a paper that I presented at the Symposium on Quality Education and Academic Freedom, last Friday.  It was an impressively-attended event, including faculty from about 17 Ontario colleges, plus representatives from at least two other provinces’ college systems.  And, well, let me just point out that I started as an Ontario college prof in 2005, and if anybody had told me at that time that within seven years OPSEU and the Canadian Association of University Teachers would be sponsoring conferences on academic freedom in Ontario colleges, well, let’s just say that it would have been quite a shock, albeit not an unpleasant one.

So anyway, for those few of you who missed my presentation, the following is Part One of it — Parts Two and possibly Three will follow soon thereafter (and may possibly end up as a fixed page on the site), at which point I’ll talk a bit about the process of negotiations and their context, if events haven’t already outstripped me.

As well, I’ll just drop a reminder that you can subscribe to this blog (and get e-mail notices of all updates) by clicking on the button on the right-hand column.  Don’t miss a single moment of unauthorized, uncensored negotiation punditry — a must for all of your contract negotiations office pools and rotisserie leagues!

On with the ponderous musings…

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Part One: What Does Academic Freedom Mean in the Context of Ontario’s Colleges?

Conventionally, academic freedom has been understood as an intellectual freedom – a freedom for faculty to think, and to introduce their thoughts into the classroom, without outside interference.  According to that understanding, it’s primarily understood as a function of the professor’s role as a researcher and knowledge-producer.  And largely, the role of academic freedom in the classroom is understood as being a byproduct of that model of professor as researcher – her consequent right to introduce the results of that research into the classroom.

We see that model informing The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Policy Statement on Academic Freedom, which argues that “Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students.”  I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, particularly its extension of that right to students and academic staff, but I do believe that the primary model that underpins that underpins the sentiment is a concept of the professor as independent truth-seeker – it’s a model that sees the professor as an independent researcher first and foremost.

Well, whatever your opinion about what the role of Ontario college faculty ought to be, you might agree with me that college profs aren’t generally seen as independent researchers first and foremost.  Most of the research undertaken by the Colleges is founded upon the support of corporate partners; the independent research undertaken by faculty often falls under the category of professional development, for which faculty are allocated as few as 10 scheduled days in a year.

So applying the principles of academic freedom to Ontario’s college faculty would require either a radical change in the understanding of their role and labour, or a shift in the definition of academic freedom, to better reflect the actual work currently assigned to professors.  I’m here to discuss the latter – a way of understanding academic freedom that is rooted primarily in the college professor’s role as a teacher of students.

I think academic freedom is distinguished from other freedoms not simply because it is an intellectual freedom, but rather because it implies a very specific, corollary responsibility: A responsibility to the subject matter being taught; a responsibility to uphold the standards and principles of a discipline, whether it be an academic or a professional field.  In the context of the classroom, I’d add a second, essential responsibility: The responsibility to teach to teach these fields to students appropriately, focusing on the material that is essential to the field, communicating it to students in way that upholds disciplinary standards, and ultimately evaluating students according to standards that are upheld by the professional communities of that discipline

In short, I understand Academic Freedom to be, first and foremost, the freedom to be academics: To ensure the quality of education – not simply in the name of excellence, but in the name of necessity. If I were to define academic freedom personally, within the context of Ontario colleges, I would understand it as the freedom to determine appropriate subject matter and the means by which it is delivered and evaluated, according to the needs of our students.  And without that freedom, professors effectively have no power to ensure that academic decisions are made on academic reasons, as opposed to financial ones.

Academic freedom would therefore give college profs an effective voice in ensuring that course curriculum addresses the student needs that they identify.  In the fields of professional disciplines, this voice helps to ensure that students receive the training that they will need, to appropriately participate into the many fields into which our graduates enter – fields like medicine, law, journalism, engineering, and public health and safety.  (Remember: The simplest way to highlight the importance of the work that College professors do is to highlight the importance of the work that College graduates do.) 

Even in my own field of English and General Education, academic freedom would ensure professors’ right to address important topics that students may find controversial, when teaching such skills as critical thinking or cross-cultural communication to our diverse student population. Perhaps no less importantly, academic freedom would give faculty a measure of actual power to decide collectively what we mean when we talk about Critical Thinking or Cultural Awareness, and what is actually needed to teach – or to learn – those skills.