I have worked at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) for almost 25 years. I am vice-president of SMUFU – the union of full-time faculty and librarians. I was a SMU undergraduate. And now, two of my children are SMU students (with a third starting next fall!). I have always been proud of SMU as a university, and I couldn’t imagine loving my work or institution more. 

So it may seem odd that I am proud to be joining my colleagues in SMUFU in preparation for our first ever strike. 

As a place to work and educate my children, I have always considered SMU to be the best of the best. But a shift has happened recently, and it is not the same place it was ten, or even five, years ago. And while change is both healthy and natural, at SMU, changes have unfortunately led us in a bad direction. SMU is now a toxic place to work. I’ve tried to explain this to various senior administrators, including our president. 

Clearly the university didn’t want to hear from someone with decades of diverse institutional knowledge and insight. Effective leaders engage with constructive critique. Our president is eager to discuss the new fabric of his SMU gown or have cocoa and cookies on the campus. These days it’s hard to know what exactly he’s doing. 

Things grew worse as the administration embarked on a series of cringe-worthy initiatives, including a widely mocked and expensive rebranding, childish lawsuits and grievances – one in which the administration wasted nearly $500,000 on a single football player’s eligibility – and bloating senior administration with several inessential positions. 

Indeed, a recent “Culture of Entitlement” report from the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT) showed that the percentage of administrators at SMU has sky-rocketed.

And despite the administration’s regular extolling of faculty’s work in their advertisements, reports to the community, and recruitment brochures, there has never seemed to be any resources left to invest in us. 

I became involved with SMUFU to channel my frustration and align with my colleagues who were increasingly articulating similar feelings. I stop in the hallways with colleagues from across Arts, Science and Commerce, and most everyone has some frustration to share.  

We have been in negotiations for a new collective agreement with the administration since the summer and without a contract since September 1. As of January 19, SMUFU and the employer have been unable to reach an agreement through conciliation. We are now confronting a potential strike or lockout – it seems increasingly likely that serious work action will be the only way to wake this administration up. 

In a telling result, our recent faculty strike vote returned an unprecedented 98% in favour — a resounding display of solidarity, anger, and frustration. We want our institution to be better and we’re doing our part. 

Workers and students alike are confronting increasing costs of inflation and living expenses. But this is about more than money for us. It is about a workplace that is hardly recognizable anymore. It is about an administration that keeps pumping more and more into upper management with seemingly no end in sight – in fact, most of us have lost track of all the vice-presidents and associate vice-presidents we now have! It is about an employer that preaches “fiscal responsibility” while spending hundreds of thousands on frivolous legal expenses. 

We need to take a hard look at the priorities of the institution, assess the leadership, and recognize that there is toxicity in our workplace. Someone needs to be held accountable. 

I hate that the impending work action may impact our institutional reputation and I regret that our students, including my own kids, may end up in the crossfire. Faculty deserve a fair and functioning workplace, though, and in order for our students to thrive in their educational environment, things need to improve. 

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  1. Interesting bargaining ploy! Perhaps the author could go down to the Nova Scotia legislature and discuss the matter with the last three premiers (all SMU alumni) about the support that has been given to SMU, X, and Acadia .
    Not many NS venues enjoy 14,000 “tourists” for 9 months a year that generate a revenue to government investment ratio of >3:1, in spite of exposure to the highest utility costs in the country.
    Management of these three institutions seems to do well in maintaining a stable environment of responsible employment for a Canadian learning opportunity.
    Known is that SMU, while receiving about the same fiscal amount of government support, has ~50% more students and ~20% less tuition costs than X or Acadia ; SMU seems exemplary in its fiscal management.
    It appears that Nova Scotia is not being fair in support of what its universities are accomplishing and generating for the well-being of the province and its future.
    PS: Do university staff members get a special discount on educational fees?