Over the weekend, delegates attending the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) voted unanimously to condemn the Universities Accountability and Sustainability Act, otherwise known as Bill 100.
With that vote, CAUT – which represents staff and faculty at universities across the country – committed to initiating a process of censure if a university administration approached the government with a revitalization plan and attempted to use the powers granted by Bill 100.
Censure is an infrequently used tool used to shame institutions that aren’t protecting academic freedom or institutional autonomy, says CAUT Executive Director David Robinson.
Under the censure process, CAUT indicates to the academic community both nationally and internationally that the university in question “is an institution that shouldn’t really be considered a university,” says Robinson.
CAUT would then encourage people not to participate in those activities that take place at institutions considered universities; not to accept jobs, lecture or attend conferences at that institution, not to publish in that institution’s journals or publications, and so on.
“In the age of the brand-conscious university president that’s a real bomb,” says Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers Communications Officer Matthew Furlong.
Furlong introduced the motion that led to the unanimous vote on Friday; he says that it’s important to make faculty associations elsewhere in Canada aware of the threat the Bill poses to their own rights and academic freedom.
Kate Lawson, President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) – which represents 28 faculty associations across Ontario – agrees that the risks posed by Bill 100 could extend beyond Nova Scotia’s borders.
“An attack on the rights of any one of us, regardless of where they are in the country, is an attack potentially on all of us.”
Not only does the Bill threaten workers’ rights and the quality of education offered by universities in Nova Scotia, it also undermines the free flow of ideas and research that is at the heart of the academic enterprise, says Lawson.
Because academic research is driven by researchers at different institutions engaging with one another’s ideas, constraints on research in one place – prioritizing, as the Bill seems to mandate, what can be turned into “business opportunities” – could have far-reaching effects, she says.
“If academic research suffers in Nova Scotia, that is an important piece of the productivity of research across Canada.”
Ontario isn’t the only province to have faculty associations condemn the Bill; the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations (FNBFA) has also published an open letter in which FNBFA President Jean Sauvageau said that Bill 100 “seeks to hobble Nova Scotia’s highly regarded universities by tying them to the unpredictable fluctuations of politics and the marketplace.”
Robinson points out that the impetus behind Bill 100 isn’t new, nor is it unique to Nova Scotia. A process called program prioritization – in which university programs and services are pitted against one another in an attempt to determine where the axe of budget cuts should fall – has already been implemented at several universities, including the University of Saskatchewan and Guelph. At the latter, the review led to parking and athletics being ranked among the most valuable programs, while English and Mathematics departments ended up at the bottom.
Bill 100, says Robinson, is “program prioritization on steroids”
If the Bill passes, Robinson says he’ll immediately set to work writing university presidents to warn them of the risk of censure they face if they choose to use the powers afforded by Bill 100.
Robinson says he’s come to expect the kind of interference outlined in the Bill from government; what’s more shocking is the complicity of university administrators. Although several presidents have described the revitalization period outlined in Bill 100 as a tool of last resort, they’ve nonetheless supported the legislation.
“University administrators should be at the front line defending basic academic principles, they should be the ones first out of the gate saying this is unacceptable and they’re not,” he says. “That’s really surprising.”
The Association of Atlantic Universities, which is directed by a council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, could not be reached for comment.