On May 1, 2018, the York University Board of Governors held its 458th meeting. This was held amidst the ongoing strike by CUPE 3903 at York University, which is now in its tenth week. The administration and board of governors have come under fire for their conduct during the strike. They have refused to bargain with the union, meeting with them only once so far throughout the strike. This has resulted in an effective lockout of the union, with the administration dragging out the struggle in hopes of starving out the union. The delay in resolving the strike has led to frustration among students, teachers, and workers on campus.
In part, this frustration has resulted from the blatant attacks that York University President Rhonda Lenton and the administration have made against democracy on campus during the strike. During the senate meeting on March 22, the administration dismissed a vote from the floor which indicated that classes should close, stating that it was a “hortative” motion. In other words, the motion was only to gauge opinion, not to take any action. This was presented to the senate only after it had passed.
At York University, the senate has a far more democratic composition than the board of governors. The senate was created by the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) during a strike in 1997, and is made up of faculty, students, and other members of the York community that make academic decisions. It is the body that has traditionally decided if classes will run or close during a strike. Most positions on this body are elected, save for a few reserved for the administration. Thus, it shares the power of making decisions with the administration and everyone else. The administration has maintained that the senate had no right to stop classes from running, despite the fact that it is senate policy to suspend classes, and that classes were suspended by the senate in the 2015 CUPE strike.
The backlash against the top administration has culminated in a number of non-confidence motions being passed in many of the faculties and student councils on campus, specifically targeting Rhonda Lenton and the chair of the board of governors (and former CEO of Scotiabank) Rick Waugh. Thus far, non-confidence votes have been passed at council meetings at Glendon College, the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Environmental Studies, the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, the York University Graduate Student Association, and others. This is significant, as half of the full-time teachers at York University teach in the Liberal Arts & Professional Studies department, while the York University Graduate Student Association represents more than 6,000 students.
What is the board of governors?
The boards of governors are the bodies that manage the financial and revenue-related aspects of most major universities across Canada. They are largely unelected, with usually more than half of the positions coming from outside the university. At York University, only six of the positions are elected, with the remaining 24 seats appointed externally. Aside from former Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh, you have individuals like Jacques Demers, a CEO of an investment firm, as well as Ajay Virmani, CEO of Cargojet (Canada’s largest cargo airline).
The board of governors are also responsible for tuition increases. Since 1993, tuition fees have more than tripled in Ontario. This is much higher than the rate of inflation, which has only increased by approximately 50 per cent in that period—this at the same time that quality of education has declined and a greater proportion of teaching positions are precarious, with staff working on a contract basis.
The CEOs, company directors, and millionaires that sit on these bodies have no regard for the students that their decisions impact. Board members even refer to students as “Basic Income Units” during their meetings, which has become a running joke among students at York. This should come as no surprise as the individuals that make up the majority on these bodies are the representatives of corporate Canada. They are not motivated to make decisions in the interests of students and workers on campus, but rather to make decisions in the interests of the capitalists. Their interest is not in providing quality education, but in turning a profit.
Student And worker control of universities
It is fruitless to attempt to turn the board of governors, an unelected body filled with corporate representatives, into anything other than what it was created to do. As the old saying goes, you cannot teach a tiger to eat lettuce!
There have been efforts in the past to change this. In particular, the York University Faculty Association strike of 1997 created the senate, which shares governing power over York University and is more democratic than the board of governors. In particular, the majority of the senate are teachers from the various university departments, instead of corporate and bank executives. However, we have seen that this is only a half-solution, since the administration and the board of governors can at any time brush aside the senate on all important matters. From tuition increases to the refusal to cancel classes, students and teachers seem to have no voice on campus.
The only way forward is the complete abolition of the corporate board of governors and the millionaire administration that works in conjunction with it. As long as students and teachers are not in control, the conditions for both will continue to deteriorate. Students face an unacceptable situation, with as many as 40 percent of all post-secondary students facing food insecurity everyday. The situation for teachers on campus is not much better, with more than a third of teachers working in precarious conditions. Furthermore, over half of the workforce on campuses in Ontario either work without pay, or are forced to hold multiple contract positions. This leads to a poorer education for everyone. Direct democratic control of the university will give us the means to fight against these conditions.
Students and workers are what make up the community at York University. CUPE 3903, for example, does as much as 60 percent of the teaching at York University. A united struggle can allow us to take control away from the CEOs that sit all too comfortably on the board of governors.
A council made up of representatives of faculty, university workers, and students should replace the board of governors. These representatives should be subject to the principle of recall to ensure that they serve the interests of those they represent. They should have incomes identical to those they are elected to represent.
Drive the bosses out!
The demand for democratic control and abolishing the board of governors should be taken up by YUFA, CUPE 3903, YFS, YUGSA, and the various unions representing blue-collar, office and technical staff on campus. The members of these various worker and student unions should be the ones that democratically control the campus.
The recent series of “no-confidence” motions from various student and faculty associations was a great first step in the fight against the corporate board of governors. This movement should be escalated into a campus-wide struggle. As we saw in the 1997 YUFA strike, mass struggle can win greater democratic control. Through militant action, students, faculty, and university workers can drive the bankers, the corporate CEOs, and the Bay Street lawyers out of the campus.
Abolish the board of governors!
Remove the millionaire administration!
Fight for student-worker-faculty democratic control of our campus!