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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1996

Academics Scramble to Stop Power Grab in Manitoba

Errol Black & Robert Chernomas
The September issue of the Bulletin carried a report entitled "Power Grab in Manitoba" which assessed the implications of Manitoba's Bill 32. It was noted in the report that the proposed legislation would, in effect, transfer control of universities from senates and boards of governors to the Minister of Education and a handpicked Council of 11 government appointees.

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) sounded the alarm when Bill 32 was first tabled in the legislature in June. Subsequently, a legal opinion was obtained which confirmed that Bill 32 would indeed open up universities to massive government intrusions which could potentially involve the micromanagement of university programs and initiatives to control the activities of faculty members.

Over the summer months, MOFA and faculty associations at the universities and colleges launched a campaign aimed at promoting a united front of students, administration and faculty members in opposition to the legislation.

At Brandon University and the University of Winnipeg these efforts culminated in special meetings of senate. These meetings produced a list of amendments to the bill that would guarantee the autonomy of universities and ensure that decisions affecting universities reflect an appropriate balance between academic and fiscal considerations.

At a press conference in Brandon subsequent to the senate meeting, Patrick Carrabre, vice-president academic, explained that Brandon University is concerned about its ability to set its own academic standards and programs: "Our degrees have to compete nationally and internationally." As well, Carrabre noted the university was also concerned about the implications of the bill for academic freedom.

There was a similar response from University of Manitoba President Emöke Szathmáry and Board of Governors Chair Pamela LeBoldus. In a letter to Premier Gary Filmon, Szathmáry and LeBoldus said that Section 12, which deals with the issue of program review and evaluation, creates "the potential for inappropriate measures to be used in the evaluation of academic programs."

Similarly, they observed that the implication of Section 14, which deals with program changes, is "that the universities will have to seek approval for every conceivable change."

Bill 32 figured prominently in discussion and debate at the Western Regional Conference of Faculty Associations hosted by Brandon University Faculty Association, Oct. 16 to 18. At a press conference in Brandon on Oct. 17, CAUT President Bill Bruneau advised reporters of the gravity of the situation in Manitoba.

"What happens in Manitoba affects all of Canada," he said. "And it isn't just that it affects all Canadian university professors, it affects all Canadian university students, and, through them, all Canadian families who concern themselves with public education and the university system."

Bruneau predicted that, if passed in its present form, Bill 32 would usher in an era of mediocrity in Manitoba's universities.

On the final day of the Western regional conference, delegates unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning Bill 32 and calling on the government to adopt amendments proposed by university senates and faculty associations.

The final chapter in the Bill 32 saga commenced Oct. 21 with the hearings of the Legislative Committee on Law Amendments. Professor Bruneau spoke on behalf of CAUT and was followed by a long list of presenters from university faculties, administrations and student organizations, the majority of whom called on the government to amend the bill to protect the institutional arrangements that define the university in contemporary society.

A minority of presenters, including the presidents of the student unions at the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, endorsed Bill 32, in the belief, apparently, that the minister and council will consult with at least some students in their deliberations.

It should be noted, as well, that on Oct. 24, the Winnipeg Free Press gave its blessing to Bill 32, urging the minister to stand firm in the face of opposition from university teachers and administrators: "The new council may make bad decisions, but at least those decisions will be made by a publicly accountable authority and will be subject to public debate. Decisions made by the academics and their committees gave us the university programs we have now."

Bill 32 is now on its way to third reading. The government has said there will be some amendments. Academic policies will be added to the list of university activities that must be respected by the government-appointed council -- except, that is, in the application of program changes as spelled out in Section 14.

As well, Sections 11 and 12, which detail the duties and powers of the council, will be amended to require, on some matters, consultation with universities before the minister or council take action. However, the main thrust of Bill 32, which is to give the minister and council much more control over universities, remains intact.

Precisely what Bill 32 will mean in practice remains to be seen -- although certainly all the signs are ominous. We were reminded by Jean Friesen, NDP education critic, during the debate on Bill 32, that during the University of Manitoba strike in the fall of 1995, Premier Filmon referred to universities as "mandated irrelevancies."

The question now is whether Premier Filmon wasn't talking about the present state of universities in Manitoba but rather forecasting their future under his government.

Errol Black and Robert Chernomas are respectively, President of Brandon University Faculty Association and President of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.