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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2015

No time like the present

By Robin Vose
It seems that being an academic activist these days means living in a near-conti­nuous state of outrage. I feel it myself, as I’m sure has been evident in some of my columns over the past year. Perhaps the ability to healthily maintain such a state is a pre-requisite for engagement in academic staff association and CAUT service. The way things are going, it may soon be a necessity for all academic staff. Perhaps it is already.

There certainly is a lot to be angry about. The challenges facing university and college staff in the current politico-economic climate seem daunting at times, even insurmountable. Yet we keep on railing against them neverertheless. Because if we don’t speak up, and take action, to denounce the sorts of policies that threaten to undermine core values in our own profession, who will?

Yet there are good reasons to nurture a flame of optimism in spite of all the cold-hearted budget cuts, the hiring freezes, the chilling attacks on academic freedom, and the generally icy conditions that neo-liberal regimes seek to impose on our campuses. We’ve endured a long, harsh winter of austerity in recent years (just to beat that metaphor completely to death), and while it may be far from over there are signs of potential for a coming thaw. Canadians are after all a resilient lot, and we have a history of withstanding the bleakest conditions — only to emerge with new hope, determined to work for a better future.

It has been my privilege, and pleasure, to see the commitment and determination of Canadian academic activists from a wide range of vantage points over the last year. I have been inspired by movements to oppose program prioritization, and by patient efforts to expose the hypocrisies of administrative and political leaders who go about lamenting the need for cuts to education budgets while continuing to fill their own silk-lined pockets. I have been impressed by the quality of academic discourse that our colleagues continually generate, with clinical analyses and passionate denunciations alike proliferating in defense of higher education. I have been humbled to see expressions of solidarity manifest in all quarters of our campus workplaces as academic staff, students and members of the public at large realize more and more clearly the sorts of losses we all face if current trends are allowed to continue. The shabbiness of the emperor’s new clothes is indeed becoming painfully transparent, and our patience is wearing thin.

So as another academic year comes to an end, and we take stock to plan for changes we’d like to make in our teaching, our research programs, and our service obligations, we’d do well to also reflect on our potential to bring about broader change that can truly benefit both our workplaces and our wider communities.

As academic workers, we know very well how to bring about positive change; we do it all the time. In the classroom, in the lab, studio or field, and in community interventions is it quite simply our job to bring expertise and insight to bear on important issues. That’s why we so stubbornly maintain our efforts to do truly excellent academic work, in spite of the all-too-frequent shortfalls we experience in terms of institutional support — and sometimes even in spite of active discouragement from our employers. And that’s why when we extend our activism into the political sphere it does makes a difference. Academics tend to have a high voter turnout, our opinions are influential, and there are growing signs that university- and college-based mobilization is having a major impact on election results.

We live in interesting times. Electoral upheaval in Alberta reminds us that even rad­ical change can happen when people band together and make a concerted effort to have their voices heard. This month’s release of 94 recommendations along with the summary of the final report of the Truth and Re­conciliation Commission of Canada provides yet another example of hope for change in a seemingly intractable setting; if governments can be successfully pressured to implement the report’s recommendations, it could go a long way toward reversing at least some of the terrible damage inflicted on Aboriginal peoples by the colonialist residential school legacy.

And while we cannot rely on politicians to fix all our problems, as has been made evident in ongoing struggles over post-secon­dary education policy in Quebec and elsewhere, we also cannot afford to simply stand by and leave government decision making in the hands of big business, corporate lobbyists and anti-intellectual ideologues. We’ve already seen where that leads.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us, and there is a lot at stake. But academic workers are a force to be reckoned with, and we’ve proven that we don’t give up easily. In the months to come, let’s keep up the good work by standing together and speaking out for what we believe in. Now is our time to make a difference!