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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2015

The imperative to engage

By Robin Vose
Elections of new federal governments do not always inspire celebration in the Canadian academic community. But then again, elections rarely result in major reversals that directly respond to the concerns of academic workers. Only time will tell whether, and to what extent, the 42nd Canadian Parliament follows through with the repeal of Bills C-51, C-377, and C-525, and the same goes for promises to unmuzzle scientists and restore the long-form census. But already the establishment of new ministries for science and climate change has signaled a welcome sea change in government attitudes toward the importance of research integrity, and evidence-based policy.

Cause for celebration indeed. And for reflection on how renewals of our optimism and collective energies can best be used to positively impact the world we live in. A window of political opportunity has been opened, and one we cannot afford to ignore.

Academic staff, and particularly staff at publicly-funded institutions of higher learning, are used to the idea that the public interest lies at the heart of our work. We understand that fundamental modern problems such as climate change threaten global well-being. And we know that we have a unique potential to make a difference, whether in our capacity as specialized researchers and teachers or as informed citizen activists. We have a responsibility to use that potential wisely, wherever we can, including our own workplaces and professional associations.

Universities and colleges are, after all, major sites of consumption and waste production in their own right — imposing disproportionately large carbon footprints — and inevitably contributing to climate change. They are also important economic players whose investment decisions are far from negligible. Often the size of small towns or even cities, with budgets rising into the billions of dollars, they have the potential to set an example for other organizations and jurisdictions. The actions of academic unions and professional bodies, too, have wide-ranging, tangible and symbolic repercussions that impact far beyond the milieu of post-secondary education. Yet to date, many campus “green plans” have been cosmetic at best, and too often academic staff associations limit their own involvement to simply following along with management-directed initiatives.

Waiting for legislators or managers to take the lead in resolving complex problems has rarely served us well in the past, and passive acquiescence is never a desirable option for those who wish to have a real say in determining their rights and conditions of work. Around the world, trade unions and other worker organizations have therefore begun to take collective action, whether autonomously or in collaboration with like-minded partners, on improving environmental awareness in their workplaces and wider communities. Offices, committees and networks have been formed to explore and share best practices. Concrete steps are being taken to reduce fossil fuel emissions and other forms of waste. And political statements have been issued to make workers’ support for environmental responsibility clear to employers, investors and government lawmakers alike.

These types of actions can be more fully embraced by CAUT and its member orga┬şnizations. Environmental degradation affects us all, at work and at home, and it is up to us to do something about it. Of course there are many other pressing issues to be considered and acted on with equal urgency, yet the point here is not to focus on one at the expense of others. It is about recognizing our right, our potential, and our duty as an organized community of academic workers, to be politically engaged and vocal on the contemporary issues that concern us most.

If we are silent, if we limit ourselves to overly narrow conceptions of our associations’ scope for action, then we miss important opportunities and risk growing irrelevant at a time when our voices are in fact most needed. In these moments of cautious optimism above all, it is vital that we fully embrace our agency, our independence and our capacity for collective action. We owe this to ourselves, to our profession, to society and to the planet.