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I’ve become fascinated by the strike narratives. I admit it. I refresh the #cupe stream on my twitter every time there’s about to be a vote.

Sadly, it seems that the media are still completely out to lunch regarding how universities work. In two separate articles, the Globe and Mail repeated that university faculty are meant to do two things: teaching and research.

Canadian universities say they can no longer afford to deliver higher education through tenured academics who may spend more than a third of their time engaged in research. Instead, most universities have decided that, to staff their classrooms at reasonable cost, they must turn, in varying degrees, to contract instructors and teaching-track faculty.

So, what about service? I guess that’s now the job of those expensive administrators?

Let’s get a few things clear:

  • Research is most important to sciences (hard, social, whatever). The humanities take a hit for being useless on the job market, but they get bums in seats and they are cheap.
  • It’s usually the university, rather than the profs, who want to (a) see ever-increasing results in the form of published articles in top journals, and (b) bar professors who’d like to do a bit more teaching from the classroom.
  • No one — seriously, NO ONE — is complaining about teaching-track faculty, which I am glossing as “job security for instructors of record”. Can I repeat that? This is a good thing. Unfortunately, most universities don’t really want to give that job security. Take a look at CUPE’s settlement for contract faculty: it includes a measly 24 positions a year out of a membership of more than 1000.
    • I also just want to add that while it’s stressful to be contract faculty in Ontario because you have to reapply for your job constantly (remember that terms are only 12 weeks long!), it is nowhere near as stressful to be employed in Canada as it is to be an American adjunct. Let’s just stop pretending, okay?

I don’t want to blame just one newspaper. Here’s another example from The Toronto Star’s education columnist:


Tenure-y? Tenure-y?! Aren’t writers paid to use real words?  (Also, let’s just remind ourselves: “3x as many” = 24. Peanuts! The base amount matters, people.)

This article, also from the Star, gets the trio right. But he doesn’t really understand the concept:

…full-time professors who spend as little as 40 per cent of their time in the classroom, thanks to the traditional formula that tenured professors swear by: 40-40-20.

Under their hallowed rules, most professors spend a mere 40 per cent of their time teaching; 40 per cent on research; and 20 per cent on “service work” (which can mean helping out their department or other activities).

Do you like purple, sir? Because your prose is violet (see what I did there?).

Um, no. This touted ratio is an estimate, not a requirement. No one swears by it, and it varies from institution to institution (York professors teach more classes per year than U of T professors, for example). It’s hardly “a template” for an entire group of career professionals. (Although I do agree with his closing statement:

a 2012 study of public universities in 28 countries found that Canadian professors were the best paid (after accounting for differences in currencies), with salaries rising 46 per cent from 2001 to 2009, three times the inflation rate.

Yes, but not because of his rationale (Canada has more tenured professors than other countries). It’s because of the Sunshine List.)

It’s not just the pro-university writers who are apt to exaggerate, either. This largely pro-strike article, like many others, claims (incorrectly) that it is the Evil Faceless University who calls students ‘BIUs’. As this evenhanded report from the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations points out, though, this is actually a term coined by the provincial government. So yes, you have a faceless mandarin to thank for why Johnny is unhappy at UTSC, but it’s a faceless mandarin from the Ministry, not the University.

Maybe it’s the fault of their informants, not the writers themselves — but here I thought journalists were supposed to verify.