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Education York University, contract professors no closer to ending strike which could impact graduation for thousands

CUPE 3903 is engaged in a dispute with York University over turning contract professors into full-time positions.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

As more than half of York University’s 47,000 students wonder whether the month-long strike will delay their graduation, the university and the union representing contract professors are no closer to reconciling a fundamental difference in their vision of how universities should be run.

The dispute centers on the union’s position that York has an obligation to provide tenure-track positions to long-serving part-time faculty who have proved themselves to be talented instructors and scholars. York, however, insists that it will only hire permanent professors through traditional academic search processes that cast a global net in search of the latest cutting-edge researchers.

Tenure-track jobs are “are decades-long investments,” said Lisa Philipps, York’s interim provost. “They are the most important decisions we make about the quality and excellence at the university. … We make some exceptions because we know we have talented [part-time] faculty, but those have to be exceptions.”

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For CUPE 3903, the York University chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, enshrining the right of as many as 20 part-time instructors to move to permanent positions annually – the number it tabled as a negotiating position – would be a victory over precarious academic work.

“We want to increase the number of [permanent] people because we want our members to not be precarious workers, and to actually have stable full-time work if they are qualified for that work,” said Julian Arend, the vice-president of CUPE 3903.

Last year, eight such “conversions” were made, a number that is higher than average, the university has said. It wants to limit these tenure-stream positions to two a year. Since the “conversion” program began in 1988, 124 part-time instructors have gained tenure-stream appointments through it.

The debate comes as Canadian universities compete for international expertise and collaborations, with the federal government pumping in $117.6-million last year into a one-time Canada 150 Research Chairs program to recruit international experts who are leaders in their fields. Such marquee programs, however, have been criticized for ignoring the plight of thousands of Canadian PhD graduates who cannot find tenure-track positions at home.

Tenure-track openings are limited at York as elsewhere. After hovering between 55 and 60 hires for the past several years, next year York plans to hire 88 tenure-stream professors, according to numbers provided by the university, renewing just under 6 per cent of its total permanent faculty ranks. (About 45 per cent of instructors at York are contract teachers.)

Part-time or sessional instructors at York can hold their own against global researchers, CUPE 3903 insists. Out of the 124 “conversions,’ only two people have failed to reach tenure, it says.

“You don’t get converted simply on seniority, you get converted because there is the expectation that you will be able to go through the regular tenure process and you will be able to publish,” said Terry Maley, a political-science professor.

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Dr. Maley became a tenure-track professor in the mid-2000s after teaching at York for several years. By the time he was hired, he had published an article based on his dissertation and had a book publishing deal in hand.

Nothing bars qualified part-time professors from applying for available tenure-track positions, the university says. In fact, part-time instructors who meet the stated qualifications of a posting are guaranteed an interview, a significant advantage when a single job opening can attract hundreds of applications.

To guarantee them a job, however, would mean limiting the talent flowing into Canada, deans said in several interviews.

“The reason that we want people in open searches is that knowledge, and the nature of the problems that we are trying to address, are constantly changing,” said Paul McDonald, the dean of the faculty of health.

His own faculty has hired permanent professors from the pool of part-time instructors who are outstanding scholars, he said. But how research is done is changing, he added.

“Entire fields of study are emerging now that did not exist a year ago,” he said. Some areas – health informatics or analytics, for example – require interdisciplinary expertise that only select researchers have developed.

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“Many of them are quite recent graduates whose expertise combine in different fields like computer science, mathematics, health policy, and they bring all that together in a unique way in a field that did not exist previously,” he said.

Although other universities have similar processes through which part-time faculty with long-term teaching and research experience gain long-term job security, York University’s program is the only one in Ontario where sessional instructors can become tenure-track professors. A proposal this year by the union representing sessional instructors at the University of Toronto to launch a “conversion” program was not successful.

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