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Mediator called in as strike deadlines loom for University of Western Ontario

Dr. Amit Chakma, the President of The University of Western Ontario, is photographed on campus on in London, Ont. Sept. 4/2009.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The University of Western Ontario is making a last-ditch effort to avert strikes that could cancel virtually all its classes, with faculty in a position to stop work Wednesday and staff potentially close behind.

Faculty members fear long-standing notions of respect for tenure and academic autonomy are being threatened after the university sought changes to the way it reviews professors' performance. The university is arguing for a system that could ultimately see even established teachers fired.

The University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), which represents 1,700 professors and academic staff, calls the proposal an unprecedented "post-tenure evaluations system" that would leave faculty feeling less free to speak out.

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All sides declined to discuss specifics publicly, but UWO president and vice-chancellor Amit Chakma said recently that tenure and academic freedom are at the heart of any university and "are not - nor have they ever been - up for negotiation."

After months of talks, UWOFA scheduled meetings with a provincial mediator all day Monday and Tuesday, and will extend bargaining beyond the strike deadline if it is still "fruitful." Should UWOFA strike at midnight Tuesday, residences will stay open, as will libraries and most other facilities, though some with shorter hours.

Meanwhile, the University of Western Ontario Staff Association (UWOSA), which represents 1,100 administrative and technical staff, faces a similar strike deadline at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, supported by 95 per cent of members. The union continues to bargain after meeting with a conciliator Monday.

UWO spokesperson Helen Connell said "everybody is bargaining in good faith" and remains "cautiously optimistic," noting the school has never had a faculty strike.

Though wage increases are at issue for both unions, a recent plea from the Ontario government for a two-year wage freeze in new public-sector contracts has yet to have an impact on most university negotiations. Instead, UWO's proposed "performance management" measures have dominated discussions with faculty.

"That's the principle reason we got the strong strike vote," said Prof. James Compton, president of UWOFA, since wages had not yet been discussed when 87 per cent of his members approved a strike mandate.

Under the new system, faculty would be reviewed by departments, as they are now, but those evaluations would then go to a "central committee" that could impose discipline, amounting in some cases to eventual dismissal, Prof. Compton said.

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"That doesn't exist anywhere in Canada," he said.

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Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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