Wednesday, January 28, 2009

York's Disastrous Public Relations Policy

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By all accounts, the strike at York University has been hard on everyone directly involved, and it has been difficult for the families of those involved as well. As in most crises, however, it has not been equally difficult for everyone. For three months, I have withstood blizzards, minus double-digit degree weather, the stress of witnessing my colleagues physically threatened or attacked, and a steady stream of verbal abuse from a small, vocal group of undergraduates whose knowledge of basic grammar is lamentable. The president and senior administrators have avoided doing their jobs properly while being paid six-figure salaries, preferring instead to bargain through the media. The public relations section of York’s budget is at least twice that of the salaries of the striking workers, who do over 50% of the teaching at York.

Let’s look at the implications of this fact for a minute, and the rationale behind it. York seems to think that spending a vast amount of money on promoting the prestige of a degree from York, while spending as little as 7% of their budget on the overworked underpaid employees doing most of the teaching is a good idea to expand capacity. Well, let’s look at the results. A disgruntled workforce has initiated the longest strike in the post-secondary sector’s history, in Ontario at least. I know at least three extremely intelligent and talented graduate students that have dropped out in the last few months. Enrollments are down in most faculties. Has York’s strategy succeeded? Obviously not.

Like it or not, the public perceives education as the main function of a university, as shown by the tendency of media to emphasize the effects of the strike on undergraduate students. Granted, research is also an important function of our universities. However, considering the popular perception of the primacy of the educational function of universities, perhaps it is a better strategy to give graduate students and contract faculty a better deal and decrease the spending on public relations. As shown by the rapid rise of viral marketing and other forms of word-of-mouth and text-to-text marketing strategies, the field of public relations has changed dramatically. The money York has spent on advertising has basically gone down the toilet because of the resulting word-of-mouth discontent with it as an educational venue. Had the workers been satisfied with their contract, they would have been more prone to speak of York in glowing terms, and their social networks might have lighted up in York’s favour, rather than in their disfavour as the present situation has proved.

The obvious counter argument to this is that York is basing their pay of graduate students and contract faculty on norms for the sector. Maybe York should heed the rhetorical question my mother asked me whenever I told her I was about to do something bad because all the other kids were doing it: if they all jumped off a bridge, would you? Perhaps this strike can serve as a wake-up call for other universities.

Meanwhile, with class-action suits against York pending, where is the accountability? Senior administrators and some undergraduates have asked McGuinty’s government to intervene on their behalf. While I laud the simple act of becoming politically engaged, I think these undergraduates don’t understand the long-term implications of this intervention. Once they finally get their degree and enter the workforce, there looms this dangerous precedent of back-to-work legislation. The long sacred democratic right to negotiate working conditions through collective bargaining will have been forever undermined. Back-to-work legislation is by definition unconstitutional. These students are in effect shooting themselves in the foot in extremely slow motion. The wound will be no less painful when that bullet hits, though. And will the government hold York’s administration accountable? After all, they have massively mismanaged public funds.

I truly regret the negative effects of this strike on not only undergraduate students and my colleagues, but on the members of York’s staff, and the underpaid employees of York Lanes, the retail and service hub of the university, some of whose hours have been cut as a result of decreased business during the strike. The University has lost a lot of money from the decreased parking revenue. Tenured faculty no longer feel proud of their once mighty teaching and research institution. But you know what? I don’t regret going on strike. I know in my heart that my colleagues and I have stood up for justice and equity when no one else would.

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