When Alison Hearn stepped up to the plate that is the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), things were a bit hectic.
“I assumed the position early because Jeff Tennant, the previous president, stepped down to become the chief negotiator. That was a bit of a perfect storm, because I was teaching full-time,” said the Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor.
Hearn took up the post of UWOFA president Feb. 18, after serving the union in various capacities, including vice-president.
“The learning curve was pretty steep, and we were gearing up for negotiations. Last semester, before the summer, was a very crazy one for me,” she said. “But I had a ton of support.”
As her name came up as a possible replacement for Tennant, Hearn thought, ‘Why not?’ It was an opportunity to blend her academic, professional and personal interests.
“I care a lot about the state of Western, and universities in general. In fact, it’s one of my research areas. I write about the history of the university in the West. I know quite a lot about the history of the institution, and, more recently, I’ve been writing about the transformations and changes we’ve seen in the university system in Canada – so it seemed to kind of make sense, that maybe, I give it a try,” she said.
It was almost five years ago when Hearn first got involved with UWOFA, just before the last round of faculty contract negotiations. She remembers the time as both “exhilarating and terrifying,” as a strike was nearly imminent.
In November 2010, UWOFA ratified a new collective agreement by a vote of 521-85 (86 per cent) in favour of the deal. As part of that four-year contract, UWOFA members received scale salary increases of 1.5 per cent each year.
“They came close to striking and I was kind of in the middle of that. But really, it let me see how powerful teamwork can be, how powerful it can be to work with other people on a common cause, and with my colleagues across the university,” Hearn said.
From where she sits now, she has a number of tasks ahead of her – some pressing and challenging, others ongoing and systemic. But in any case, Hearn is optimistic UWOFA is doing everything it can for the common good of Western’s professoriate.
“Leaving negotiations aside, I think our goal, and my goal, is to really reach out in the association, to rebuild it and renew it – to bring younger folks on board, to reach out to areas in the university we might not have historically been that active in,” she explained.
“And also, when negotiations are done, which they will be, soon enough, one of the reasons we have a new communications officer is to do more outreach in the community, and to keep the profile of UWOFA high in between negotiations, so we don’t only appear on the public’s radar when we’re at the table,” she continued.
In the meantime, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room.
Current negotiations are heating up, and with an appointed conciliator, Hearn is hopeful and expects things to resolve amicably. While the problems she said plague contract academic faculty – among them job security, benefits and compensation – are systemic, she thinks gains can still be made, even if the issues can’t be entirely resolved at the table.
“UWOFA’s core mission is to defend and support the work of our members – that means high quality teaching and research,” Hearn said.
“Obviously contract negotiations are the primary place where those sorts of things are discussed and worked out. Our members told us this round, when we went through a fairly rigorous process of identifying goals, the top priorities for them were compensation and benefits, and also enhanced job security, stability and compensation and benefits for contract faculty,” she said.
“I think the key thing people might not realize is how the professoriate looks now is not the clichéd version of tenured professors making a really good salary, teaching very little,” Hearn continued.
“Our goal is to try and educate the outside world about this change. We recognize this isn’t unique to Western. These are shifts in the nature of what work in the university looks like. And it happens across the sector. We’re not signaling Western out, but it’s where we are.”
Full-time tenured faculty, and those in tenure-track positions, recognize their fates depend on the fates of contract faculty, and vice-versa, Hearn added. Things like workload and issues of academic freedom bring the two sides together.
“Tenure track and tenured appointments are crucial to academic freedom and that’s central to the university’s mission. Without tenure, you don’t have academic freedom. If you’re working on a contract, you don’t have job security and you don’t have academic freedom,” she said.