Message from the President – Update on Reopening

Dear Colleagues,

The start of the new academic year is normally a time of nervous excitement. For some of you that is the main feeling now. For others of you this return is much more complex—it is a time of health concerns for yourself, your family members, your students.

I write this on Friday, 3 September. Some UBC courses have already started; most courses begin next week. We still do not have all of the details on the implementation of the “soft vaccine mandate.” We don’t have the promised revisions to the reopening guidelines. We do not even have clear and consistent guidelines across the Faculties on matters such as the faculty role in implementing the mask mandate, the degree to which courses must meet in-person, and other fundamental matters. UBC, while behind on such informational matters, has nonetheless managed to introduce a crisis of institutional autonomy by claiming, without ever providing a clear statement of the case, that it is legally prevented from taking a number of pandemic-mitigation actions that other leading universities in Canada implemented weeks ago. The situation is chaotic and in many ways incomprehensible. Many of us have rational fear for our own health or the health of loved ones; many of us worry about the reputational damage to UBC wrought by its institutional weakness during this time.

The Faculty Association continues to attempt to provide some order for our members from the chaos. Throughout the reopening process since March 2021—indeed throughout the pandemic since March 2020—the Faculty Association has been guided by two overarching principles. First, we wish to protect our members from endless increases to their workload, increases that differentially fall on those with high teaching loads and that also present obstacles to achieving the excellence in research or educational leadership that UBC demands in the tenure process. Second, we insist that the mere historical fact of a pandemic must not be used to alter the traditional practices of the University. The second principle means, in practice, that all collegial processes associated with the collective agreement and beyond, must be reengaged as the University returns to normal operations as these processes and practices should not have been altered by exigencies beyond our members’ control. Administrators should not have new powers—nor should individual faculty members have new powers—coming out of the pandemic. There have been no agreements made that alter the terms and conditions of employment, nor the processes by which those are implemented in the workplace.

The central contradiction of the planning of the fall term has been that, while on the one hand the reopening was predicated upon “return to normal” and those normal processes should have been reengaged for this term, the public health emergency has not in fact been cancelled and will not be cancelled any time soon. Hence, the University needs to implement various extraordinary measures in an effort to simulate a form of normalcy. In this, lines of authority between government and the University, among various bodies and offices of the University, between Deans, Heads, and faculty members have become crossed or blurred. It will take a long time to reestablish trust within the institution. It will require a strong effort to reestablish the proper autonomy of the institution from the government.

But first there is still much to do on the covid-19 front. Here are some things the FA is doing for its members:

We are still demanding access to various documents from the administration. For example, it is now almost eight weeks since we asked for the internal risk assessment. We have been assured one has been done and that our members will not be subject to “undue risk.” But such assurances are fundamentally insufficient — until we actually see the risk assessment we cannot know what risks (or benefits) to increased in-person teaching there are in the eyes of the University or what it believes “undue risk” amounts to. Workers in BC have the right to know the hazards in their workplaces and UBC owes us this information. Similarly, we have asked for the actual legal argument UBC believes underlies its claims that it cannot go beyond the PHO orders and implement a more stringent vaccine mandate. The University owes its employees an account of its reasoning, especially when independent legal experts dispute its judgment. Third, we have asked for communications that we understand UBC has received from various offices of the government that pertain to this legal question. Similarly, because each Dean seems to be providing somewhat different instructions to their Faculties, we have asked to receive all memos from all the Deans pertaining to the reopening so we can finally find out what is being communicated to our members. We are unsure why UBC has been unable to have one clear and consistent message to its entire academic community. This is a failure of leadership and has caused endless equity concerns across our membership.

We have also engaged our own legal counsel on a number of issues, from large questions of institutional autonomy to detailed questions of equity across Faculties and workplace safety. Under WorkSafe rules, UBC employees have the right to know about hazards in their workplace, to participate in health and safety planning, and to refuse unsafe work. We will shortly be providing more detailed advice to members on what these rights mean in the current public health emergency.

We are also in consultation with the University to press our concerns about workload, especially for contract faculty and those with high teaching loads, and for pre-tenure members who are already finding it hard to start or continue their research or educational leadership activities given the additional workload pressures. We also would like to come to an agreement with the University that this chaotic teaching term, with different rules in different faculties, with students in large numbers arriving late to campus, and with public health uncertainty not be subject to student experience of instruction evaluations. Front-line faculty bear too much of the exposure to student frustrations that are beyond the control of the faculty members teaching their courses.

We thank you, our members, for your patience. We are a small organization with a huge membership and we are dealing with rapidly changing circumstances, a fragmented and at times recalcitrant employer, and a government agenda that we cannot get a clear understanding of. Thank you to all of you who have called, emailed, and shared your concerns with us. We will continue to press for the information we requested and advocate for the safest possible working and learning conditions at UBC.

Alan Richardson