Authorial Note: While the urgency of this piece is now somewhat dated due to the end of the strikes at the University of Toronto and York University earlier this year, I still felt that the longer form of this piece, of which a shorter version will soon be published in the University of Toronto’s Varsity, would shed some light on the most recent university strikes, and how those relate to a much wider context. This original longer version was finished on March 25th, 2015. 

          The University of Toronto’s Art and Science (A&S) Faculty prides itself as “…a vibrant intellectual community of students and scholars who are deeply committed to excellence, discovery and diversity” and while it may be entirely true that some of the students and some of the scholars are, a more accurate reading would be,

…a vibrant intellectual community of students and scholars who are deeply committed to be paid fairly, while held under a leadership and donor community whose demographic is mostly of the world- renown ‘1%’ that pursue excellence in keeping your money, discovering people are angry, and diversifying the importance and standing of a degree awarded by them.

Responding with anger however, as any member of the alumni of the University of Toronto’s A&S faculty may be, the most recent announcement of the Dean of the faculty, David Cameron, is only the most recent example of the long descendent of universities world-wide from the peak of institutions of immense public importance into diploma mills. ‘Diploma mill’, used of the eccentric community college, Greendale, on the now recently resurrected Yahoo sitcom Community (2009- ), use to be a form of insult toward universities and colleges that merely printed degrees as receipts but clearly did not mean much—for the University of Toronto’s A&S faculty however, being a diploma mill is a heroic endeavor. With Cameron beginning his message by assuring the students who are now missing their classes because the faculty has been “deprived of the benefits of their [Unit 1 members] work” that he understands just what a stressful time it has been for everyone—the rhetorical ploy of assigning the blame to the Unit 1 members in order to identify with the students has been successfully achieved. To those students that are understandably anxious about exams, finals, and finishing their degrees on time, Cameron has now set-up CUPE 3902 as the ‘bad guys’ as he prepares to give them their consolation prize of a degree completed on time. Cameron states that “…it is the goal of the Faculty of Arts & Science to ensure that you will be able to complete your courses and progress in your degree, and that those who are on track to convocate in June will be able to graduate”—‘rest assured students we will not refund your tuition for this semester or make you take more time to finish your degree, is that not the best you could hope for?’ For those students that just want to get in and get out, this might appear to be really great news, because despite those grubby greedy CUPE members (causing all their shenanigans of wanting a livable wage!!!) they will nevertheless be able to finish their degree on time and get on with their lives. But even for those students, what Cameron proposes should make anyone now begin to doubt just how much the University of Toronto actually cares about the standard of their education and what a degree from the University stands for in terms of further employment or further studies.

       Cameron essentially puts forward two separate but equally offensive proposals as to how he will make sure that students graduate on time, and that the university will get to keep the tuition money their students, very many of whom receive their finances through government loans, have paid or are currently paying—‘what’s the problem?’ The problem essentially is that both of these proposals significantly decrease the value of the degree that these students may have had already worked for several years to receive—yes, they will finish on time and the university gets to keep its money, but the value of end result of the degree is so severally compromised that even the students who want their degree purely for motivates concerning economic value for the jobs that they hope to receive because of it, should be outraged. Cameron’s two worrisome proposals consists of: (i) the extension of the date by which a student may drop a class or choose the option of having the course graded credit or no-credit “…until after they have seen their final grades…” and (ii) because of a student vote in which “…in accordance with the University’s Grading Practices Policy…” they have agreed to “alter the marking scheme” the grades in some courses will effectively be strongly influenced by how the students want to be graded whether the class continues to be taught or not. Shaun McKinnon, a 2013 graduate of the University of Toronto’s A&S faculty with high distinction and who is one of those outraged, sums up quite well effectively what these two proposals mean,

…This allows students to bundle their bad grades, unseen, into a pristine AAA University of Toronto degree just like a sub-prime mortgage. And, just like a sub-prime mortgage, that degree may turn out to be a toxic asset. Allowing students to effectively choose their own marking scheme, as well as dictate which courses count for credit and which ones do not (after they have been completed), fundamentally compromises the integrity of a degree from the University of Toronto…

Just to further illustrate just how ridiculous these proposals are, consider another moment from the Yahoo sitcom Community, in its episode “Introduction to Teaching” from the fifth season. When the character Annie Edison, played by Alison Brie, finds out that she got an ‘A minus’ on her assignment because the instructor held a grudge against her, and that all such ‘minus’ grades are fabricated because instructors may not like a particular student, she starts a riot. ‘Minuses are made up!’ is the cry of Greendale, a fictional comedic school, but now the actual worry and cry of hardworking students of the very real University of Toronto is that ‘Pluses are made up!’ Now we could all hope and trust that some of these students will do their best to fairly grade themselves, but the very principle of a self-evaluated student makes the degree bearing the name ‘The University of Toronto’ no different any than other school. For those of us that went to the university specifically because we wanted the best education we could possibly get in our country, the reputation and importance of the value of all of our degrees, and those effected by the strike especially, is brought into grave questioning—and it shouldn’t have to be, for all those of us who appreciated our learning, our degrees, our professors, and the value of our education.

          The decision of Cameron to sacrifice the reputation and standing of a degree from a prestigious institution for no other apparent reason than to simply not pay its employees more or refund tuition money in the midst of this strike however is unfortunately not without precedent. As professor of tax law at Osgoode Hall Law School, Neil Brooks, and op-ed columnist at the Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig, point out in their co-authored work The Trouble with Billionaires (Viking Canada: 2010), the University of Toronto in most recent years has been increasing naming buildings on the campus not after distinguished Canadians like Tommy Douglas, but rather “…after people whose distinctive characteristic is the possession of lots of money” (192). In fact many universities in Canada suffer having to rely on philanthropy for the funding of their institutions, because of the cutting of funds to education in particular in the 1990s. Also without much surprise the need to cut funds to education was due in part because the government was no long collecting as much tax revenue due to cutting the tax levels of corporations and wealthy individuals, upon whom our once valued public institutions of critical inquiry now rely for their funding. The philanthropists save money on tax, the government cuts education spending to get back the money they lost on cutting the philanthropists tax levels, so that in turn our public institutions have become reliant on the ‘generosity’ of their wealthy donors (195). One particular example as to how the University of Toronto’s increasing service to and reliance upon the ‘1%’ of Canada’s elite would aversely affect public education, in addition to Cameron’s recent proposals for the current strike, is the establishing of the Munk School of Global affairs. In April 2010 Peter Munk, the former chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company announced with the University of Toronto a donation of $35 million dollars to establish the Munk School of Global Affairs—a Canadian equivalent of the London School of Economics, if you will. Now while Tad Brown, an administrator at the university has assured people that the academic freedom of the school’s students to research will in no way be affected by, overseen, or influenced by Peter Munk and Barrick Gold’s interests, it hardly likely that Munk would be too pleased with any research critical of his company’s environmental practices and treatment towards indigenous groups in Chile, Argentina, Peru, the Philippines and else (195-198).

          Many students may enroll at the University of Toronto just because of its prestige and elite status, now ranking according to some estimate as 4th in international rankings of top universities around the world but at least that prestige had behind it the truth that a student could rely upon getting a solid education there—now it seems as if the prestige may be not much more the glitter of the wealthy funders of it. Cameron’s proposals, while appearing to be on the side of the undergraduate students, and trying to make its own employees and graduate students the ‘bad-guy’, in fact is cheating them out of the value of their own education—a major detriment to their further careers and education. Motivated by the same impulses that established the Munk School of Global Affairs, to keep its exuberant funding protected, the University of Toronto’s A&S faculty in particular is squandering its reputation and effectiveness as a much-needed public institution of critical thought and analysis. Sadly further still to close, this phenomenon of the public institution of the university becoming a servant to oligarchs, is not constricted by Canadian boarders but is a global phenomenon. Pulitzer-prize winning journalists Chris Hedges, writes in his work Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Vintage Canada: 2009) that,

…if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions do, then examining and reforming social and political systems is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist systems. College presidents, many of whom earn salaries that rival those of corporate executives, must often devote their energies to fund-raising rather than to education. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge-fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are often examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The slavish honoring of the rich by elite schools, despite the lofty rhetoric about public service, is clear to the students. The object is to make money. These institutions have an insatiable appetite for donations and constant fund-raising campaigns to boost multibillion-dollar endowments. This constant need can be met only by producing rich alumni. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists (104-105)