Why UW? Reflections on How UW Operates

David Porreca, FAUW President

In my 22 months’ experience as FAUW President, I have had the opportunity to attend a number of meetings with my counterpart colleagues from other institutions at the provincial level under the auspices of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA – of which our own Kate Lawson is President) and at the federal level under the Canadian Association of University Teachers(CAUT). At these meetings one thing inevitably stands out to me in the starkest possible terms: how differently UW operates as compared to other institutions.

Generally speaking, the tone of interaction between faculty representatives elsewhere and their institutions is one of chronic mistrust and by-default antagonism. By contrast, UW manages to operate smoothly, with open and constructive dialogue on issues and concerns happening through well-recognized, well-respected and effective channels (e.g., Faculty Relations Committee (FRC), FAUW’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee (AF&T)).

In my experience observing other large organizations both academic and non-academic, institutions end up with the unions they deserve, initially as a result of poor management. UW somehow has avoided such pitfalls.

So, what makes UW operate so differently? I’ve been puzzling over this question and have the following speculations to offer, most at the intersection of faculty working conditions and financial considerations:

1) UW’s decentralized structure

There are few if any other universities where both Chairs and Deans hold so much power as compared to central administrators. There are a number of problems that result from this situation but, on the whole, these problems tend to be relatively easily ring-fenced and solved – in no small part thanks to FAUW’s AF&T Committee. By contrast, bad decisions at other more centralized institutions tend to have a much broader impact and be that much more difficult to overturn and/or solve.

2) The role of FAUW

As much as UW’s decentralized structure helps to keep problems manageable, FAUW’s role as I see it is to identify, highlight and help spread the good ideas that appear organically within the relatively siloed units on our campus.

3) Good hiring committees

Despite the theme of point 1, upper-level administrators do have an outsized importance on our lives as academics. UW – with FAUW’s input – has been wise in whom it has chosen to sit on the hiring committees of upper-level administrators. Having right-minded people [on this, see point 4 below] on hiring committees has meant that, by and large, we have ended up with right-minded people running our institution.

4) Right-mindedness & problem-solving

There is a functional recognition of the importance of scholarship as the main purpose of our institution, i.e., the dynamic interplay between teaching and research, faculty and students. This common cause of scholarship is underpinned by a shared vision of the importance of academic freedom, collegial governance and principles of equity. This has led to a collaborative atmosphere in which the vast majority of the problems that arise get resolved without the intervention of expensive lawyers or arbitrators (see point 5 below).

5) Grievance resolution by peers

As a non-unionized faculty association, we do not rely on expensive external arbitrators to resolve internal academic disputes involving faculty members. Instead, we have a process of appointing as-needed tribunals of peers whose membership is a) mutually agreeable to all parties; b) expert in the local culture of our institution; c) much cheaper than externally hired arbitrators. These tribunals are used for all tenure and promotion appeals and are an option for most forms of formal grievances, and they typically resolve disputes in a matter of 3-4 months, as opposed to elsewhere where the turnaround time can be counted in years. The upside is that the cost of operations is much, much lower both for the administration of the university and for the faculty association. Indeed, the mil rate used to calculate FAUW dues is the third lowest in Canada, and is one-half to one-third the rate used at the majority of other universities. The downside is that the task of defending faculty interests involves voluminous volunteer service work for FAUW and its subcommittees, AF&T in particular.

Come back next week as David lays out five more reasons that contribute to the University of Waterloo’s success!

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