October 20-21, 2017 CAUT Contract Academic Staff Conference, Toronto, ON

This article, written by StFXAUT Member Deidre M. Smythe, Part-Time Academic Instructor, Sociology Department, appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of The Beacon.

There’s an old saying that goes roughly: “it costs money to be cheap”. It is the idea that paying a fair price for a good quality item that lasts for years makes sound economic sense. Investment in cheap goods will likely cost you more money in the long run. I heard it forty years ago from a tough old iron worker who hailed from Nova Scotia – he was a raising gang foreman on the CN Tower Antenna Project in 1974. To me, this pithy epithet aptly describes the current predicament of Part-Time Academic Faculty in academic settings world-wide. The economic model upon which present-day universities are managed has been extrapolated from the business world. Universities are now run like businesses – regrettably, I had a student who recently submitted a written assignment that began with the statement: “Universities ARE businesses!”.

It is quite rare these days to find a university president with a traditional academic background – this used to be the norm. More and more administrative positions in universities are being created with bloated wages that situate them high on the Sunshine List. This is drawn from the current practice in the business world of giving inflated salaries to executives and the CEOs of companies. One of the ways universities can afford to pay these administrators is through hiring more and more poorly paid, Part-Time Teaching Staff, creating a situation where precarious work in universities has become the norm, and an acknowledged crisis. The strategy began in the mid-1970s and has been getting progressively worse ever since (Rajagopal and Farr 269). Nathan R. Elliott, a Professor and Chair of the English Department at Memorial University (Grenfell Campus), NL, has written an opinion piece in The Independent on the costs of exploiting Contract Academic Faculty. He argues that ‘a workplace is as strong as it treats its most vulnerable employees’. Universities are more and more dependent on Contract Faculty to function economically, yet in many cases they are treated as if they are invisible by administrators and put in icy competition with tenured faculty. Ironically, I believe the commodification of Contract Academic Faculty represents an addiction that will ultimately cost universities more money – it’s become a failed economic strategy. In other words, it costs money to be cheap.

I attended the Contract Academic Staff Conference held October 20-21, 2017, in Toronto. It was the first conference of its kind organized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in seven years. Two more Professors from StFX attended: Professor Martin Sastri from Catholic Studies who is the Part-time Academic Faculty Representative for the StFXAUT, and Professor Mary Oxner, the President of StFXAUT. Not only was I pleased to be chosen as a delegate, what I learned there gave me some real hope that things can improve for Contract and Part-Time Academic Staff in Canada. The exploitive use of Contract Academic Faculty has become a controversial issue, increasingly supported by the higher ranks of academia. At the conference, Alison Hearn from Western University reported that its Union was successful in mobilizing tenured faculty to argue for full-time justice for Part-Time Faculty in their recent contract negotiations. They put this issue at the top of their bargaining agenda, and used it as a way to focus on what can unite academic workers.

Cartoon originally published in January 13, 1997, The New Yorker
Artist: Leo Cullum

The Contract Academic Staff Conference was divided into a simple agenda of theory and praxis: the default categories of academic work. Day One consisted of a lecture series of five presentations of ongoing research in the area of precarious academic work by fourteen presenters from universities across Canada. The scholarship of the individual researchers was superb. At the end of the sessions, delegates were organized into five groups: Building a Collective Bargaining Response (the language of a collective agreement), Filing Grievances, Creating Attractive Audio-Visual Material, Making Effective Smart Phone Movies, and Communicating through the Media. On Day Two, participants were given a theoretical scenario where they were allowed to develop practical activist skills: the Great North University Academic Staff Association (GNUASA) received notice that 26 Contract Academic Staff (CAS) would not be re-appointed and had called a special membership meeting. I was in Group One that developed the collective agreement language response – though I knew nothing about it, the educational measure of this experience was astonishing. The last session involved the groups’ presentations, which included both the practical accomplishments and a great deal of hilarity.

Not all who attended the conference were Contract Academic Staff: many were full-time, tenured Faculty. What I brought away from the conference were the possibilities for unity and respect that could be created among all ranks of academic workers. I would like to point out the strategies for creating alliances between contract and tenured Faculty developed by Dr. Sarika Bose in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Dr. Bose suggested awareness campaigns, paper-editing and CV groups for positive improvement, readings groups, professional development events which increase part-time staff’s visible identity as a community of scholars, colloquia, and publication displays. Dr. Bose’s attitude of the necessity of facilitating alliances between all Faculty Members was refreshing but a bit daunting – if Contract Academic Faculty are to succeed in improving their circumstances, we need the help of tenured Faculty – and asking for help is always a humbling proposition.


Elliott, Nathan R. “The Hidden Costs of Exploiting Contract Faculty.” The Independent.ca. August 17, 2017. http://theindependent.ca/2017/08/17/the-hidden-costs-of-exploiting-contract-faculty/. Retrieved 11/14/2017.

Rajagopal, Indhu and William D. Farr. The Political Economy of Part-time Work in Canada. Higher Education, Vol. 18, No. 3(1989), pp. 267-285.