Trouble at St J's prompts vote
St. Jerome’s University Academic Staff Association to push for unionization
Adrienne RawStaff Reporter
The faculty of St. Jerome’s University (SJU) took a vote of no confidence in university president Dr. David Perrin on January 29. Of the 27 ballots cast, 20 were in favour of a “no confidence” motion, two were opposed, and four abstained. The final ballot was spoiled and thus not counted.
The vote sparked a flurry of responses from the community, including several articles and opinion pieces in The Record. But the vote is only a small piece of the story, one event in a long chain that has led to the current drive of SJU’s faculty association: unionization.
Before the arrival of new president David Perrin in August 2007, tension already existed between the Board of Governors and the faculty, and between the Dean and the faculty. “There were some serious issues,” said Dr. David Seljak, president of the university’s faculty association, “but they could have been worked out, and the new president, we thought, would help work them out. So we were very enthusiastic when he arrived, looking forward to working out these problems.”
What we’re seeing at SJU, said Seljak, is “a real crash in morale.”
“This crisis in morale,” he said, “preceded David Perrin’s arrival, but he hasn’t done enough to address it. In fact he’s made it worse.”
A recent campus climate survey aimed at determining the trust faculty and staff had in senior decision-makers revealed startling results with regards to staff morale. “The results were very bad,” said Prof. Steven Furino, a former professor at SJU who is currently teaching math at UW. Some of these numbers included the 80 per cent of all SJU employees who felt the senior administrators didn’t act transparently and the 50 per cent of employees who said they would leave the university if they could find suitable positions at another institution. Only 20 per cent of respondents thought SJU was living up to its ideals as an institution.
“Those are astonishingly poor results,” said Seljak.
When questioned about the results, the president and dean, Furino said, “simply did not answer when asked direct questions. And for the president you will find that a recurring theme. He does not answer questions.” After the results of the survey were published, several SJU staff and faculty attended a private meeting held after hours and off school grounds. “My understanding,” said Furino, “is that all of the staff members who had attended that meeting have either been dismissed or have left under duress.” Furino added that, “In my judgment, there is no legitimate reason to pursue dissidents at a university. That’s large fraction of the function of a university: critical thinking. Dissidents happen all the time.”
Imprint has not been able to confirm whether this private meeting had any bearing on dismissals or departures from SJU.
Since Perrin’s arrival at SJU, eight staff or faculty have retired, resigned, or been dismissed. This number represents a huge turnover rate in an institution where employees traditionally been employed for long periods. In the past, Seljak said, SJU was a “very stable work environment” with one staff departure maybe every 18 months to two years. “People had better opportunities,” said Seljak, “but they stayed because it was a nice place to work.” However since Perrin’s arrival, that environment has changed, resulting in numerous departures. Of the eight departing staff, four were directors.
Furino was one of the departures that occurred after Perrin’s arrival. “Given the breakdown in trust, breakdown in collegiality, and the dysfunction both on the academic side and on the church side, I certainly started to look [for a new position]. I had a meeting with the president that I could only describe as surreal and that convinced me that it was time to go. So I left.”
NO: Academic staff at odds with St. J’s college president
Disputes were not limited to the faculty. The Catholic community that worshipped at St. Jerome’s University, and the university’s chaplaincy team, also clashed with Perrin. A major conflict was the allocation of the $200,000 surplus accumulated through Sunday worship. The worshipping community believed the money should go to services “for the purposes of the chaplaincy,” said Furino, while Perrin argued that the money belonged to the university to be used for whatever purpose the institution deemed necessary, including areas such as maintenance. The issue was resolved in favour of the worshipping community after a year of public debate.
Seljak told Imprint he felt Perrin’s management style also put him in conflict with the university’s three-person chaplaincy team: Father Jim Link, Melinda Szilva, and Carol Persin. This conflict resulted in the resignation of all three of these individuals within the same week. Two took early retirement and one resigned. Perrin, questioned at College Council (composed of all SJU employees acting as an advisory for the president) about the resignations, said that he knew only that the chaplaincy team had resigned or retired for personal reasons. The council, seeking to know why the team had resigned, sought to create a committee to interview the three former employees. These interviews, according to a January 28 memo from Seljak to the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors, were “intended to discover the truth about an event that has serious consequences for the SJU community.”!
The interviews themselves became a source of friction, as the College Council was told by the executive of the board not to conduct the interviews because, according to a July 24 memo to the steering committee of the College Council, the “decision reflects a clear encroachment beyond College Council’s mandate[.]”
With this decision, Seljak said the executive violated policy established by the board of governors and, more seriously, “violated the academic freedom, we felt, of the staff members and the faculty members of St. Jerome’s University.” Academic freedom, Seljak clarified, is not just the right to research and write about what you want: “Academic freedom also means the ability to criticize the institution itself, to criticize the administration of your own university,” Seljak said.
The refusal to allow the College Council to investigate the departures of the chaplaincy team was followed by a memo from the Board of Governors saying that it had instructed the president and the dean not to attend College Council. The official reason was that the council was undertaking actions that were beyond its authority.
Seljak also stated that the issue of entitlement to ask questions arose in this context, though Perrin could not be reached for comment to confirm.
“That’s when the faculty association has to draw the line,” said Seljak. “The president doesn’t have the right to tell us what questions we are entitled or not entitled to ask. This College Council is an advisory body to the president and we have to base our advice on facts, and so we have the right to ask questions.” The faculty was concerned with what they saw as an attempt to suppress the facts.
“We can’t operate in the realm of these kinds of misrepresentations of truth,” Seljak said. It was at this point that the faculty decided to take a vote of non-confidence.
Votes of non-confidence, such as the one undertaken by the faculty at SJU, are not a frequent occurrence, nor are they an event to be taken lightly. The faculty association had three main reasons for holding the vote of non-confidence. The first and foremost of these reasons, said Seljak is that “the president does not respect sufficiently academic freedom and the principle of collegial governance.”
Collegial governance, an idea many in the academic world live by, is an administration model where the president “considers himself to be a colleague of the people that work for him,” said Seljak. While legally the decision-making power is in the hands of the president, “the president usually does not make decisions unilaterally,” Seljak said, arguing that a president instead often takes the advice of his colleagues, who act as an advisory board. “[Collegiality] also means the president requires the confidence of his colleagues,” said Seljak.
“We feel that David Perrin doesn’t understand or accept the principle of collegial governance,” said Seljak, and claimed Perrin made unilateral decisions without consulting the faculty. According to former staff, one of Perrin’s first decisions as president was to change the salary policy for staff. “Changing competition packages is always a big thing,” said Steven Furino, a former professor at SJU currently working at UW. “There is a policy at the University of Waterloo […] about how changes in salary are to be done and he did not abide by that policy.” According to Furino, there was no negotiation with regards to these changes, and they “were never subjected to third party verification.”
“[Perrin is] trying to impose a structure on St. Jerome’s that would institutionalize that kind of business management model,” said Seljak. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with business management if it makes things more efficient and effective, but to impose a business management model that makes things less effective and efficient, that’s a problem.”
Perrin’s management model, Seljak said, has made things less effective and efficient because his unilateral decisions have eroded his faculty support. And if the faculty doesn’t support the president’s leadership, they won’t go to any great lengths to ensure his projects are successful. “We’re all very busy,” said Seljak. “We all have hundreds of things to do. We’ll just do something else.”
Additional reasons for the vote of non-confidence were an evasive style of communication that left individuals feeling as though they were not getting straight answers, and a failure of leadership in addressing the crisis in morale at St. Jerome’s.
In light of the overwhelming results of the non-confidence vote and the ongoing tensions at SJU, the university’s faculty association is currently in the processing of unionizing. The move to pursue certification was also based on the fact that any memorandum of agreement between the faculty association and the administration would be a type of “gentleman’s agreement,” and the faculty and staff would have no legal recourse in the face of violations of the agreement by the Board or the administration. “In the past,” said Seljak, “a high level of trust between faculty, the administration and the board has meant that such questions never arose.” Recent events, however, have changed relations between the faculty and the board.
The new St. Jerome’s University Academic Staff Association, created by the faculty on March 3, has several stated objectives, including to “promote the welfare of the academic staff of the University, keeping in mind the good of the University as a whole.” The association will, according to Seljak, “devote itself to becoming the sole bargaining agent for a bargaining unit,” in this case 30 full-time professors and the university’s librarian. The association has already collected more than the minimum 40 per cent of the bargaining unit needed to apply for a vote of unionization, and this information was presented to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. That vote, Seljak said, will likely occur on March 31. “If you win a majority of that vote,” he said, “you become a union and the administration is forced to negotiate a collective agreement with that union.”
The SJU faculty is currently represented by the Faculty Association at the University of Waterloo (FAUW), which is not a union. If they successfully form a union, they will be leaving UW’s Faculty Association to form their own unionized association. Seljak is confident that a unionized faculty association will be well supported by faculty and staff. He said, however, that, “This is perhaps the most reluctant union organization in Canadian labour history.”
“We have been pushed into certification by an administration that refuses to listen, acts unilaterally, and, frankly, acts unfairly,” said Seljak. He adds that the union’s only desire is to “defend the principle of academic freedom and collegial governance,” and that the union is not planning to make any demands for higher salary or better benefits.
While the original motivations are forming a certified faculty association were linked with the current situation at SJU, Seljak said that, ”many faculty — myself included — have come to believe that unionization is in fact a better way to go in the long run. Many feel that a unionized faculty would provide some guarantee of collegial participation in the decision-making process around terms of employment. Of course, we do not expect to dictate the terms of employment, but we do expect to have a voice.”
“The goal, essentially, is to come to some kind of new relationship with St. Jerome’s University that will help the university better serve its students and its community,” said Seljak.
He later added that, “We really seek co-operation and reconciliation, but in order to have that co-operation and reconciliation you have to have clear boundaries and that’s basically what we’re trying to create.” Certification, he said, will clarify the relationship between the faculty association and the administration, something that has, up to this point, not been clearly defined.
When asked whether he felt St. Jerome’s would continue to function well with Perrin as its president, Furino’s reply was immediate: “Absolutely not.” Though says he enjoyed working at SJU for the people — whom he said were “fabulous to work with” — and the close-knit relationship with students, he said that “more than the president would have to go” before he would consider returning.
When asked to provide his perspective on the events at St. Jerome’s University, Perrin replied: “It is not appropriate for me to comment on the symbolic no-confidence vote while we are looking forward to our external consultant’s report that was contracted by our board of governors in relationship to internal events at St. Jerome’s University.”
In a brief statement released to Imprint on February 19, Sebastien Kundra, in his capacity as president of the St. Jerome’s Students’ Union, said, “St. Jerome’s Students’ Union continues to express full confidence in the president. Currently this situation is not affecting student learning and student life in any capacity. St. Jerome’s Students’ Union is hopeful that this situation will be resolved in the near future.”
Despite repeated attempts, Imprint was unable to get comment from Perrin, or a representative of the St. Jerome’s University Board of Governors for comment.