Guy Obrecht, 44, is passionate about academia, but his passion is being tested daily by the way he and his contract faculty colleagues are being treated at Mount Royal University (MRU).
Obrecht first completed a master’s degree in music theory at the University of Toronto. He later received his PhD in music from the University of California San Diego in 2008.
Throughout this process, Obrecht became familiar with academia and learned about the fundamental principles associated with it. In essence, he became familiar with the pursuit of knowledge.
He tries to bring his passion for the pursuit of knowledge to students at MRU, although he admits this is “an ongoing challenge.”
Obrecht came to Mount Royal in 2008, teaching on what is called a continuing contract. He teaches in the general education area, as well as being the contract faculty representative to the Mount Royal Faculty Association (MRFA). This means Obrecht is involved with negotiations between the MRFA and administration at Mount Royal.
When he came to MRU and started his career as an instructor, “I was basically making enough money to cover my student loans,” he says. When Obrecht’s first contract ended, he wondered how he was going to make his student loan payments.
“Nothing is happening here for contract faculty.” — Guy Obrecht
In hopes of renewing his contracts, Obrecht put a lot of extra work into the courses he taught. When he reached the end of his contract, he was suddenly left wondering, “How am I going to make my student loan payments now?”
However, Obrecht is not the only one scrambling to make ends meet. “There are academics out there who are living below the poverty line,” he says.
It was because of the severity of this issue that Obrecht was driven to become the voice of contract faculty at Mount Royal University. In fact, he was so committed that he campaigned for the role three times and on the third time he got it.
“Nothing is happening here for contract faculty. We need more professional development funding, we need… funding for research, we need to try and build community because people are just kind of here and gone… we need something to give us a sense of job security and some benefits.”
In short, contract faculty aren’t being properly compensated for their efforts at MRU. According to Obrecht, proper compensation would include some amount of job security after working at MRU for three years and a step towards research funding. In theory, this would set up contract faculty with a stepping stone into a “fully tenurable position.”
These stepping stones would help reduce the issue of precarious employment, an issue that’s “on the rise everywhere,” according to Obrecht.
Mount Royal isn’t an exception. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the number of contract academic staff (CAS) have doubled in Canada since 1999, while the number of full-time academic staff has risen 14 per cent. In addition to this trend, CAS account for approximately one-third of all teaching staff in Canada. However, they are paid only two-thirds the wage of a full-time professor.
Without including the benefits and pension paid to full-time academics at Mount Royal, the spending on contract faculty is about one-third of the spending full-time and limited-term professors enjoy.
In addition, when it comes to the leg-work of teaching, Marc Schroeder, president of the MRFA, says, “contract faculty do about 60 per cent of the credit instruction when you measure it by contact hour.”
The MRFA has asked administration at MRU for data that breaks down how many students are taught by contract faculty versus full-time faculty, but “we haven’t gotten it,” says Schroeder.
When it comes to Obrecht’s role representing contract faculty. “I am one voice among five very strong voices. I am one voice representing 60 per cent of our faculty, and there are five voices representing 40 per cent,” he says.
These five voices that represent 40 per cent of the faculty at Mount Royal are the same group that receive the bulk of funding.
Thankfully, says Obrecht, these five voices “understand that having this over-reliance on contract faculty actually has negative impacts.”
Contract faculty are being paid less than full-time tenured or tenure-track professors, but they are producing the same teaching outcome.
David Docherty, president of Mount Royal University, acknowledges that some contract faculty are unsatisfied. “There’s probably a number of them that would like full-time employment.”
When Docherty was asked about professional development and research funding opportunities for contract faculty, he replied, “there are some,” without going into any detail.
He insisted that there isn’t a lack of desire among administration to bring more contract faculty into full-time, tenurable positions.
Yet, when Docherty was asked about what sort of positive changes have occurred recently to improve the quality of life for contract faculty, he said that whenever the administration can provide full-time positions to contract faculty, they do.
Administration and the Mount Royal Faculty Association are going into collective bargaining and this conversation ought to take place between those two groups “and not through the press,” he added.
Docherty maintained he is committed to changing the ratio of contract versus full-time faculty.
However, during a town hall meant to engage students and faculty at Wyckham House on Nov. 15, Docherty responded to a question about contract faculty by saying: “For better or worse, contract faculty are a less expensive way to put on classes than full-time [academics].”
For now, Obrecht is not confident MRU is ready to reduce the reliance on contract faculty. “In terms of the collective agreement, we’re pretty far from it,” he says.
Significant changes have to be made to the collective agreement in order to make this ideal a reality —changes so significant that MRU’s “finances would be really struggling” —says Obrecht. Ultimately, it’s cheaper for MRU and other Canadian universities to employ more contract, part-time academics than full-time academics.
Mount Royal University is at an interesting intersection where one question remains to be answered: Is it reasonable for the institution to hire more full-time academic staff with their current budgetary constraints, or should Mount Royal continue with the status quo?
Editor: Emily Thwaites | email@example.com