UManitoba town hall wrought with tension

Meeting brings out tough questions on privatization, labour relations for university officials

A town hall meeting last week at the University of Manitoba proved to be a tense event for president David Barnard, as he and other high ranking officials were grilled on issues surrounding the university’s labour practices, privatization, and infrastructure by faculty, staff and students.

I’ve covered dozens of events like this during my time at The Manitoban, and while they usually lead to some tough questions for the administration, this meeting felt particularly uncomfortable and seemed to reflect that there are more than just a few disgruntled individuals unhappy with how the U of M is being run.

First up was a question about a deal struck between Aramark and the university that will see the management of the U of M’s Caretaking Services department taken over by the company in June. The deal has stirred up a certain amount of controversy, as it has already lead to four assistant managers and one manager in the department losing their jobs. It also marks the second department in the university to be taken over by Aramark in a year, after the management of the university’s Special Functions department, now Conference and Catering Services, was handed over to the company last summer.

Frank Wright, chair of CUPE Local 3007, the union representing support staff at the university, asked about the job security for staff working in the department, and if CUPE could see a copy of the contract between Aramark and the U of M.

U of M vice president (administration) Debbie McCallum affirmed that staff in the department would not be affected by the deal. Though McCallum said the contract was not available for review, she said she would be happy to sit down with Wright to discuss the union’s concerns.

For the remainder of the meeting, administrators fielding questions seemed to dodge giving honest, clear-cut answers but promised that they would be willing to discuss any concerns presented after the town hall was over. For example, one student working for the university’s food services department, which is also operated by Aramark, asked about why students were paid less than their older, non-student coworkers but often expected to work harder. She was told by Barnard that the meeting was not an appropriate place to discuss the issue—but, she could take it up with McCallum at another time.

I realize that the meeting had a limited time frame, but it was disappointing to see the question brushed off so rapidly. Realistically, this is probably the only time the average student would have face-to-face time with McCallum or Barnard.

One issue that stirred up a heated debate between university officials and students was the party bus ban on campus. The university banned the buses in January, with a memo sent to student group leaders and local bars saying that the university was reviewing its alcohol policy, and the decision came “in light of recent incidents that have been the direct result of bus trips organized by local nightclubs.”

Residence student Zachary Leclerc argued that there was virtually no student consultation on the decision, and that the ban had made it extremely difficult to organize events for residence students this past semester.

McCallum stressed that the ban was over a safety issue, and that “most universities have banned party buses.”

“What’s safer,” having students drinking and driving or having them drink too much on a bus? Leclerc shot back, to which McCallum replied that it was “not our responsibility to provide buses so they can overdrink.”

Though the meeting was originally scheduled so that Barnard could give a presentation touting the university’s Outstanding Workplace Initiative, a project with the goal of making the university a better place to work, this was attacked as well. After a video was shown celebrating the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP), a pristine research centre located on the university’s downtown campus, chemistry professor Philip Hultin argued that it only demonstrated “everything that is wrong with the university.”

Hultin went on to explain that the video didn’t realistically portray what the university was actually like as a place of work and only highlighted the dichotomies between units on campus. I’d have to agree with him, since the MCHP looked like it was far from some of the leaky, decrepit buildings on the Fort Garry campus that most students and staff have to shuffle through.

I doubt that any of the problems brought up at the meeting will be solved, or even addressed, anytime soon, but it did feel good to see faculty, staff, and students alike raising their voices about them, rather than stew in the apathy that plagues the U of M campus all too often.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.