A vision for an anniversary worth celebrating

Budgets are about priorities. Let’s review the university’s.

This year, The University of Winnipeg (U of W) will celebrate the 50 years since United College became the U of W. The milestone is a time for nostalgia and festivities, but it should also offer a chance to reflect.

The university has many plans in place to make the anniversary memorable. These plans include bringing back movers and shakers of the past five decades for social events and forums, commemorative posters and downtown banners, and Wesmen-themed Fort Garry beer.  

Bi-centennial spending will certainly highlight many of the university’s strengths while overlooking areas where it could improve. Of course, this is a central feature to most large fundraising campaigns. 

Cost-cutting measures have kept lights on and programs running, but they left an unsteady game of Jenga to be dealt with. U of W suffers from chronic provincial underfunding, vacancy management has pruned back vital portions of the campus ecosystem, and services for students have not expanded to keep pace with demands. 

Focusing funds towards several internal projects, instead of boosterism, would give students much more to celebrate. As the university’s mission statement states,“our primary responsibility is to our students.”

Investing in education is paramount and can be done through hiring more faculty. Smaller class sizes allow more opportunities for students to build relationships with faculty. Increasing the number of permanent faculty would allow for a better balance between teaching, research and administrative duties.

U of W’s new contract with markers, teaching assistants and research assistants is a step in the right direction toward paying academic support staff fairly. The elimination of two senior administrative positions at the end of January, saving the university more than $250,000, is another step in this direction. 

The mission statement goes on to say “we view both accessibility and excellence as important goals.” Services on campus exist to allow students to overcome challenges and live up to their full potential. 

Yet wait times for seeing an academic advisor or counsellor are representative of a wide issue of understaffing. Piecemeal tutoring programs exist across campus but are underfunded. More resources for accessibility services, the Aboriginal Student Services Centre and international student services would expand their ability to fulfill their functions.

As part of the university’s commitment to access and excellence, there needs to be a concerted effort to give students the opportunities they need to get out the door and graduate. This is about equitable opportunities, not reducing educational expectations. 

“Understanding the ethical problems facing our society” is a key resolution of the mission statement. 

To avoid embarrassing hypocrisy, it is incumbent upon the administration to divest from fossil fuels, become a living wage employer and cement a plan to eliminate tuition fees for all students.

The university sells itself, in part, on Indigenization, but has roughly $2.5 million invested in resource extraction. Despite encouraging ideals like critical thinking, democracy and community service, the university has contracts for security staff, for example, that pays workers less than a living wage while administrative salaries bloat. The university wants to be accessible, yet it increases tuition fees on an annual basis since 2008.

If for its 50th anniversary, the university wants to step up to its mission, then there might be something to celebrate. Until then, the pomp and pageantry will lack substance.

Jesse Blackman is a former vice-president with the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.

Published in Volume 71, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 9, 2017)

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