A Culture of Detachment


[dropcap]H[/dropcap]alfway through this past fall semester, there was one morning where I shuffled into class a few minutes late. I literally had to climb over my classmates to get a seat, in what can only be described as a shoebox of a classroom. I didn’t want to be there – and I doubt anyone else did either.

Lately I have had a lot of difficulty getting inspired about my studies at SFU. This was hard for me to admit and even harder for me to tackle. When I came to SFU in 2012, I was bright-eyed and ready to learn everything underneath the liberal arts umbrella. So why was I in a slump?

At first I thought it was a mid-youth crisis – that I was having second thoughts about my major in Political Science. But anyone who spends more than five minutes with me will quickly learn that I’m not short of any passion in that department. So why was I having so much trouble engaging with my work?

What I didn’t realize then, on that rainy fall day – as I sat in my chair, which was bolted to the ground, which was one of many in my row, tightly pressed up against the people sitting near me – was that SFU was not the engaging, progressive school it marketed itself as. Rather, in recent years, SFU has actually become an institution rooted in detachment. Students growing detached from their studies, the faculty from their students, and the administration from SFU’s educators … slowly, on all fronts, SFU is dividing.

When I began my research for this article, I didn’t know this would be the conclusion I would reach. Initially, I envisioned writing a detailed history of organized labour at SFU – but the interviews I conducted pushed me to evolve that theme.

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]o amount of throwback stories from SFU’s archives can replace the testimony I collected from students and educators. These conversations helped me understand why I felt so detached from my studies, and opened my eyes to ways in which SFU has become detached from us. Writing this piece was a cleansing process for me, and I hope that anyone else who has experienced a slump during their degree can find some closure in this article as well.

Some of the most interesting conversations I had while doing research for this piece were with SFU students. None of them labour specialists, none of them involved personally with the issue, all of them just undergraduate students trying to get by.

I felt that relying on my opinion alone would simply not be enough; so I spent a day roaming the AQ, the MBC cafeteria and convocation mall, approaching strangers, hoping they would give me five minutes of their time. I didn’t ask for their names or their faculties, I wanted them to be anonymous, so they would feel comfortable talking — and for the most part, everyone was willing to talk and speak frankly about their experiences.

“Do you know what the TSSU is?,” was the first question I asked every student I approached.

And the responses I got from SFU students ranged from “Nope, I have no idea,” to some who knew exactly who they were and all about the latest bargaining update. This diversity was present in nearly all the questions I asked – all but one.

When I asked SFU students how they felt about the recent labour dispute between the TSSU (Teaching Support Staff Union) and SFU Administration on campus, and subsequent temporary disruption we were experiencing as students, not a single person expressed any contempt, anger or frustration.

I was taken aback by this. I was expecting public opinion to be much more divided. Especially since the exchanges between students happening on public social media pages made this topic seem much more polarized. So while detachment seems to be present in many parts of the institution, as I will get into shortly, the disconnect between students and TAs seems to be quite minimal.

There was one conversation in particular that stood out to me during this process. During one of my interviews with an SFU student, I asked if growing class sizes was something they were worried about. One woman said that in her department, which was Education, large class sizes goes against their pedagogy, so she had no reason to be worried about becoming one in 250. She told me about how she has been taught that smaller, more collaborative, discussion based settings foster intellectual growth.

This conversation stood out to me because as it turns out, SFU doesn’t always practice what it preaches. In the interviews I conducted after this, I learned that in several departments, it seems tutorials are being scrapped from first year courses and lecture halls are getting larger. Other than this one woman, students were worried that their lectures were going to keep getting larger.

While the Education department may be on the right track, others are becoming out of sync with the tutorial-based model that SFU had prided itself on. And frankly, as a student, I was quite upset to hear this. As Melissa Roth, a trustee for the TSSU confirms, this is one area where SFU is letting students down.

“Undergrad enrolment is going up, and graduate student enrolments and the number of professors are staying the same — that can only mean bigger class sizes,” Roth told me.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter speaking to SFU students, I wanted to talk with people from within the labour movement on campus. Roth was one of the TSSU members who reached out and let me ask her some questions about how labour relations has evolved on campus, and what it all means for students.

From the moment Roth sat down at the table across from me, I could tell she was proud to be a part of organized labour at SFU – she wore a black TSSU button on a white blouse, she was not afraid to let the world see that part of her. She told me about her history with the union, and what her experiences have been since getting involved.

The question I wanted answered the most desperately was simple, since her getting involved with the TSSU, did she feel that the relationship between the university and the union had evolved. I wanted to know how she describes labour relations at SFU.

“It depends what level of administration you are dealing with. On the whole, when we talk with just departments, overwhelmingly it is comfortable and easy. The vast majority of issues that are brought up are solved informally over emails and a single meeting,” Roth answered. “So, excellent.”

I will admit that wasn’t the answer I was expecting. The TSSU was, after all, just coming to the end of a 19 month long labour dispute.

I think she must have been able to tell from the lost expression on my face, that wasn’t the response I was predicting. She continued, “The thing that people hear the most about is bargaining.”

And she had a point. Unless we’re hearing whispers of picket lines, students don’t seem too enthralled by labour relations at SFU.

But as Roth pointed out, day-to-day relations with faculty members is simply not comparable to the union’s dealings with the administration.

“They are professors, they are staff [who work] with our members on a day to day basis,” she explained. “They see our members as ‘Melissa’ or as ‘George’, not as a bottom line. They see that having an issue with let’s say, the classroom, directly relates with the quality of education, that it’s not some sort of arbitrary demand.”

But then we moved away from just faculty, and we started talking about the administration as a whole, and she added, “I’ve been in situations with people from higher levels, and it does start getting detached, their understanding and perspective is different.”

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter speaking with Roth, I knew that I wanted to go further back into SFU’s past. After looking into SFU’s history with unions, I knew that this story would be told very differently by someone who lived it. And that’s when I decided I had to sit down with Karen Dean, the TSSU’s grievance officer, who was also a student at SFU during the early 70’s. She was brought on to the union’s payroll in 2008 – she is the first, and only, employee that isn’t of the union’s own rank and file.

Up until 2008, the TSSU was run entirely by its own members – they never needed a bargaining professional. So Dean’s hire reflects a massive change at SFU. After 2008, the TSSU felt they were no longer able to effectively negotiate with the university themselves.

When I first sat down in her office on the fifth floor of the AQ, the first thing I noticed (other than the enormous photocopier) was a massive wall of binders. From floor to ceiling, all of them filled with the TSSU’s past agreements, and history. It was then I knew I was in the right place.

Dean’s relationship with labour on campus is a truly unique one. She told about how she was a part of the team who bargained the first collective agreement between the student society and the university, and that some of the original elements that she had bargained for are still in place today. Dean compared those early days to “growing pains”. The university was expanding rapidly, it was growing in size, student population and of course, staff. So the labour disputes then, according to Dean, were more a by-product of an institution trying to keep up with a university that was quickly beginning to sprawl over Burnaby Mountain.

But now SFU is 50, and is expected to have the systems put in place to effectively communicate and negotiate with unions. Yet, according to Dean, labour relations on campus today, are actually worse than in SFU’s early years, and this is most evident in who SFU is putting at the other side of the bargaining table.

“When I came to work here, one of the things I had to do is research the history of the articles in the collective agreement […] and when you go back, what you see is a real change in how the university has been working with the TSSU,” Dean continued. “I pulled down an old bargaining binder, it was the ‘98 round [of bargaining], to check on an article, and I realized while I was looking at it, when we were at the table in 1998, the associate VP of academic was across from us, on their committee.”

In this last dispute, the TSSU didn’t see the same kind of people meeting them at the table. Instead of letting those who come from the world of academia – and those who understand the issues that the union wants to negotiate, like protection from overwork and underpay – SFU’s bargaining team was comprised largely of staff from Human Resources.

“In this round of bargaining, and in the last one, one of the things we realized is how difficult it is to bargain with people who don’t know what it is that you do,” Dean added. “How does one successfully get language in your collective agreement that reflects your work, if no one on the other side of the table has ever done the work?”

While SFU has every right to send HR representatives to the bargaining table, as it was being explained to me, in doing so they are decreasing the likelihood of a quick and fair resolution.

“In recent years, the TSSU has had to fight to get someone on the other side of the table who actually knows what we’re talking about,” and by this what Dean meant is that the TSSU had to initiate job action in order to be guaranteed that at least one professor would be a part of the university’s bargaining team.

Since the early 2000s, every time the TSSU has gone to the bargaining table, they feel that they have gotten stuck there. Dean told me about how in this most recent round of bargaining, they rejected her description of a TA as someone who is there to bridge the material for students, to help them engage with it and understand it, and that they are not subject specialists or lecturers, that being a TA is as much a learning opportunity for the graduate students as it is for the undergrad student.

Anyone who has ever taken a tutorial at SFU knows that’s exactly what a TA is. And yet the people bargaining on behalf of SFU, on behalf of us, didn’t agree with the TSSU’s interpretation of a TA’s role. It’s this shift, according to Dean, in labour relations that has led to long and truncated bargaining sessions.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nd long bargaining sessions aren’t the only red flag.

According to Dean, TAs aren’t been given enough paid working hours to attend lecture, meaning a lot of them are working several hours every week for free. And that blew me away. How could we ask any TA to put in unpaid hours? Guaranteeing that all TAs are paid for all working hours is at the forefront of the TSSU requests, but SFU hasn’t been willing to negotiate this issue. And according to Dean this is because the administration knows that any TA who wants to run a good tutorial will go to the lecture regardless if they are paid or not.

“If a TA begins to feel exploited, the only thing they can do is not go to the lecture, and then students are impacted,” said Dean.

I believe SFU’s changing relationship with unions and employees on campus will begin seeping into the quality of our education.

And this is what I mean by detachment. The administration is looking at SFU through an HR and corporate lens and either can’t or won’t put themselves in the student’s or TA’s shoes. No matter what side you are bargaining for, everyone at the table needs to understand the other’s perspective.

So clearly things at SFU are changing, whether we want to admit it or not. I see corporatization slowly eroding the university that I have loved and called my own. This culture of detachment is popping up all over campus. SFU is becoming all gloss, and no substance. Next time you are walking past our new and shiny observatory, that’s less than a year old, take a look at that sidewalk — it’s already cracking. The brand new cracking cement is the perfect metaphor to sum this all up. It’s just gloss, slowly we are losing our substance.

I believe that this evolution, or rather devolution, can also be tied to the arrival of Andrew Petter. I mean no disrespect to our president, but from the outside looking in, he appears to be more concerned with aesthetics than substance.

“The president used to be a hands-on, ‘chair’ if you will. Like the chair of a department but on a much bigger scale. Their job was to help find solutions […] but now we have a president who raises us money and who does the PR piece,” Dean noted when I asked her what role Petter played in this corporatization of our university.
And Dean wasn’t the only one who had something to say about how we’ve used marketing to cover up the changes happening on campus. I sat down with Derek Sahota, spokesperson for the TSSU, who affirmed this idea that SFU is selling an image that doesn’t correspond with the reality on campus.

“There is a lot of fakery,” Sahota said. Looking at events such as SFU’s 50th anniversary celebration and the slogan of “from radical roots to engaged university,” it appears as if SFU is building a façade rather than actually tackling growing issues on campus like class sizes and opportunities for graduate students.

And I find this disheartening. We were once a truly progressive institution, but we have built a culture of detachment over top of that past.

Everywhere you look you will find traces of this detached culture. I personally have noticed a rise of iClickers and a similar product called TopHat in my classes, both being devices used to track classroom participation. And at first I didn’t think much of their presence, but this article has forced me to think more critically about this technology.


When you get right down to it, what these tools have done is replace thoughtful, in-depth conversation with multiple choice quizzes. So I ask you, is that really engaging for students? Is anyone truly gaining anything from that experience? Or is it, rather, a way of artificially creating participation in a class of 100 people?

The larger a class gets, the harder it is to have discussion, and these iClickers become the only way of finding out who’s been paying at least an ounce of attention. As Dean puts it, “you may get some information in your head while sitting in a lecture, but you don’t own it until you’ve done something with it, until you discussed it and thought about it.”

And she is spot on. In my opinion, the way in which we address participation issues should not be introducing a piece of new technology that replaces conversation, rather the solution is to offer two sections of the course so that students can work in more appropriate sized groups.

This culture exists on a small scale, like iClickers, but it’s also making some appearance in SFU’s bigger picture. I spoke with three people from the labour movement on campus and all three of them at one point mentioned Guard.me as a classic example of how detached SFU is from its students.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or anyone who wasn’t around when this issue first surfaced, Guard.me is an insurance plan initiated by SFU administration in which every international student is automatically enrolled. On February 25, 2015, concerned members of the TSSU presented a petition against Guard.me to SFU administration with approximately 600 signatures from international students and community members.

The TSSU’s biggest concern was that Guard.me automatically enrolled students in the plan, which would in turn cost students money they didnt have.

As Sahota was explaining it to me, when the TSSU questioned SFU about Guard.me, there seemed to be little concern on their part on how students were going to afford the insurance plan that he described as being packed with unneeded services. Having met, and having been a student abroad, the assumption that international students will have no issues paying an extra few hundred dollars is a troublesome one. The fact of the matter is most students today live from hand to mouth. But as Sahota remembers the Guard.me controversy, SFU didn’t share his concerns of affordability.

As Dean pointed out, SFU’s interest in this health insurance contract seemed to be entirely rooted in the 5% kick back the university was receiving.

The TSSU believes that there were much cheaper options than Guard.me, and as Roth told The Peak in 2014, “[SFU was] using it to fund the basic budget”.

When I asked Dean about the controversial insurance plan she chuckled and told me that even now they aren’t sure what problem SFU was trying to solve since, to her knowledge, no international students expressed any interest in the private insurance.

After speaking with members of the TSSU about their opposition to the Guard.me program, I asked Tim Rahilly, Associate Vice-President of students, how SFU choose Guard.me, and what sort of consultation the university did with students before they made their final selection.

According to Rahilly, there had been a long history of international students choosing not to purchase any sort of medical coverage before their MSP kicked in. This was an issue for the university as they require all students to buy into a health coverage plan. So in Rahilly’s recollection, SFU saw Guard.me as a way of making sure that all students were adhering to the university’s conditions.

When I asked how SFU consulted its students before choosing the Guard.me option, Rahilly said that there were many openhouses and surveys done before the final selection was made, and that this insurance plan was reflective of students’ needs — SFU observed an increase in students seeking out mental health and councilling services through the school, and in his mind, this suggests that Gaurd.me was a necessity.

So while Rahilly supports the insurance plan, sighting its long list of benefits as a positive for students, there is still a strong opposition to the insurance plan. The Guard.me controversy even today remains a sticky subject. In my eyes, however, forcing students to be locked into a certain medical plan is another example of the corporatization of the university experience.

So you’ve stuck with me this long, but before I end this piece I want to take you back to that cold and dreary day in the fall for just a moment — over 20 of us sat packed into a room that was meant for 10 or 15 students.

SFU removed the desks and replaced them with those rows of chairs where a table only big enough to hold a cup of coffee folds out from the side. These chairs, that are glued to the ground and squish students together, without a doubt restrict conversation and erode that collaborative environment tutorials are meant to be. If you ask me, these seats were installed so that they could fit more bodies into a classroom and make class sizes just a little bit bigger. They are in my mind, the perfect representation of how SFU has started to change.

And this, to me, is the corporatization of our education. Our degrees are no longer about us finding our passions and becoming better educated and more driven people – it’s about using us to meet someone else’s bottom line. And I believe that this will devalue the degree we are all working towards. SFU, in my mind, hides behind great marketing. We pump out flashy ads, throw parties on campus and brand ourselves as “the radical campus” who leads in research and engagement – but I think it’s a scam that will cost me, and probably most of you, over $30,000 by the end of our time here.

When I began looking closely at SFU’s labour relations, I didn’t know this was the direction the article would take me in. However, poor labour relations on campus appears to be a symptom of a much larger problem – SFU is going down the corporate path. I fear that they will sell out my education (and yours) to save some money. I see the university’s relationship with our TAs as a reflection of the university’s relationship with the students, and things are not looking good for the future.

I’m not going to sit idly by and let this corporatization of SFU detach me from my studies. My mid-youth crisis was a byproduct of what I believe is the culture SFU is creating on campus, and there are probably many of you who have had similar experiences. Our slumps are not necessarily rooted in a lack of drive, motivation or campus life, but I believe that they stem entirely from the environment SFU is creating for us in the classroom.


  1. Great article Tamara. There’s a SFU Passion club on campus for those interested. For most students though, the education is a stepping stone to enter industry and make contacts. It’s expected that when asked, most people at SFU wouldn’t have an opinion about the SFU admin and TSSU dispute. Unions and Employers will always have their arguments. Plus wasn’t that over last fall after Vince Ready came anyways? Also it’s smart for Universities in general to discuss with industry about their requirements for new graduates so what is and what isn’t taught can evolve to meet the real world needs.