Visual artist Jay White considers himself lucky to have secured a tenure-track position at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Now if he can only solve the problem of having to sleep in his car.
Until last fall White spent a decade as a sessional or non-regular instructor at Emily Carr, meaning he had to reapply to teach every semester because non-regular instructors have less job security and lack benefits compared to full-time faculty.
White became an assistant professor last September, and in three years he can start applying for a tenured or permanent faculty position.
But despite the newfound job security and pay increase, White, who rents on Bowen Island with his family, stays in Vancouver and sleeps in his van a couple of nights a week.
“To be able to work the number of hours I work and still have time with my family, I work here quite late,” said White. “And then at least I have my weekends to myself with my family.”
Untenable working conditions are the focus of “The Work of The Work,” the faculty’s first art exhibition since Emily Carr University of Art and Design relocated to the Great Northern Way campus over two years ago. The public exhibit opened Jan. 31 and runs until Feb. 14.
The theme is apt, according to Emily Carr’s faculty association, which says non-regular and permanent faculty alike are all struggling under a high workload and low salary scale. Their last collective agreement expired March 31, 2019, and bargaining has only recently begun.
In an emailed statement sent to The Tyee by Emily Carr University communications staff, the university administration said they support faculty’s academic freedom and freedom of expression anywhere, including in on-campus exhibitions:
“Institutional critique has a strong and important history within contemporary art and design practice, and the University wholly supports the right of faculty to participate in that tradition,” the statement read.
“The right of faculty to have an annual show at the university is guaranteed by their collective agreement, as is their right to curate the exhibition without oversight from administration. ECU’s administration is pleased to support faculty exhibitions, including The Work of the Work. These exhibitions permit students a greater depth of insight into their faculty’s creative and professional practices.”
The administration declined any further comment to avoid “bargaining in the media.”
But in “The Work of The Work,” faculty are bargaining through mixed media and the theme is anything but ambiguous, with pieces calling out the university for: an overreliance on non-regular faculty (who teach over 50 per cent of classes); lower pay and higher workload than other Canadian art and design post-secondary; and no studio space or time for their own art practice — the reason, White says, they were hired to teach students in the first place.
“It’s not like a self-serving thing, it’s about what a university does and why people come to a university, is to have people who are doing that work, who are deep into their fields,” said White, who is working on art projects including a graphic novel, in addition to his course work.
The art exhibition goes hand in hand with Emily Carr grad Terra Poirier’s 2018 book Non-Regular: Precarious academic labour at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, which used art by Emily Carr non-regular instructors to shine a light on their working conditions.
Non-regular faculty fall into four different categories: lecturer, sessional instructor, adjunct instructor, and artist/designer/scholar in residence. Sessional instructors are teaching 46 per cent of courses in 2019-20, while nine per cent were taught by lecturers, and 45 per cent by regular faculty.
Lecturers do receive some health and welfare benefits, as well as sick leave, vacation pay, and leaves of absence, while Emily Carr communications staff told The Tyee sessional and adjunct instructors receive “some benefits” and a seven per cent pay increase to make up for benefits they don’t receive.
All non-regular instructors have the right of first refusal for teaching a course, provided they have taught it four times consecutively.
But while “The Work of The Work” makes a distinction between the working conditions of non-regular and permanent faculty, the exhibit asserts neither group finds themselves in a tenable situation.
Associate professor Henry Tsang spent 13 years as a non-regular instructor before getting a tenure track position in 2005. He says Emily Carr’s normal teaching load — five studio courses where students work on their art, media and design projects, or four academic courses per semester — is outsized compared to most B.C. universities, which are capped at four courses per semester.
Let alone the three other art and design post-secondaries in Canada. For example, the Ontario College of Art and Design University requires faculty to teach half as much as Emily Carr faculty.*
“When you’re spread thin, everything is thin,” he said, adding it is difficult to attract and retain non-regular faculty unless they already live in Vancouver, because the cost of living is too high and the pay — $5,678 per studio course for non-regular faculty — is too low.
“The way that we’re struggling is actually stifling.”
Emily Carr became a special purpose teaching university in 2008, along with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver Island University, University of the Fraser Valley and Capilano University.
But the art and design school shouldn’t be compared to those institutions, Tsang and White say, because their faculty have a maximum of four academic courses per semester, don’t teach studio courses, and don’t require studio space for their own work.
Instead they compare Emily Carr to Canada’s three other art and design post-secondaries: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; Ontario College of Art and Design University; and the Alberta University of the Arts. Depending on the institute, faculty salaries can range from 30 to 60 per cent higher than Emily Carr’s, depending on tenure and senority. As of March 31, 2019, Emily Carr’s full-time faculty salaries ranged from almost $57,000 to nearly $91,500.
Individuals typically don’t have the luxury of criticizing their employer in their own workspace, says Sylvia Fuller, a University of British Columbia sociology professor who researches labour and work. Especially if they’re not unionized.
“If there was one individual worker who was speaking out, not in an organized way — say writing on Facebook about how the situation in their company was unfair or their manager was incompetent, they would probably be fired,” she said.
“Individually, of course, speaking out is incredibly risky for workers. So most workers don’t do it.”
But there’s power in numbers, Fuller said, because when unions make noise — like the Justice for Janitors campaign in Canada and the U.S., or the Georgia Hotel strike in Vancouver last year — it draws public attention and opinion. That attention can impact employers’ public reputation, and a heavy-handed response could make things worse.
“Those are some good examples of where workers have banded together and made an issue of really the hypocrisy or the disjuncture of relatively large, powerful, affluent institutions treating their most vulnerable workers really poorly or in ways that they can’t meet their basic needs,” Fuller said.
Like every public institution in the province, Emily Carr faculty are limited to the provincial government’s current bargaining mandate of a three-year contract with two per cent annual salary increases.
That doesn’t limit Emily Carr administration from making changes that don’t cost money, said White, like granting seniority to non-regular faculty. And Tsang noted they aren’t expecting to catch up to their peers at the Ontario College in just one contract.
“If we were to match our peers, that would be a huge leap,” Tsang said. “We just want some step in that direction.”
Correction made on Feb. 4, 2020 at 12 p.m.
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