FWD: Margret Atwood in support of TAs

Sean Hayes shayes at ica.net
Fri Jan 28 13:10:55 PST 2000

27 January 2000

Dear Dr. Rob Pritchard:

I am writing to you on a painful subject: the University of Toronto's treatment of its Teaching Assistants. As information has accumulated on my doorstep over the past few days, I have become more and more concerned.

I attended the U. of T. in the late 50s. I got a dandy education there. I have since allowed my voice and image to be used, extolling its virtues. I have coughed up repeatedly, with money, time, and my physical presence, for various sectors in it. Until now I have always been pleased to do these things.

But as I see it, the treatment of the Teaching Assistants is unconscionable. These young people, who are supposedly ­ among other things ­ the value of education in a democracy, are being starved and bullied. Their tuition is roughly a thousand dollars more than they can earn through their teaching jobs, and they can hardly get lots of other jobs because they need to study. I have been a graduate student. It's not easy, and it's a lot harder when you don't have money. The cost of living has gone up, the wages have gone down in relation to it, and who is profiting?

Now the university is refusing to negotiate with these bright, ambitious young people -- the future leaders of our society -- and is threatening to fire them unless they cave in before February 1. Not only that, it is loading the work done by them onto faculty members who are working flat-out as it is. Many fear this is just a prelude to some new form of thuggish, exploitative wage-slavery.

This is a terrible advertisement for the University of Toronto. It's terrible public relations. If I feel this way, so will a lot of other alumni and alumnae when the hat gets passed to us again, as it so inevitably does. It's a terrible advertisement to high-quality professors the U. of T. might wish to attract. And it is a terrible advertisement also to any who are considering attending the University of Toronto as graduate students. Surely we want to attract the best and the brightest, not just the richest! But if you're smart but poor, and need to teach to get through, the U. of T. is certainly not going to be your choice at present.

I have a suggestion. Disregard those on your Board who may have advocated grinding these intelligent young people underfoot like plague rats because they belong to a union ­ after all, the university has negotiated with unions in the past ­ and go back to the bargaining table. If you can't offer cash down, offer tuition cuts, as York and McMaster have done. Recognize the fact that the human body requires nourishment. Reach a fair settlement.

Then, if you are really that strapped for cash, go to your faithful alumni and alumnae. Do a special Teaching Assistant Drive. A lot of us would much rather see our contributions going towards quality education, fairness and equity, and the provision of a moral and just model of civic behaviour, than towards some chunk of rock with our name on it. Such a funding appeal letter would be one I and many more like me would be happy to sign.

Until then, I remain,

Yours in shock, horror and dismay,

Margaret Atwood.

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