Fleming College union local presidents vow ‘to hold the college accountable’ in wake of program cuts

Lack of 'engagement, transparency and collaboration' alleged in lead-up to college's cancellation of 29 programs

Sir Sandford Fleming College, Sutherland Campus. (Photo: NGA Architects)

The presidents of two union locals at Fleming College are pledging “to hold the college accountable to the language” of their collective agreements in the wake of last week’s suspension of 29 programs.

In a written statement provided to kawarthaNOW, OPSEU/SEPFO Local 352 president Liz Mathewson and Local 351 president Marcia Steeves admit to being “shocked” by last week’s program suspension announcement. Local 352 represents full-time and partial load faculty at the college and Local 351 represents full-time and part-time college support staff.

“Both union locals were advised only an hour prior to management’s (April 23) meetings with faculty and support staff where they were notified of the fate of their programs,” they write.

“We have not seen this level of program cuts in decades and we view it as unprecedented. We fear other colleges will follow Fleming’s example, and inappropriately jump to cutting programs without engagement, transparency, and collaboration.”

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On April 24, in a prepared statement, college president Maureen Adamson confirmed the decision made the previous day by Fleming’s board of governors to suspend 29 programs ranging from Business-Accounting and Business-HR, to Environmental Technology and Fish and Wildlife Technology, to Law Clerk and Marketing Management.

Adamson pointed to “significant external events that have had an adverse effect on our college,” pointing specifically to the federal cap on international students coming Ontario and the elimination of educational private partnerships.

“The related significant reduction to our budget has had a profound impact on college operations,” added Adamson, adding “We are moving quickly to stabilize our institution and prepare for future years.”

But both Mathewson and Steeves argue “these decisions are not simply a result of the federal cap on international students. They are a result of a significant and systematic underfunding of our public post-secondary institutions by the provincial government.”

“The federal announcement (of the international student cap) made on January 20, 2024 should not have been a surprise to any college president or board governor.”

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What the programs’ suspension will mean for their respective members, says Mathewson and Steeves, is an unknown at this point.

“Until the college engages with the union locals in transparent discussions and provides the full evidence used to make these decisions, we will not know the full impact to faculty,” writes Mathewson, adding “We also need to know what additional questions the board of governors asked to ensure they were fully informed before endorsing the program cuts.”

“We cannot predict the impact to employees (but) we do know that our most precarious employees, our contract faculty, will be impacted the hardest.”

Mathewson goes further, questioning whether “the college is looking for efficiency within management.” According to her, just last week, “the college announced a new full-time management appointment.”

For her part, Steeves says “without meaningful (administration) engagement with the union, we will not know the full impact to part-time employees,” noting many of those part-time employees are students.

While wholly acknowledging “management has the right to manage,” both union local leaders agree “every decision is a choice.”

“Maureen (Adamson) could have chosen to work with the union locals, as we did at the onset of COVID, to find solutions that minimize the negative impact to potential and current students, valued employees, the communities which rely upon us, and the employers who employ our graduates.”

“Choosing to exclude the union locals in solution-focused, collaborative discussions was a missed opportunity. The college can always choose to find efficiencies within the college other than cutting academic programs and services to students. However, it appears it is only considering cuts to academic programs.”

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Mathewson’s and Steeves’ promise to hold the college’s feet to the fire regarding their respective collective agreements is being augmented by an online petition initiated by the student association at the college’s Frost Campus in Lindsay.

They note, as of Sunday (April 28), more than 1,100 people had signed and commented, adding “Many signatures are from former employees, alumni, and employers of graduates from many of the programs eliminated at the Frost campus.” As of the date of this story, the online petition has over 1,500 signatures.

Combined with the August 2023 suspension of 13 programs, the number of Fleming programs cut in less than a year stands at 42.

“The college is spinning this as a painless choice for students but as employees at a community college, faculty and staff know there will be significant consequences,” write the union leaders.

“These program cuts will create new barriers for students looking to transition to post-secondary education or those looking to up-skill through the programs which have been terminated. Many of the programs cut were pathway programs to university.”

The two union leaders provide examples of how the program cuts could affect different sectors in the economy.

“Locally, many of our graduates obtain employment in the food and restaurant sector. However, Fleming cut the culinary program last year.”

“Graduates from programs now cut at the School for Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences at the Frost Campus make up a great deal of the employees at the Ministry of Natural Resources (and Forestry) and in the Ontario Public Service sector. Some of these graduates were considered essential workers in various areas across the province during COVID.”

“Business programs have been eliminated, and programs with a focus on therapeutic recreation, whose graduates work with our increasing aging population, have also been eliminated.”

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While there’s still no definitive word on what the programs’ suspension will mean in terms of lost faculty and staff jobs, those affected have been told by management that Fleming College “will work closely with our union locals to meet our Employment Stability standards.” For Mathewson and Steeves, that assurance means little in the big picture.

“The program cuts made over the past year will negatively impact students and Fleming’s reputation, and will fracture established relationships with many communities and employment sectors,” they conclude.

Watch kawarthaNOW for more updates to this story as they become available.