We are republishing this article as a tribute to Michael Manson who passed away on Friday, August 10th, 2012
This Interview with Michael Manson Was First Published in 2006.
By Richard Keshen
The strike of 2000 was a turning point in the history of Cape Breton University. Michael Manson, who retired in 2005, led that strike. In the years preceding the strike, many faculty were alienated, dispirited, and in a state of constant bitterness toward the administration. We had never had a collective agreement, and our salaries were outrageously below academic salaries in other parts of the province or country. After the strike, there was a sense of empowerment and cohesiveness that we had never experienced. We were determined to change the institution; and we did. We got a new university president. The office of Academic Vice-President was finally re-instated. We rejected the university-college talk for the empty rhetoric that it was. We insisted that first and foremost we needed to be a university competitive with other universities. We dropped the word “college” from our name. A university senate is in the works. And most important of all, we began to hire a stream of highly qualified, young faculty in traditional academic disciplines. We created a new spirit about the place.
If Cape Breton University is now becoming a solid university, it is important not to forget the lessons that culminated in the strike. There is no better person to draw out these lessons than Michael Manson. (Certainly you will learn little of the deeper meaning of the strike from reading Robert Morgan’s Perservance. Apart from absence of critical analysis, not one faculty member who participated in the strike—certainly not the organizers—seems to have been interviewed.) When Michael retired in the spring of 2005, many faculty sought him out to express their gratitude either for what he done for them personally as president of the union or for his extraordinary leadership during the strike. When I saw this outpouring of gratitude and admiration, I resolved to do the interview. Michael of course was not only a union president. He was a dedicated teacher and scholar, and his impact in these roles (especially on students) was at least as important as his union work. Michael has much of interest to say about the working life of an academic in this place and time. As we embarked on the interview, we quickly saw that it should consist of two distinct parts: Michael’s union work and his academic work. So let us begin with Michael’s union work and the strike of 2000.
Part 1: Union Work and the Strike of 2000
Michael Manson in the Spring of 2005
Richard– It wasn’t too long after you came to the then College of Cape Breton that you became involved in the union. How did that happen?
Michael – It was in the early 80s, not long after I got here. I had been asked to go on the executive as vice-president. We wanted to get a proper contract and collective agreement. We had preliminary discussions with Bill Reid who was academic vice-president. Then when the president of the union resigned, it fell to me to be president and I must say I had very little experience. I had been working on the executive only a few months and there I was. It wasn’t easy. I dealt with the issues as best I could. The most difficult thing was suddenly my life was no longer my own. Members would approach me with problems in the hall or on the phone with the expectation I could do something. Members of other unions at the College with problems would approach me as well because they believed our union was the most powerful. We had voluntary recognition.
Our contract had expired in June 1977 and we reached a stalemate on the management rights clause. The administration wasn’t keen either on a cost of living clause that would reflect automatic increases with the cost of living. I remained president until my heart attack and then I had to give it up. That was 1985.
One thing I remember is that one of the members had an issue about salary and her position was in jeopardy. We had discussions with Bill Reid and Vince McLean as the administration’s negotiator. Nothing happened. I went to see Bill myself. I said you have to find money for this person, or we’re going to lose him. You have money in a slush fund. He said, “I don’t have a slush fund”, but in the end he did something. So there were some successes. I had some successes with Father Donnie too [Donald Campbell, the founding president of the College of Cape Breton]. I became identified as having a tough approach and at the same time I got along with them OK. There was an amicable understanding on the part of senior administration at that time. They realized, I believe, that academics and the union had an important role to play in the institution. And that the institution was better served by having the union.
R. – You discovered you had a skill and the administration of the day respected you for it. You were also following a family tradition.
M. – Yes, but I don’t know how respected I was, at least at the beginning. I believe the person who was willing to do it would get elected and I was willing to do it. There was a history of left wing politics in the family. My grandfather, my father’s father, and his brother-in-law started something in Toronto called the Hebrew Free Loan Society and loaned money at no interest to Jewish immigrants. They were close friends with Joe Saltzberg, head of the Communist Party of Canada. My Mom worked with his wife as a social worker. My grandfather on my Mom’s side was a socialist – a free thinker he called himself – which was odd considering my great-grandfather was an Orthodox Jew whose responsibility was training boys for their Bar Mitzvas. My mother was a social worker involved with Dora Wilenski and they organized the first union of social workers in Ontario.
I remember my father and mother’s politics – CCF and David Lewis NDP. That’s what I grew up with. I was driving a truck before I started university and I had to deliver material to a construction site. The union there was on strike and I left the stuff outside the gate and the boss said if I did that again I would be fired. I got into real shit. There was a deep social consciousness that was part of my family atmosphere.
R. – When you got here one of your friends was Donnie MacGillivary.
M. – Donnie was one of my first friends here. You as well. Donnie was a true mentor for me. I learned a lot from him.
After I got sick – Donnie was president, then Douglass Grant. When Douglass resigned because his mother got sick, I decided I would run again. This would be the early 90s. I had married Elizabeth (against her better judgment). Elizabeth was in grad school in Fredericton.
R—Your presidency corresponded with Peter Hill’s and Jacke Scott’s presidencies. There was a lot of upheaval and you were often at the centre of things. You made a very strong mark, culminating in the strike.
M. – I don’t see this as a huge vote of confidence in my ability as much as president by default.
R. – You rose to the occasion. That’s what people believe.
M. – I guess I was given an opportunity to exercise qualities that might otherwise have remained dormant. My politics combined with whatever leadership qualities I had. I’m stubborn and committed as well, and I believe I’ve got concern for the well being of other people. It is a question of justice, natural justice and legal justice. I became stronger the more opposition there was. I think, Richard, you’ve got to learn how to deal with the situation you find yourself in. Otherwise you will get beaten up.
There were a lot of times when the union was able to help people. Like there was the incident of Geoff Carre’s teeth. Katherine Covell, who also has a strong commitment to other people’s entitlement to justice, approached me because I didn’t know Geoff when he first came (we have since become very good friends). Katherine told me the university was disallowing Geoff’s dental Blue Cross claim because he had only been here for a year. I couldn’t believe it. I went to see the director of Human Resources. He said there is a new policy – “we aren’t going to have people claiming for dental care until they have been here 2 years”. I said, “Has this policy been passed by the board?” He said, “No it hasn’t been passed yet.” So I said, “Well its not a policy then is it J—?” He said, “Well it is going to be.” I said I don’t understand why that policy is being discussed. He said, “We don’t want people coming to UCCB just to get their teeth fixed”. I said, “That’s exactly why everyone comes here, J—, to get their teeth fixed. If you don’t give Geoff dental benefits we are going to grieve”. He got them. Lots of pains in the ass. Building up and building up. Makes the job interesting but difficult.
Another important case that is still ongoing is Sharon Froese’s. They’ve instituted a policy on how long people can stay on LTD [long term disability] without being dismissed and then applied that to Sharon by dismissing her retroactively. It wasn’t promulgated until we filed a grievance and then the new policy appeared on the web page and we grieved it and they denied it and so we’re going to arbitration. This was in President Harker’s time. If it is dismissed, she will have to pay her own Blue Cross–incredibly expensive for her. It’s unfair – it should be public knowledge.
These cases kept me busy. Most cases remained private but some we needed to make members aware of. The difficulties seemed to mount one after the other with President Scott’s administration. We felt we had to create a sense of resistance. An important case was the president’s demanding undated letters of resignation by her administrative team. Members of the union were outraged. She also tried to force a merger of the two unions, and that caused more anger. We sent letters of objection to the Labour Relations Board. Because there was such strong antipathy between the two unions, amalgamation would have made it very difficult to have common cause on labour relations issues; plus there were significant differences in salaries. Our membership resisted.
Then there was the horrible situation with Toby Smith who was teaching in BACS and was applying for tenure. Many of us felt Toby was a true intellectual and a committed teacher. She had a wonderfully critical mind, like an academic should. Toby had a book coming out with U of T Press and had service to the community and was a dedicated teacher. But she was quite critical of President Scott’s administration, the BACS dean, as well as some aspects of the BACS programme as it was then being practiced; and she spoke her mind.
The dean at the time, Dave White, was loyal to the president and she mostly reciprocated. Not always, though. I remember when the student union took over the faculty lounge and installed pool tables for themselves. I believe Dave had collaborated with the students. Charles MacDonald and others went to see Ray Ivany, the vice president. I saw Dave just after he got out of President Scott’s office. He was shaking; she must have chewed him out.
Toby applied for tenure and the Peer Review Committee voted unanimously in Toby’s favour, overturning a slim and highly politicized loss at the departmental level. In fact, the Committee gave her excellent on all three panels: research, teaching, and community work. President Scott however reversed the Peer Committee’s decision. So we filed a grievance and the grievance was denied. Toby was out of a job. She returned to her home in Vancouver and was unemployed for a year.
We applied for arbitration and the arbitrator was ready to go, the dates were set. Toby flew to Sydney from Vancouver. I had three boxes of material that our lawyer from CAUT was going to use. We felt we had a very strong case. Next day we got notification that the administration was going to claim we had no right to arbitration because we didn’t have an arbitration clause in the collective agreement and so they were going to deny the process. It was a loophole in our contract. I went ballistic.
Our lawyer had been ready to go. But when this came up, she said we would lose because we didn’t have the arbitration clause in the contract. We were at the bargaining table negotiating then. I went in the next day to the negotiations and made a statement. I started by telling them that what they did was sleazy – they had waited until Dr.Smith had flown here from Vancouver and if they were going to deny the arbitration, they should have done it months ahead. “You knew you would lose so you pulled the plug, I said”. Their lawyer denied everything. When the faculty heard about that we had a packed union meeting and people were livid except for one person, who tried to undermine me. That was what happened.
R. – So there was this huge momentum of anger against the administration.
Andrew Reynolds and Richard Keshen on the line.
M. – Yes and it grew and grew. We had started to negotiate nearly four years before the strike and members were getting very restless. We had agreed we would deal with salary gaps. We were creating a collective agreement from scratch. There had been a government imposed wage freeze and roll back, and we couldn’t bargain. In 1995 President Scott tried to get me to go to the table and talk about everything but salary and threatened that if we didn’t agree she would undo the arrangements we had through various bylaws. On top of that, way back at the beginning of her term, remember she had removed David Sneddon as chair of Physical Sciences and Engineering because he carried news she didn’t like and she made the statement public. I had the temerity to reply in kind and she and I got into it in public. Maybe when push came to shove members would have been happy to negotiate a salary settlement. I understand that; we were so far behind – over 20 % behind provincial and over 30% behind national salaries. But it was important to establish a collective agreement. Without a collective agreement faculty are subject to the whim of the administration. So we had to start talking about a strike, and we called a meeting.
R. – It was a very dramatic meeting. I remember the executive was up front on stage and a lot of people went into the meeting not sure how they would vote. This was the vote to empower the executive to call a strike vote if needed. The executive gave the data on the enormous discrepancies in salary between our faculty and faculty at other universities. They did this very clearly and you talked about how protracted these discussions had been. Over 100 people were there, practically the whole membership, and only 3 people voted against empowering the executive to call a strike vote.
M. – It was clear members were very angry. I tried to make clear the difference between what we were asking them to do and actually taking a vote to go on strike. We wanted them to give us the power to call a strike vote when the time was necessary so the other side would get a message that we were running out of patience. At the same time I felt it was important to get the language articles done otherwise we would be in the same position we’d been in for 20 years where we were merely signing a letter of understanding on salary. There were other important things like the grievance and arbitration article that we needed in the face of what happened to Toby Smith and we needed a discipline article in the face of what happened to Sneddon. Sabbaticals had to be clarified, hiring, tenure, leave, what every university had across the country.
I was the chief negotiator. I fell into that because Ed Grimm had been the chief and was told to quit by his doctor because of health problems. I never expected it. I remember telling Elizabeth when I took over the job and she looked at me as if I was out of my mind. She asked how long I thought it would take and I said it might take a year or two. It was in fact four years with a strike.
R. – So after the meeting that empowered the union to call a strike– how long until the strike?
M – Not long – just a few months. They made a salary offer and I remember how bad it was. Chester threw it back across the table at them. Scott Stewart was on the team at that point. It was Saturday morning, horrible weather. We went to the student union boardroom. Scott got livid; he was so upset. It was an insult. Eric Durnford took me aside after we broke off and said we’re going to fix this; it’s just an opening offer. We went back and forth and it was clear we weren’t getting anywhere near what we were hoping to achieve. If we didn’t get parity with other universities, we would never catch up. It wouldn’t be good for students because we couldn’t attract good faculty. We needed fair salaries. So it was time to inform the members. We had a meeting. Vic Catano came from CAUT. We had overheads ready to go.
Administration had given us an offer that held until a certain date, and said if the union executive wasn’t unanimous in its recommendation to accept the offer, then it expires; and it did expire. I explained this to the members and said the union reps. weren’t willing to accept it. I then put our demand on the overhead. Two or three members of the union in the room couldn’t get their head around the fact that the other side’s offer was no longer on the table. Somehow the message was carried back to the administration that I was misleading the membership because I hadn’t presented the offer. But there was no offer. It had expired. I had called Gordon McLean [the Director of Human Resources] and said I had good news and bad news. The good news is that the executive is unanimous; the bad news is that we’re recommending that the membership reject the offer.
Michael and Don MacGillivray leading the march through campus
The administration, I believe, was misled by some mole within the faculty. Then the administration launched what we called the pony express. Administration sent a memo by courier to all members of union that arrived at their homes late into the evening. Members were shocked. The memo sought to explain how good their offer was and why their union executive was misleading them. I went up to Gordon’s office next day and said, “Why are you negotiating with members individually”. He said, “We have a right to inform members of what we are offering”. I said, “Yes if it was on the table”. I told him we had put their offer on the overhead. He said, “We have information that you didn’t”. I said, “You can tell (and I named names) that they were wrong and that they did not understand what was going on. All you had to do is call me and I would have told you what we did. Instead you did more damage to your offer. People are livid that you did this”.
We continued. We had a conciliator. That broke down, then mediation. We couldn’t agree on salaries. We took a vote of the executive and it was unanimous to go on strike. We had Bill Graham and Jim Turk from national CAUT at the meeting. The executive had a meeting and I was trying to decide what kind of mandate we needed to keep the picket line solid. We decided if we got 60% of the members that would be a good vote. We took a vote and it was 98 %. Three people voted against the strike. Turk and Graham said it was a record.
R. – There was an incredible atmosphere in the room because after the strike vote some of the people who had been in on the planning, like Alan Britten, spoke. They had made preparations that were like a battle plan – picket groups with team leaders and financial help groups and a phone tree; by the end of the meeting there was a tremendous sense of a unified purpose.
M – A lot of that is because CAUT has a strike manual. It explains what you need in order to prepare. You can’t just go out. We asked Allen to be the picket captain. We asked Rod Nicholls to be the chief of publicity. It was an enormous amount of work to show members how far behind we were and we wanted the community to know what was going on. Rod was very creative and very organized. When we called the vote we had done a good job of informing the members about the issues. They needed to know why they were being asked to go out. We did a good job of informing the community so they would be behind us. I always thought it would be nice if they were behind us but if the community didn’t back us, so be it. But as it turned out the community was a great support for us. The students were behind us too. We held a session in the Boardmore Theatre with them, although the student union executive wasn’t behind us at first. They were hoping to broker a deal to bring the parties together. Russell McKinnon, president of the student union, became increasingly disenchanted, however, with the administration, and as the strike progressed he became more and more favourable to our side. The relationship between Russell and the administration culminated, after the strike, with threats of law suits between the Board and Russell.
It was amazing because we didn’t immediately walk out. The strike vote was in December and we walked out on February 11. That was when we started the phone tree and held a press conference at the entrance to the university and I called Russell to let him know. It was OK the first few days. It was reading week and I sent a letter to Eric Durnford [the administration’s chief negotiator] saying we needed to get back to the table but there is no point unless you’re willing to budge. I don’t know what President Scott thought. It was like an armed camp up there [in the area where the President’s office is]. They had security people and cameras outside pointing at the picket line. I gave my finger to the camera.
They brought bad faith bargaining charges against us. We were out for five long weeks in the dead of winter. It got very cold. We negotiated from time to time. Their team was doing things like putting ads in the Post saying all we worked was nine hours a week, publishing everybody’s salaries, including all kinds of things that weren’t part of the base salary. This compounded the resentment in the members.
R. – The picket remained very strong. We were out from morning to night, with shifts; it was very cold. We all read Rod’s articles and ads, and the cartoons in the paper. It became very bitter. I remember very emotional meetings at the Steel Worker’s Hall.
M. – That’s right because it was important to keep the members informed. And important for people to relax in a social setting, because people were stressed out. People came down from other universities across the country to walk the picket line with us. Bill Graham, the head of CAUT, came three times from Ottawa. Chris Ferns – from the Mount -came down and gave one magnificent speech.
Then we had a public meeting at the Steel Worker’s Hall in which we informed the community what was going on and gave them a chance to ask questions, undertook commitments that their kids wouldn’t lose their year. We made sure the media was on top of it. It got funny after awhile because my face was in the media and strangers would come up and say you’re the head of the union. Not once did I ever get a negative comment and they said you deserve everything you can get.
R. – Several times when I was on the picket line, cars would stop and people would give me money to give to the union membership, and they would drop off coffee and food. Ultimately people supported us because they felt this was their university and we shouldn’t be paid substantially less than other universities.
M. – There’s a strong sense of ownership in Cape Breton for the university and that’s because they built the place. They know that without CBU their kids wouldn’t be able to afford to go to university. It was very moving. They would drop by at strike headquarters, flowers came from McKillops on Kings Road, food came. All this helped morale. It also helped push the other side to make concessions.
R. – And before we go on to say how it ended, the fact is at those meetings you gave wonderful speeches –very clear and powerful and even-handed in answering questions; and you didn’t let yourself get provoked. Two or three people in the union adamantly remained against the strike and did everything, as I saw it, to undermine your authority and I was amazed that you kept your cool.
M. – I was in the chair and couldn’t let myself get provoked. Everyone is a member of the bargaining unit and they have a right to speak and I feel whatever their motives the greater good of the union is to let them speak.
R. – Commitment didn’t flag but spirits sometimes did in the cold weather and things dragged out and it looked like students might miss the school year. Then there was one turning point with Charles MacDonald.
M. – Right. Charles had been seconded to a job doing quality assessment for each department. He got caught because he was still a member of the faculty but at the same time he was doing an administrative job and was declared no longer officially in the union. Charles wanted to do his new job and felt he could do it from home. He didn’t want to cross the picket line, so he called President Scott and said he wanted to work from home. She said no, you have to make a choice. Cross the picket line or resign your position. So he said I’m not going to cross the line. He then gave up his administrative job and re-joined the union.
That day we happened to have a meeting at the Steel Workers Hall and Charles was sitting there when I went in. It was incredibly moving to see him there. I gave him a big hug and he whispered, “I don’t want you to make a fuss”. But of course I did make a fuss because he had done a very courageous thing. There was a huge cheer of appreciation and a standing ovation. There were people from other universities at the meeting and they were overwhelmed. One wrote about this for the CAUT bulletin.
R.– The report in the Bulletin also noted that a union member was trying to undermine you at the meeting and you gave her the floor and said she had a right to speak. The visitor was astounded at the solidarity not just in the union but also between the union and the community. That we had a constant flow of visitors from CAUT and from other universities around the country was so important because in many ways this was about our faculty wanting to be recognized as genuine university Faculty and to have the recognition of other Faculties from across the country meant a lot to our members.
M. – It gave our members a sense of being a bona fide university Faculty. There was a bus ride to Halifax to a rally and we all went inside to a press conference. I was at the table, Chris was there, and Vic Catano, – each of us made a statement, then a question and answer period…. Sometimes it was very depressing because we didn’t know what was going happen. There was so much at stake.
Near the end there were several illusory successes, where we thought it was over, and then the feeling of despair when we realized we had to push on. People were worried about being laid off.
There was another serious case in which a senior member of Faculty had been turned down for promotion and we felt it was done unjustly. [The Peer Review Committee had voted in the person’s favour, but the president had overturned the decision.] We put it on the table that the faculty member in question should get her promotion. That was of course just one of many, many issues. We had a meeting at the Steel Workers Hall with articles and salary laid out, and there were intimations of layoffs. I said I wasn’t prepared to accept the offer because as long as I was president there would be no layoffs. Then the members clapped and sent us back to the bargaining table.
A turning point was when Milt Veniot came in to mediate. He was excellent. Good at pushing our buttons and their buttons. He understood our position. He did all the things a mediator should do. It got down to the crunch. There was finally a lot of progress on the articles in the collective agreement. But we were still arguing about money. We’d gone home about 3 a.m. to get some sleep after days of this – 18 hour mediation to 18 hour mediation. Eric Durnford was the main negotiator on the other side. Also Steve Kavanaugh, Gordon McInnis, and John Mackinnon who had been standing-in as the comptroller. I went home to get back to the hotel and heard from someone who said if we don’t settle in a few days she’s (President Scott) pulling the plug on the school year. I didn’t know if this was an idle threat – it was already March 16 so there wasn’t a lot of time left – so Milt came in and said there is no more money – if you want to hold out for money I’m going home. I felt intuitively that this was as far as we were going to get. So I said we won’t talk about money. But we still have a few language issues to talk about so we resolved those in our favour. This was March 17th – it was the worst day of the winter, sleet, rain, snow.
We called a general meeting. I was absolutely exhausted. My emotional reserves were gone. So I presented as much as I could and then I got to the business of the senior faculty member whose promotion case we had raised at the bargaining table, and I just broke down because administration wasn’t going to deal with the issue. I had tried so hard. [This is the only time in the interview in which Michael is visibly overwhelmed.] We voted to accept the contract.
To be fair, we didn’t do as well for the lab instructors as we should have. They justifiably felt somewhat betrayed I think. But ultimately because the administration had agreed to a position called Senior Lab Instructor they all applied for it and got it I think; but we didn’t treat them right and it is one of the failures of the strike I feel.
R. – I think the lab instructors did better in the next negotiations.
M. – I think so; I was away on sabbatical. I think they did OK. The contract we had was for four years; we were already a year into it when we signed. We all got a significant retroactive cheque. Then I went on sabbatical in July 2001 and they began negotiation again because the contract was expiring.
R. – These next negotiations resolved themselves relatively quickly.
M. – Yes, don’t forget because we had to take a strike vote and what happened was interesting because I was just an ordinary member of the union and had just come back from sabbatical and we had the meeting and voted 96% to go out. Afterwards I saw Gordon McInnis in the cafeteria [McInnis was now acting president, as President Scott had resigned]. He asked me, “What is the mood of the membership?” I said we’ve had 96% to go out if there is no settlement. He said “Really?” I think he made a phone call and soon we settled. He is a very decent, honest, sincere guy.
Terry Maclean, Nicole Claener, and Elizabeth Graham during strike
R. – The point is that the strike of 2000 set the tone thereafter. The power of the faculty was there and eventually President Scott resigned and now even though we don’t have absolute parity with other universities, we’re not nearly as far behind. We’re in the same ball field. We made huge progress over the two negotiations. When the strike ended, the emotions everyone felt were intense.
M. – People were coming up to me after the strike hugging me and congratulating me, even the person who was most against the strike gave me a hug. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I took it at face value.
Of course, we have to remember that President Scott sued Rod and me and the union, [for defamation of character]. Rod and I had to publicly apologize and we had to undertake to say it was a sincere apology. When we talked to the foremost defamation lawyer in the country, whom the union hired to defend us, he said, “You know what? You’ll win, but it’s going to cost you thousands of dollars.” Don’t let the tail wag the dog. So we did what we had to do. Many of the members were angry about this, about settling the lawsuit. But we made huge strides forward and I didn’t want to sour that. Rod and I swallowed our pride.
When I took the job as head of the union I said to Elizabeth and myself what I want was to have a collective agreement because without it we’re screwed. So I hung on and on, and whatever kept the members going I don’t know, but there was no flagging. Sure people got dispirited and scared and worried about the school year, but they kept going because they knew what the stakes were. I think you’re right that the strike was the watershed because it created a sense of empowerment that carried us forward from that point on until today. But I wonder whether the members will continue to carry forward. I worry that it won’t keep up when individuals leave or retire.
I feel that whatever it was I was able to accomplish came out of my family history but also was a child of the 60s. I was actually at the concert at Newport when Dylan went electric and I was one of the one’s booing. It wouldn’t have mattered how strongly I felt if the members of the union weren’t strong. So people say you made great accomplishments and all the rest of it. But I needed the support of the members more than they needed me.
R. – Well we did need you and you needed us and we were both necessary for the thing to succeed and if the university is going to carry forward in the right direction the younger faculty should at least be aware of this history and that is why we have done this.
M. – That’s right. They need to know it is very dangerous to fall into complacency. I worry that if the younger members allow that condition to return and aren’t pushing the union executive and getting involved the thing will revert. There is a danger that however lovely the administration may seem at the time, and however concerned they may seem to protect the faculty, that at the end of the day if push comes to shove they’ll often abandon the faculty. I think many members felt completely abandoned with the previous administration, not respected, even actively disrespected sometimes….We can’t fall back into complacency. There have to be younger people come along to go through what I went through the first time I became president. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and the only way to learn is to do it. You have to do it.
R. – You’ve made a great contribution Michael and thank you for doing this.
M. – Thank you Richard. It was a lot of fun to remember it all.
Part 2: Academic Matters
Richard – Michael, when did you come first come to CBU?
Michael – I came in 1977 when it was the College of Cape Breton, first as a sabbatical replacement for Harold Barratt; not to teach Shakespeare but to teach Victorian literature. Then Harold came back from sabbatical and the department really wanted me to stay, which was probably their first mistake. Phyllida Kent who was the chair managed to cobble together two part-time contracts in the year 78-79, so I was teaching in the English Dept. but also an extension course; and they wanted me to do the same the following year. In 78 – 79 I was also doing some courses in the BACS degree.
Then the next year, 79 – 80, there were 3 part time contracts – English, BACS and extension, and the irony was I was teaching more than a full load, but it was the only way they could get a job for me. The next year, when we moved to the new campus, Phyllida came to my office, which is the office Scott now has, and told me that she didn’t think there would be enough money in the budget to keep me on, so would I teach Jim Young Victorian poetry so that he could teach it to the students. I told her to get out of my office – so we had this back and forth.
But then Phyllida, to everyone’s surprise, decided to retire. They put out an ad; I applied, and got the job.
So the Department consisted of Jim Young, Harold Barratt, the Boardmores, Liz and Harry, and me. That was all. Harry and I had a great relationship. I think he is a wonderful person. And initially Liz and I had a great relationship. She loved my kids, especially Harry, and she used to have them over for weekends. Later on Liz and I didn’t get along too well from time to time.
R. – As I recall, when you came back from sabbatical at U.N.B. you were interested in feminism and postmodernism and tried to interject some of that into the curriculum, and, as I recall, Liz resisted that.
M. – Actually that happened before I went on sabbatical. I had been reading more contemporary critical and postmodern theory. At that point everybody in the department was using the same introductory anthology and everybody pretty much had the same assignments. As I began to read more in feminist theory and postmodern theory I thought I needed to take a different approach to first year literature; rather than continue the status quo, which was then done as a chronological history of literature, highlighting certain canonical writers – as I like to say, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf without Virginia Woolf.
Sharon Froese and I wanted to create a course that would look at literature written for women from both the literary and sociological perspective. It would be cross-listed and we would team teach it. Her department passed it and my department vetoed it. Liz was opposed to it. This was the year before the sabbatical. I then tried to get them to give me some latitude to use a different textbook so I could take a generic approach rather than a chronological approach. They said no. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody else was supportive, even Harry didn’t support it. He was pretty neutral. I got offended by the department’s response. I stopped during this period having much to do with the department.
Then I went on sabbatical. Harold called me and asked me what my textbooks would be. I named a different textbook from the usual one, and the bookstore ordered it. The department directed Harold to have it removed from the bookstore. I was away. I thought this was a violation of my academic freedom. I was scheduled to teach two sections of intro and one upper-level course. I found out the bookstore had cancelled the order and so I called the dean, Bill Wiseman, and said I’m not going to break-up my sabbatical just to come back and fight this case, but I expect this will be resolved so I can use any textbook I want. He worked out a compromise which was not completely satisfactory to me, whereby I would use one text for one section and the common text that everyone was using for my other section.
Then the year I came back Liz went on sabbatical to the west coast. Harry was getting phone calls from her and sometimes she would say you know Michael was right. Liz and I didn’t have the same relationship after all this business. But I think there was an abiding, underlying affection between the two of us right to the end of her life.
Liz and I worked very closely together on Tally’s Folly, which I acted in with Louise MacNeil, and on The Golden Fleece. She directed both of those and we had a ball. She was very involved with the production of the Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar, in which I acted, because she was in charge of costuming. So I would say it was a mixed relationship – sometimes strong and sometimes there was friction – two people with strong personalities.
I didn’t get along with Harold from my second year. He didn’t even speak to me; he acted as if I didn’t exist. At a department meeting, he would come in after I said something and say “As the previous speaker said…” as if he couldn’t bear to speak my name or didn’t know it. It was bizarre. That went on for many years.
R. – Obviously you weren’t at home intellectually or otherwise in your department but those were the years when the job market closed up– in the mid 70s. So if one was in an uncongenial department there was nowhere else to go.
M. – That’s exactly right. At the end of my first year I remember there was a limited term appointment here. I had no knowledge if they were going to replace me or renew me, so I looked for jobs. I had two small kids. I had to look for other jobs. I got a job offer at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on a one-year contract so I took the job and signed the contract. Unbeknownst to me, which I guess is flattering, students in my courses here went to Father Donnie and demanded that he rehire me. I didn’t know anything about this until later. Donnie didn’t even know who I was. (Michael laughs). Donnie and I get along really well now. They made me an offer again. The salary from Edmonton was terrible but better than here, but I couldn’t afford to move there. I calculated roughly that I would have to heat the house there in the cold winter and I wouldn’t have had any money left over. Not that the salary offer here was great – I think $13,000 or something.
So I wrote the chair of the department in Edmonton and explained…actually I had called her before and asked about moving expenses and she said we pay $400 for moving expenses from anywhere in Canada. I said that wouldn’t get me to the Causeway. She said, “What’s the causeway?” I explained Cape Breton was an island. I had actually signed the Alberta contract before I knew I had the job here. After I took the job here, I wrote her and said it won’t be hard for you to get someone to replace me and I hope you won’t hold this against me. She wrote back one line – “You’re being overly sanguine.”
R. – That’s pathetic.
M. – Well there it is. Anyway, I got to stay another year – that was in June. Then Phyllida managed to cobble together three part-time contracts for my third year. It was a terrible situation because I started out at Western for my Masters, then took a year as instructor at Western, then entered the PhD in 1970 and the bottom fell out of the market – even after I got my doctorate I tried in 1980 but there was nowhere to go – only one or two positions a year across the country.
R. – Your PhD was on Robert Browning; what was it about?
M. – Browning’s long career had three major phases – the early Browning which produced abysmal stuff. In the middle phrase, he went to Italy with Elizabeth Browning, and after she died he came back to England with their son, he began writing the dramatic monologues, which became wildly popular, and then went on to write this massive work called “The Ring and the Book”. Later still, in the third phase, he began to write what is now called the later poetry. The critics had focused on the dramatic monologues and “The Ring and the Book”, but I became interested in the later poetry, which people hadn’t looked at much.
Actually I wasn’t planning to write my dissertation on Victoria literature at all. I was more interested in American literature – the work of Randall Jarrell an American poet. The major Americanist on Faculty at Western was an elderly guy, Carl Klink. We called him Clink, Clank, Clunk. He was internationally known. I took his course on American poetry theory, and I thought I would work with him. However, it became clear to me that he was developing some brain problem. I had never gotten under A on any course assignment, but on the course for him I got B+, so I phoned him. I said I don’t understand my mark. He said perhaps it was the final exam. I said Dr. Klink we didn’t have a final exam. He said, “Thank you for your call,” and hung up. I didn’t pursue it.
So I took a PhD course on Browning and liked the poetry and did very well. The professor, Tom Collins, approached me and said if I wanted to do my thesis on Browning he would be my advisor, so I agreed. My thesis deals with four of the later poems, long poems. What I tried to do was suggest that Browning was experimenting in the long poem with what people now call stream-of-consciousness; that Browning was a great innovator. He was trying to get at the inner workings of the individual’s mind without any intervening listener.
I wrote the thesis on those four poems and the defence was interesting because Collins had a sick sense of humour. In the midst of my thesis a book came out called Browning’s Later Poetry. It was the only critical work on the late poems and I took issue with some of the stuff the author Clyde Ryals was saying. Collins of all things got him to be the external examiner. So into the defence comes Clyde Ryals. They went around the table once –these are the things you never forget– and asked questions. I was petrified. I just hate exams. I was chain-smoking and I must have smoked a pack of cigarettes. Anyway they went around the table again and Ryles said, “You’ve called your thesis Browning’s Experiments with Genre, 1871-75, but he wrote two poems in those years you that didn’t deal with. So I have to conclude that you’re either stupid or lazy.”
I sat there and said to myself, “Now Michael behave yourself”. All my other professors, with whom I had a great relationship, were at my defence. But anyway, I said, “Well these are based on Greek plays and if I was going to do justice to the poems I would have to read the plays in the original as Browning did but I can’t read Greek, so I left them out. I’ve already spent 4 years on this thesis, so I reject the notion that I’m lazy. As to whether or not I’m stupid I’ll leave it up to you.”
Barker, the Miltonist, just went oh-oh because of what had happened in my oral comprehensive exam. I had lost it with one of the senior members of the department. He was just being so reductive in his questions about Jane Austen. I said, “Well Doctor Woodman, if that is how you choose to read Jane Austen then I have to say you don’t know how to read Jane Austen.” I failed the exam needless to say. I don’t know what came over me.
Anyway, Tom Collins called me into his office afterward and cursed and swore and said, “You can’t talk to a professor that way.” I said, “Was I wrong?” He said, “No you weren’t wrong but this is a senior full professor. You can’t talk to him like that. You don’t have your PhD yet. You need to learn some pre-PhD humility.” I did the exam again and I was fine. Woodman wasn’t on the committee this time. Afterwards, every time I used the elevator to get into the stacks in the library and Woodman got in the same elevator, he would turn and face the wall.
I regret, I guess, that I didn’t pursue my doctorate work on Browning after I started my career here. At the beginning I was trying to prepare lectures, and I had to teach in the spring to make money. I got involved in committee work, especially planning out the new B.A. Part of me regrets not putting more effort into my scholarly work at that early stage but I was doing other stuff, which I guess was important.
R. –Your intellectual interests remain strong and you transmit that sense of the value of intellectual work to your students. It’s also true that your interests changed. You talked earlier about your interest in postmodern theory and feminism and you also got interested in some other writers.
M. – Yes it’s interesting as I think about it now that I went back to American Lit., which really was my first love. I got interested in John Nichols and somewhat in Cormac McCarthy, both of whom I approached from a contemporary theoretical perspective. I’ve done a lot of conference papers, many on Nichols’ work and a couple on McCarthy who is a strange dude: a dark postmodern perspective on the world. I really love his novels.
Nichols’ fiction is highly politically charged because he is passionately committed to working to save the environment. Not just environmental stuff but he brings in feminism and all kinds of other political perspectives from the left. You know I have a personal friendship with him that only started in the summer of 2004, but even before that his work struck a chord with me and I guess it’s because of my own leftist perspective. When he came to the conference in Santa Fe as keynote speaker, we just hit it off immediately and he’s so bad; he’s so funny. He doesn’t take any crap and he just does his thing. It’s strange, isn’t, how I did leave Browning behind. Everybody and their mother are working on Browning now. I just felt not committed to him anymore.
R. – You’ve now got this association with the Santa Fe area where you’ve been active with a section of the American Association for Aesthetics. In fact, you were elected to head of one of the main branches of the Association.
M. – My connection with the American Association for Aesthetics started at least 10 years ago. Scott Stewart handed me a copy of Nirvana Blues by Nichols, the third book in the New Mexico Trilogy. John has written three books about Northern New Mexico. The book takes the piss out of all these displaced hippies who went to Northern New Mexico and new-age crap. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where Nichols describes how this guy learned to cast his soul out from his body and Nichols says, “But he forgot how to reel it in so he died.” I practically fell out of the chair laughing, I thought it was so funny. Anyway I loved the book. So I wrote a paper on it for this conference. I’d been to the conference before because I presented a paper that Scott and I wrote on King Lear, of all things.
I went back the next year and did a paper on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and the Pre-Raphaelites, about what I take to be Tennyson’s displacement of his (probably repressed) homo-erotic feelings toward his friend, Arthur Hallam. There was a guy at the conference named George Moore who really liked the paper and talked to me about it afterwards and we exchanged emails. George and I have become utterly close friends. Elizabeth says we’re just like brothers. George doesn’t like anything in the world as much as being able to take the piss out of me.
I came home and told Elizabeth that she had to come to this place, Santa Fe. Unbelievable. I returned annually, with Elizabeth, and George meantime became the vice-president of this association. The president, Manuel Davenport, tragically died a few years ago. He was a stern individual but he had a big heart. Manny said to me one year at the business meeting, “Next year we have to elect a new vice-president because my term is up and George will be the next president; you have to be involved and I think you should be the new vice-president.” So in a moment of weakness I said OK and forgot about it. At any rate, the following summer, I was nominated and was vice-president for three years. I am now [spring 2005] in my final year as president of the Rocky Mountain division of the American Association of Aesthetics.
Michael and Elizabeth in Santa Fe 2002
Every year at the conference we have an artist who comes to talk about his or her work. The first year I was president I got a guy from Santa Fe called Dan Naminga, a native-American artist. He was really interesting. His wife owns a gallery where he and his son Arlo are both represented. In 2004 I got Nichols. This year  I invited Allen Carlson, who is a distinguished philosopher, to give the keynote and a woman who lives in Albuquerque is coming to be the guest artist.
I wrote a paper for another conference on a book of Nichols that had come out in 2001 called The Voice of the Butterfly which was many years after the 3rd book of the trilogy. He goes back to dealing with the environment and ecosystem in North New Mexico. A year ago I gave a paper in New Orleans at the Popular American Culture Association on a novel he wrote after the Vietnam War called American Blood.
People always talk about McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian as graphically violent but it doesn’t hold a candle to what John is doing in this book. It is gruesome to read. But incredibly powerful and it’s an antiwar novel. Not really about Vietnam but about the capacity of people to be barbaric. He sets it in the US after the soldiers have come back and powerfully describes how the experience of war messes them up. There were parts in the paper that I wanted to quote but they were too gruesome and I just couldn’t. John since told me that he thought I was spot on about what I was saying and that he made a mistake by fixing on the Vietnamese soldiers because his intentions were much broader – to show what I always thought his novels were about – U. S. imperialism screws people up at the individual level as well as screwing up the environment. He liked that. He thought it was right.
I continue working on John Nichols and now that I’m retiring I’m going to write a book on him because there hasn’t been a good book on him. He told me he was flattered and embarrassed. I said “Don’t be so flattered until you see the manuscript.” So that’s what I’m going to do at the beginning of my retirement. I don’t imagine I’ll get it done real quick.
R. – You’ve obviously kept up an active academic intellectual life. You’ve had a nice relationship with Scott Stewart in terms of academic stuff.
M. – Scott and I have written two papers together; on King Lear and on Frankenstein. And one got published in a journal; the other came out as a paper we gave at a conference. Then he and I both got interested in different things. I always felt at home in the Philosophy Department. You and I have been close friends since 1977. Scott and Rod are good friends as well. And Sylvia is very bright, a good person too and fun. It isn’t that the English Department had nasty people…. But Harry and Liz were deeply committed to the theatre and I didn’t have that kind of interest. I did what I could to ensure the play festival went on.
Todd and Mark have just joined the department, and I respect them a great deal. Todd and I have had some great intellectual discussions. He and I have done some classes together on for example the Merchant of Venice. Mark is great. I can’t get over the fact that his father and I went to high school together. They bode better things for the department. But I’m leaving just as they’re settling in and beginning to make their mark.
I just found you guys in the Philosophy Department intellectually stimulating and I’m thankful that you were there and accepted me even though Rod likes to tease me about intruding. The department included me in that great department picture: I’m the honorary member, I guess.
R. – It’s sometimes hard to look back on our careers….
M. — I believe what I’ve done outside the scholarship area at the university has played a major role in bringing the university along. The B.A. Committee, the Literacy Committee, Council and god knows what all. And all the union stuff. I think that’s a choice I made. Again it goes back to my politics. It’s a natural outcome of my politics. Other factors intervened as well – an unhappy marriage, small kids, a period of intellectual paralysis around the divorce, circumstances and choices. You make choices, and people become dependent on you. I don’t blame anyone, including my department, for the choices I’ve made.
R. – You’ve done a very good job teaching and maintaining high standards and conveying to students your love of literature.
M. – Yeah, I think I fell into the right profession. I didn’t fall into the mold of what university teaching has become: student as client or learner, compromising a more strenuous intellectual atmosphere. To the degree I’m a good teacher, it is my commitment to literature that makes it possible. At the end of the day I take some pride in looking back and thinking about the people who responded to that – Jan Curtis, Sharon Froese, Kenny Chisholm, Peggy MacDonald, lots of others who have gone on to grad school and maintained a relationship with me, and I think its interesting I meet former students in the city and they say I thought you were a tough son of a bitch but now I understand what you did. I don’t know if I can talk about why literature is important. It just is. Like music or art or philosophy. Their value is in creativity, the ability to spark the imagination and to understand the human condition. The students are taught to analyse and reflect on what they read. I would like to believe that this process — of teaching and scholarship — makes the world a better place.
Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Geoff Carre, Mary Keshen, Mary Keating, Don MacGillivary and Scott Stewart for their help. RK