A Tale of a Tweet

In my previous post, I said that Premier Ford would be a wild card in the relationship between the universities and his government, as he could readily attack professors as elitists. We actually saw a precursor to such a political attack the day after I posted this. Here’s how it happened.

On May 14, Globe and Mail reporter Joe Friesen published a story online that the Ford Government was refusing to meet with faculty associations to discuss its plans to limit salaries of faculty receiving pensions. Later that day, Ivana Yelich, Press Secretary in the Premier’s Office, touching on several anti-elitist tropes, tweeted about “professors who are cashing in on their gold-plated pensions in addition to their six-figure salaries.” Friesen revised the story to include the Tweet (which is also the version of the story that appeared in print).

I’ll deal first with the substance of Yelich’s tweet. Some faculty members earn six-figure salaries, but not all, particularly those in the humanities. What explains faculty salaries? Consider the Social Sciences, the field I know best. University faculty members are just as smart and hard-working as lawyers, accountants, and business executives and are drawn from the same talent pool. Because it takes longer to earn a Ph.D. than a law degree, accounting designation, or MBA, entry-level faculty salaries must remain competitive with entry-level salaries in these fields. Over time, however, faculty salaries, even if they are six-figure, fall far behind.

As for the so-called gold-plated pensions, what Ms. Yelich didn’t say, perhaps because she didn’t know, is that the Ford Government, following the Wynne Government, has been trying to persuade university employees to agree to a merger of their pension plans, because so many of the plans have performed so poorly that there is concern about their solvency. (Personal disclosure: when I reach age 71 and am required by law to take my pension, it will represent less than 50 per cent of my salary).

Finally, as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts, a pension represents accumulated savings and there is nothing illegal or immoral about drawing on your savings while you are still working.

Reading the tweet led me to do a bit of research about Ms. Yelich. It turns out she is the daughter of former Conservative MP Lynne Yelich, received her BA from Carleton University in Political Science in 2015, worked in radio in her home town of Saskatoon and for the Conservative Party in Ottawa. So she is in her mid-to-late twenties. The title Press Secretary had considerable cachet in the past, but now it is one of many that involve communications in the Premier’s Office. Others are Executive Director of Strategic Communications, Executive Director of Communications, Director of Media Relations, and Deputy Director of Communications. How’s that for bureaucracy!

Whatever her other responsibilities as Press Secretary may include, Ms. Yelich is very active on Twitter, often disputing the government’s opponents, whether opposition parties or civil society critics. Her aggressive tone suggests that she is emulating Sarah Sanders.

In the absence of any retraction of Ms. Yelich’s tweet about elitist and avaricious university professors, the conclusion to be drawn is that her colleagues in the communications office and the Premier himself agrees with what she is saying. One wonders when those words will move from Ms. Yelich’s tweets to the Premier’s mouth. I can’t help but ask what Premier Ford must think every day he is chauffeured to his office in a building that is surrounded on all sides by one of the universities he detests.

There are institutions that attempt to restart dialogue between individuals and groups between whom communications have broken down. One such is the Public Policy Forum. One could imagine it trying to invite Doug Ford and his immediate entourage, say Chief of Staff Dean French and senior people in his policy and communications offices, to meet informally with a handful of university presidents at Simcoe Hall, a two-minute drive from the Legislature. It’s not going to happen any time soon.

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