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Robert priceThe new year asks us to look back before we can move forward.

For post-secondary educators in Ontario, two problems of the last year deserve careful reflection as we enter 2018.

The disastrous college strike sits at the top of the list.

In October, part-time instructors at Ontario’s 24 public colleges went on strike to demand better wages and greater academic freedom.

The demands were reasonable. A part-time college instructor working a full-time teaching load should earn more than a full-time retail sales associate. And instructors should retain some control over their classes and grades.

The five-week strike destroyed the semester, set back the educations of 250,000 full-time students, and prompted thousands of students to drop out of school. The arbitrator appointed by the province settled the dispute cleanly, leading everybody to wonder why the union and the colleges couldn’t work out the problems.

The answer is that Ontario’s college system is dysfunctional. This disfunction will continue for the long term if colleges don’t rediscover their purpose. They need to abandon the factory-model, cheap-labour practices they employ and invest in educators.

And it wouldn’t hurt if they curtailed the lifestyle advertising they use to attract students. College isn’t a business and it isn’t a resort.

Let 2018 be the year when Ontario’s colleges rededicate themselves to delivering a rigorous, rounded education.

Another problem deserves year-end reflection: the political orthodoxy encrusted on our universities.

Canadians caught a glimpse of this orthodoxy as the Lindsay Shepherd soap opera played out at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Shepherd is the teaching assistant who secretly recorded a meeting between her, her boss Prof. Nathan Rambukkana and two other campus authorities.

On the recording – which Shepherd released to national media – Rambukkana accuses Shepherd of harming trans students by screening a video clip of Jordan Peterson in her tutorial. (Peterson is the University of Toronto psychology professor who first gained notoriety for refusing to use made up pronouns preferred by some trans people.)

Once the recording went public, the university appointed an independent investigator to determine if Shepherd had done anything wrong. Turns out, she didn’t. And contrary to what Rambukkana can be heard saying on the recording, nobody complained about the video clip of Peterson.

Shepherd’s recording let the world see how ideologically orthodox some university departments have become. Thoughtcrime is real. Step outside the carefully drawn lines, as Shepherd did, and you might find yourself summoned to a career-threatening meeting.

Universities can’t pursue truth if ideological police officers regulate inquiry, as is the case at Laurier. Let 2018 be the year when professors across the university community push back against any ideological orthodoxy that threatens the university’s purpose.

Those two stories are among the worst moments in education in 2017. But 2017 wasn’t all bad. One story offers inspiration for year ahead. That’s the story of Dr. Precilla Veigas.

Veigas was the University of Toronto doctoral student who, in 2015, learned she had terminal stomach cancer.

Rather than give up on her work, Veigas dove into her medical research and earned her doctorate early in 2017. A few months later, she died.

Veigas’s story captured my attention when I first read about it. Her audacity, will and desire to live until the end moved me. Here was a woman who used her last year to educate herself, make a contribution to the field and inspire her daughter.

I read her story and asked myself: If I’m faced with a crippling nightmare, will I ball up in bed and cry, or will I get up and use my time?

Let 2018 be the year when we learn from the inspiring lives of people like Veigas. Let’s all do as Veigas did and live right until the end.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

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