Q&A with Dr. Britt Hall, URFA's President

Dr. Britt Hall, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na, began as URFA’s Pres­i­dent a few months after COVID-19 brought about swift changes to the way we live and work. We recent­ly spoke with her to learn about how things are going, what she enjoys about this posi­tion and her vision for what’s next for URFA.

Your start as Pres­i­dent of URFA was per­haps a bit dif­fer­ent than expect­ed, giv­en the changes that COVID-19 brought. Did the onset of a glob­al pan­dem­ic have an effect on your ear­ly days in this role? If so, how?

Yes, in fact it erased a few ear­ly days. The [URFA]spring gen­er­al meet­ing is set for the end of March of every year and that is when we do the elec­tions for the offi­cers. We went into work­ing from home and full pan­ic mode on March 18 so URFA decid­ed to post­pone that meet­ing until the end of May, and I took up the posi­tion in late June, almost a full two months into my first term. We had to fig­ure out a total­ly new par­a­digm on how to do the elec­tions with an elec­tron­ic vote.

I was on my way to a camp­ground on a Fri­day in June with my kids when I got the call that I had been elect­ed. I had the week­end to think about it and was able to get excit­ed about it. 

What prompt­ed you to engage with URFA? What led you to put your name for­ward for President?

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was grow­ing up, I was in a pret­ty union-fam­i­ly friend­ly. My mom was a teacher. My dad was a lines­man in the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW). The IBEW was a big part of his life, but he and my mom were sep­a­rat­ed and I nev­er real­ly heard too much about it as a kid. As I became an adult, I became close with my dad and learned a lit­tle bit more about how union prin­ci­ples impact­ed his life.

When I was first hired at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na, I was in a research-focused posi­tion that had a low ser­vice require­ment. When that ini­tial peri­od was over, I decid­ed to join up to get to know more peo­ple out­side of sci­ence and to learn more about the Uni­ver­si­ty out­side of the walls of my office and lab. That also coin­cid­ed with the birth of my first kid and, as the only woman tenure-track pro­fes­sor in biol­o­gy with chil­dren, I was look­ing for con­nec­tion with peo­ple that were new moms in acad­e­mia. Truth­ful­ly, that whole time is such a blur.

I became part of the pre­cur­sor to the cur­rent Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives as a Fac­ul­ty of Sci­ence rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, I was denied mer­it around the same time, and had start­ed to work with URFA for the on a mer­it appeal, which was suc­cess­ful. The real kick­er for me was actu­al­ly act­ing as an observ­er to our con­tract nego­ti­a­tions and I think this is a fan­tas­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty for mem­bers to learn how things work and I real­ly like know­ing how things work. 

Then I vol­un­teered for the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee for our last round of aca­d­e­m­ic bar­gain­ing. So, I had greater and greater lev­els of involve­ment and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to apply for Pres­i­dent pre­sent­ed itself. I do a lot of ser­vice and I was find­ing that my ser­vice was real­ly frag­ment­ed so I was think­ing it would be nice to con­sol­i­date that into a larg­er role.

You men­tioned that you like know­ing how things work. Did your curios­i­ty, which applies to your research and teach­ing as a biol­o­gy pro­fes­sor, also con­tribute to your desire to become involved with URFA?

Britt Hall outside on a sunny beside a body of water to conduct research.

I think so. I’ve done things like being an extra on a film because I want­ed to know what that is like. When I was a stu­dent, I would go on any type of field trip or take any oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how some­thing works or how it func­tions. That curios­i­ty has led me to the role I have as an envi­ron­men­tal scientist.

Would you like to share any ways your work and research as a biol­o­gy pro­fes­sor may inter­sect with your posi­tion as President?

One of the things that I pre­sent­ed to the mem­ber­ship when I first had a plat­form was to try and fig­ure out how we can engage with the fac­ul­ty sur­round­ing issues around envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Pri­or to COVID, there was a group of us that had been doing some cli­mate change edu­ca­tion. We were real­ly start­ing to get on a roll of protest­ing and mak­ing our issues known about how soci­ety wasn’t tak­ing cli­mate change seri­ous­ly. It was look­ing good and then COVID hit. I’d like to explore how URFA could be part of an envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty con­ver­sa­tion going forward.

What are some of the respon­si­bil­i­ties with being President?

The Exec­u­tive of URFA is basi­cal­ly like the Board of Gov­er­nors of the Uni­ver­si­ty. We pro­vide the overview and a vision of URFA and have ulti­mate finan­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty. URFA now has a new Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Dr. Heather Riten­burg, and she comes to us with a great deal of expe­ri­ence with URFA. As she set­tles into her role, I can start think­ing about some of the big­ger ques­tions rather than the day-to-day ques­tions that have con­sumed me since I started.

As Pres­i­dent, I chair two com­mit­tees, the Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, and par­tic­i­pate in oth­ers mem­ber com­mit­tees. I also can be the pub­lic face of the Union which typ­i­cal­ly becomes very impor­tant when we’re nego­ti­at­ing or with large issues that come up that might be of inter­est to the community.

One of the roles that I’ve tak­en on as a direct result of COVID-19 is to engage more with the mem­ber­ship than we have in the past by using vir­tu­al plat­forms. I think this is an impor­tant exer­cise and I hope peo­ple con­tin­ue to take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask ques­tions. Vir­tu­al meet­ings are also a great tool to engage with mem­bers that are not locat­ed in Regi­na. It’ll be inter­est­ing to see how vir­tu­al meet­ings are used going forward.

Are there some aspects of the Pres­i­dent posi­tion you’re par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoying?

The thing I’m enjoy­ing most about this role is how much learn­ing I’m doing. I am con­stant­ly learn­ing from Heather Riten­burg, from all of the staff, from our mem­bers, from our exec­u­tive. And it’s not just learn­ing about URFA, but learn­ing about nat­ur­al jus­tice and union­ism and how the Uni­ver­si­ty works. There’s a huge learn­ing curve but my teach­ers have been great and so it’s been real­ly excit­ing that way.

How would you describe your vision for URFA?

My visions real­ly are task-ori­en­tat­ed because that’s the way my brain works. I’ve recent­ly learned how absolute­ly impor­tant cri­te­ria doc­u­ments are for aca­d­e­mics. I don’t think many of my peers under­stand how impor­tant they are and how we real­ly need to do bet­ter at nego­ti­at­ing those doc­u­ments in a col­le­gial way so that when we eval­u­ate our peers or if we are eval­u­at­ed, there’s clear, col­le­gial­ly devel­oped cri­te­ria that can be applied in a fair and equi­table way.

And equi­ty, of course, is such a huge issue. I’ve done a lot of learn­ing on equi­ty issues over the last half dozen year or so, which means I’m new to the game but I’m try­ing real­ly hard to bet­ter under­stand that and I would like to con­tin­ue to help our mem­bers understand.

Care­giv­ing in COVID times has been real­ly chal­leng­ing for me. In some ways, it’s such a sim­ple thing, right? We have some peo­ple we need to care for more and we have work to do and we don’t have enough time. But there are no easy solu­tions and it’s blend­ed with so much inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of who is impact­ed more or less and how ulti­mate­ly that means your career is going to be different. 

A profile picture of Britt Hall with a brick wall in the background.

URFA recent­ly final­ized its first strate­gic plan. How will this shape the work of URFA over the com­ing years?

I love our plan. It gives us the frame­work about what we val­ue and what our goals are. The issue of edu­ca­tion of our mem­bers and the pub­lic on the impor­tance of the acad­e­my, col­le­gial gov­er­nance and how the acad­e­my can actu­al­ly play a role in how we move for­ward as a soci­ety from this peri­od, excites me.

It’s great that we’ve made a com­mit­ment to finan­cial secu­ri­ty. I am real­ly excit­ed about that col­le­gial gov­er­nance part and how we will work to make peo­ple real­ize how uni­ver­si­ties are such a vital part of our com­mu­ni­ty and how impor­tant they are in soci­ety in general.

I like the Venn dia­gram that con­nects our four strate­gic objec­tives — how mem­ber engage­ment is right in the mid­dle and then the three oth­ers. They’re all relat­ed and it gives the whole picture. 

Are there spe­cif­ic ques­tions or top­ics that URFA mem­bers should con­nect with you about?

I’ve enjoyed con­nect­ing with peo­ple when they reach out to me as a pub­lic face of URFA, but I don’t do the day-to-day work. I most often refer peo­ple who reach out to me to our tal­ent­ed staff and I will con­tin­ue to do that. I do like hear­ing from peo­ple and I think the grander issues are cer­tain­ly ones that I want to hear about.

From your per­spec­tive, what is one lit­tle-known thing about URFA that is quite neat?

This may not be so lit­tle-known but it prob­a­bly bears repeat­ing. URFA is dis­tinct in a lot of ways because of the diver­si­ty of the peo­ple that we rep­re­sent. We’re rep­re­sent­ing Admin­is­tra­tive, Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal (APT); Aca­d­e­m­ic; and Ses­sion­als from four dif­fer­ent employers. 

There’s just so many ben­e­fits to hav­ing the diver­si­ty in views and hav­ing this strength in num­bers because we can act as a grand col­lec­tive. Our mod­el isn’t the most preva­lent – in oth­er asso­ci­a­tions there are sep­a­rate unions for each bar­gain­ing unit. So, while there are chal­lenges with hav­ing a diver­si­ty of mem­ber­ship, it would be much, much more dif­fi­cult, I think, if we didn’t act as a collective.

Is there any­thing else that you’d like to share with URFA mem­bers and stakeholders?

I would love to hear cre­ative solu­tions to how return to work, how peo­ple envi­sion URFA con­tin­ues to work, maybe take the best of COVID times and the best of face-to-face times and put them togeth­er. What does that look like for peo­ple? We’re all going to be start­ing to think about that now as we enter into this new time. We have such a tal­ent­ed and diverse staff at our uni­ver­si­ties and that’s what we’re here for, right? We’re here to give those cre­ative solu­tions to the rest of the world and I want to hear them too.

This inter­view has been con­densed and edited.