Toronto School of Theology. Rueshen Aksoy/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto has formally created a PhD in theology in conjunction with the Toronto School of Theology (TST). Students at the TST and faculty members at U of T are debating the claim that this PhD is an entirely new program, arguing that it is identical to the existing Doctor of Theology.

In 2013, The Varsity reported that the proposed changes were up for review by the U of T Quality Assurance Process. The review examined joint programs offered through TST and U of T, resulting in recommendations that addressed the “below standard quality” of the Doctor of Theology. Students who are pursuing or currently hold a ThD from the university are currently unable to transfer their title to a PhD. 

The changes

Donald Wiebe, a member of Trinity College’s Faculty of Divinity and a supervisor of both ThD and PhD students, has been an outspoken opponent of the process since its inception in 2013. Wiebe argues that the PhD is the “gold standard for employment in universities” and that this regulation is unfairly preventing past graduates from holding a title that is earned through the same process that new PhD students will go through.    

Wiebe argues that the change from the ThD to a PhD in theological studies is simply a change in title, and therefore does not fit the university’s criteria for a new program. According to the university’s degree program approval protocol, unique programs must have “substantially different program requirements and substantially different learning outcomes” from existing ones. 

Wiebe says that he has not yet received adequate response from the university explaining why these changes — which he describes as minor — qualify as substantial enough to change the program entirely.   

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, maintains that U of T considers the PhD to be a new program. She added that students must apply, be granted admission, register, and complete the new program to be awarded the PhD.   

Currently, the ThD and PhD programs share a student handbook, which outlines nearly identical processes for the two programs. The hanbdbook refers to the two programs in tandem, calling them the “ThD/PhD.” 

The new program proposal published by the Governing Council states that, “TST also offers an approved doctoral degree, the Th.D.: the plan is to close that conjoint program once the Ph.D. is operational.”

Student reactions

Students who entered the program in 2014 may complete a bridging course to graduate with a PhD in Theology rather than a ThD. Students who entered prior to that date are not eligible to do the same.   

Andrew Woodward, who entered the program in 2013 and is expecting to complete his ThD this year, is appealing the university’s ruling on his endeavour to participate in the bridging program. Woodward’s appeal is set for consideration at Governing Council this term.   

Woodward claims that he has to work harder than PhD holders to explain to potential employers that his degree is critical and non-secretarial. A PhD is beneficial, says Woodward, because it is already widely known as a critical degree. He adds, “One wonders why the university even bothers having its ThD accredited by the agency if it’s not going to follow the agency’s imperative that students be allowed to choose which name they would like.”   

Other students have objected to the structure of the program, including Stephen Hewko, a doctoral student. Hewko submitted a petition signed by several other students to U of T president Meric Gertler, which argues that unless the university can provide evidence of substantial differences in program requirements and outcomes, it is morally, ethically, and legally obligated to permit ThD students to change their degree to PhD upon graduation.   

Following review from the Quality Council, the PhD was approved for government funding. Wiebe regards the Quality Council’s review with suspicion, stating that they have “in no way made a case for this being an entirely new program.”

Wiebe submitted documentation to the university which demonstrates the “identical program requirements.” He claims that it has been ignored.

Weibe argues that the similarity of the two programs is akin to plagiarism. “[The process] is kind of wicked… it’s definitely unfair,” he says. Wiebe went on to state that “it’s quite problematic when the university expects students to follow. The ThD is still being funded as it was before but the university has sought new funding for the PhD program. The ThD and PhD are both joint degrees, conferred by both U of T and the TST.


On October 3, 2013, U of T provost Cheryl Regehr argued that “the changes are so significant we will have to take it through as a new program.” The emerging result: the development of a PhD in theological studies was determined to be more research-focused than the current ThD.

Ontario’s Quality Council and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities approved the new program in December 2013. It was then approved by U of T in October 2014.   

The legitimacy of the decision-making process is also under scrutiny. Wiebe states that the ThD program was reviewed in 2012 as part of a cyclical review that takes place every five to six years, and that the TST agreed to not follow program regulations and consider the possibility of a PhD in Theology.   

Wiebe says that a report sent back to reviewees contained allegedly problematic comments. Wiebe claims that these comments were eventually quietly removed. This report was resubmitted in April 26, 2012 and went on to the Committee of Academic Program and Policy. According to Wiebe, the university breached the protocol of their review processes on both occasions.

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