The Faculty of Arts and Science is undergoing sweeping restructuring with the goal of streamlining programs by June, 2011 in order to cut costs. Meric Gertler, dean of U of T’s largest faculty, published his 40-page academic plan on Thursday and is facing mounting opposition from professors and students.

How we got here

A routine external review of the faculty took place in January 2008. While praising the faculty for doing “more with less,” the review raised concerns about the “proliferation of interdisciplinary units.” It suggested cutbacks to deal with unsustainable growth and proposed cutting down on costly, over-centralized administration.

Shortly after, Gertler started his term as dean and assumed the routine responsibility of launching an academic plan within his second year. In September 2009, the provost announced academic planning would begin soon with the goal of putting the faculty in line with President David Naylor’s Towards 2030 plan. In October, Gertler laid out the main priorities of academic planning and indicated he would follow the external report’s recommendation that planning exercises be lead by a smaller strategic planning committee (SPC).

In November, each faculty unit was asked to complete a thorough academic plan, including budget, risks, resources, and enrollment figures. By its December deadline, the SPC received 80 plans, as well as a submission from, and meeting with, the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU). The SPC processed all the submitted plans through to May 2010. Most of June was spent creating reports for each individual department. These reports included proposals and recommendations for program changes and were sent out at the end of June, right before campus was closed ahead of the G20 conference.

Where we are

The largest potential change is the creation of the School of Languages and Literatures, a new amalgamation that would incorporate the the Department of East Asian Studies, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Department of Italian Studies, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures into one super-department.

Under the plan, the Centre for Ethics would be disestablished, but Gertler said administration would “take the resources devoted to scholarship in ethics and reinvest them in a faculty-wise initiative of teaching of ethical and social responsibility to all undergraduates”.

Similarly, the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies would be closed, but its programs would continue in another department. Gertler said the centre had become a “victim of its own success” in that it had provoked interest across the faculty to such ann extent that “the rationale for retaining a centre was not as strong”.

Also proposed is the creation of a new Earth Sciences Department, composed of courses in geology, geophysics and physical geography. “This area is growing in economic, environmental, and social importance,” said Gertler.

The Centre for International Studies would be disestablished as its teaching function will already end this fall. Courses have been redesigned into, and faculty already work with, the Munk School of Global Affairs.

The Centre for Biological Timing and Cognition would be integrated with the Department of Psychology so that it would report to the department and not directly to the dean’s office. Faculty appointed to the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics would work with undergraduate students.

Three graduate programs would be tied to undergraduate programs that already exist in U of T colleges: criminology, industrial and employment relations, and drama. Gertler said a working group would work to integrate both so that undergrads could “benefit from the research and advanced education taking place,” similar to cinema studies programs.

Also proposed are more international experiences, a greater role for colleges, and multidisciplinary courses in which a subject is taught using all three areas of the faculty: humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

“We want to find new ways to make it easier for undergraduate students to engage with our core strengths in research and graduate education,” said Gertler. “We want Arts and Science to be distinguished by offering our students the best of both worlds. That they can take advantage and get involved, and also be part of smaller learning communities.”

Gertler added that the recent discontinuation of the joint specialist in political science and economics is unrelated.

Dissent

Gertler published his academic plan this week, although much upheaval has taken place between its release and the SPC reports which were sent to individual units three weeks ago.

Faculty have met to discuss the proposed changes and issue letters of protest to the dean’s office. Academics outside U of T have also written letters to the president and students have created Facebook groups and blogs to voice their concerns, post incoming letters of support and organize.

In online forums, some have even contrived a telling acronym to describe their animosity for the proposed School of Languages and Literature at U of T: SLLUT.

One of the potential amalgamations, comparative literature, has attracted much attention from both mainstream and social media.

“We feel sad for the students and faculty but we feel sad for the university. Because the U of T has such a strong reputation for being a leader in interdisciplinary research,” said Linda Hucheon, professor at the Centre for Comparative Literature as well as its first graduate.

“It’s a step institutionally and intellectually backwards. U of T used to have a reputation for being very conservative, and it’s about to have that reputation again. We will try to make a case for not getting rid of a major discipline within the university,” said Hutcheon. “We’re not going down without a bit of a fight.”

“We are understandably confused and frightened,” said Ryan Culpepper, co-organizer of Save Comp Lit at U of T. “It’s our shared opinion that the quality of our doctoral degrees, and certainly of our experience as grad students, will be deeply compromised.

At this time, we choose to treat the proposal … as just what it is: a proposal. Nothing official has happened, and no concrete proposal exists. We nevertheless remain willing to come to the table and have a real discussion, and it’s our intention to initiate this discussion if the deans refuse to do so.”

But the most controversy has generated from the proposed school’s amalgamation of the Department of East Asian Studies (EAS). Thomas Keirstead, interim chair of EAS, released the SPC’s EAS report and issued a feisty public response. He estimates roughly half the students in the proposed school would be studying EAS, while only a quarter of professors would specialize in EAS.

“We don’t see how we fit within the proposed school. We’re not a literature or language department,” said Keirstead in an interview, explaining that EAS has globally been multidisciplinary since the ’80s. “We specialize in history, philosophy, social sciences, and literature; in humanistic inquiry.”

Andre Schmid, former EAS chair, agrees.

“It’s what [EAS at U of T] is known for in North America. Many of our professors don’t fit easily into any other departments, they’re at a loss of what to do. Some of them will probably just leave.”

“No one had heard of merging programs. I think there’s been zero consultation with the departments.”

“The entire process took place behind closed doors and in considerable secrecy. We had no inclination anything like this was coming,” said Keirstead. “I really don’t think the dean has in mind inconveniencing students [but] there’s been very little explanation.”

According to Schmid, the Korea Foundation, which donated $3.2 million to U of T in 2006, has written to Gertler asking him to reconsider closing the department. The proposed changes to EAS have gained media attention within the Chinese-Canadian diaspora.

“With the new changes, no students will be able to study Asia in-depth,” said EAS student union president Michel Marion. “Not only is it a reinforcement of the school’s euro-centrism and a setback in time, but it also negates Asia’s central importance in the economic and political worlds.”

According to ASSU president Gavin Nowlan, all faculty students will receive less specialized support if the proposals are adapted.

“The whole point is to remove support staff in the different programs and streamline the administration. This is what a lot of students, when academic planning started this year, were afraid of. That the university is going to limit a number of the smaller interdisciplinary programs. It looks as if that fear may be coming true.”

Nowlan added that ASSU will lobby U of T administration to not go ahead with all its proposals for the School of Language and Literatures. UTSU president Adam Awad did not reply to requests for comment.

Gertler stressed that all students enrolled in programs by this fall will be able to complete their degrees, and that both programs and staff will not be cut.

“We will not be closing any undergraduate programs as a result of these changes, they will all be protected. We will be preserving almost all of the graduate programs [with the exception of changes to comparative literature]. There will be no faculty discontinuing their appointments or losing their jobs as a result of these changes.”

There remains some confusion among faculty. In an e-mail, Hutcheon indicated she was puzzled after reading this week’s report after the SPC originally said the Centre for Comparative Literature would be disestablished: “Both East Asian Studies and Comparative Literature seem to have been told, privately, something different from what we read today.”

Structural deficit

The main reason for the proposed changes is the faculty’s large structural deficit. As of this April, the difference between the faculty’s revenues and spending has accumulated to 56 million dollars, almost a third of which was generated last year, and will soon surpass 60 million.

“We have a limited ability to support these initiatives,” said Gertler. “The risk is that we have spread our finite resources too thinly, to the possible detriment of all programs throughout the faculty.”

Gertler added that his office is “looking for new organizational structures to economize on overhead administrative costs and allow us to put more money into the classroom”.

Academic planning documents state that the main causes of the deficit include the economic recession, less faculty retiring than anticipated, insufficient financial investment from government, and tight provincial regulations on tuition fees.

We have been quite strapped financially and it has been difficult,” said Gertler.

Where we are going

“When we come back together in the fall, we’re going to have a number of public meetings were the plan will be introduced by me and discussed. People will be able to register their concerns,” said Gertler. “We will listen to concerns, we will come forward beginning later in the fall with proposals that require governance approval, such as creation or disestablishment of schools and departments.”

At the end of his planning document, Gertler listed the deadlines for detailed reports to be completed on each major change. Most are due this December, after which changes would be voted on by Governing Council.

Asked how he finds these decisions, Gertler said he has mixed feelings.

“These are very tough decisions when some people have invested a lot of energy in creating something like a centre and making it work. We know [these] kind of changes are very difficult for many people to accept right away.

“We have both a huge challenge and a tremendous opportunity right now given the situation that the faculty is in, to ask these very existential questions about the shape, the size, the scope, the content of a faculty. That’s kind of exhilarating. You don’t get to do that very often, and hopefully we won’t have to do this again for a very long time.”

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