The atmosphere was volatile at a town hall hosted on Thursday by the Faculty of Arts and Science. Hosted by Dean Meric Gertler, the first of two forums solicited feedback on a 40-page academic plan published by U of T’s largest faculty in June.
By the event’s start, the large auditorium at OISE was nearly at capacity with a mixed crowd of students, faculty, and staff. Gertler opened with a 20-minute presentation on the Faculty of Arts and Science Academic Plan, 2010–2015.
He began by describing the “uncertain times” the faculty is facing, citing the “provincial grant freeze, dramatic slowdown in retirements, and world economic slowdown” as causes of the faculty’s financial defecit. He called past management of resources “unintelligent and undirected,” referencing the faculty’s $22-million annual deficit and $56-million accumulated deficit, as proof of the need for a “shift from across-the-board cuts to a strategic approach driven by academic priorities.”
These priorities include expanding the research opportunities available to undergrads, and building on initiatives such as The Socrates Project, and the colleges’ writing centres and undergraduate offices which link undergrads with grad students and staff in relevant disciplines.
Gertler also advocated “reinvesting in teaching capacity” by increasing the number of appointments, and “freeing up resources to adress our students’ needs.”
The latter goal was the impetus behind the controversial School of Languages and Literatures, which would draw departments such as East Asian Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Italian Studies, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures into one larger department, which Gertler suggested would reduce administrative overhead costs significantly.
Though Gertler stressed that the name of the new school was “a placeholder only,” a block of East Asian Studies students and staff, sitting at the front and nearly all wearing red, uttered several boos to the name after a note was circulated that read “Boo when Gertler mentions the L&L.”
Following Gertler’s presentation, a long queue immediately formed behind each microphone.
UTSU President Adam Awad spoke first, criticizing the plan as allowing the provincial government to continue cutting funding to students with its goals. Awad also criticized the lack of student involvement in the forming the plan, which was raised contiuously throughout the discussion. “At its core, the academic plan, and the process around is so far, has actually been pretty insulting,” said Awad. “For us [students] the message has been clear: that our contributions can’t be meaningful, or insightful in any way,” further stating that the Strategic Planning Committee “operated in a way almost secretively.”
To this point, the Dean cited monthly meetings with ASSU president Gavin Nowlan, and the union’s three hour presentation to the Strategic Planning Committee by ASSU.
Nowlan, in an interview with The Varsity the following day, said he believed that was the only student consultation, and it had been a “shocking moment to realize that that was it, three hours in front of the Strategic Planning Committee,” claiming that usually with matters such as this the committee at least has a “token” student.
Gertler, in a later interview with The Varsity, said that they were “mindful of the fact that [such as position] would be a huge burden on the student” — some 200 hours — and that the “best compromise” was to “do it the way we did it.”
Gertler cited the plans they received from each department which were supposed to represent the student perspective as well as the multi-stage nature of the planning process as means of student representation in the plan. We are now in “step four, where we see consultation opening up again,” the town halls one way of consulting with students.
At OISE Gertler admitted that the timing had been “unfortunate” — the document was released over the summer, when many students and faculty members were away — but claimed that he had been “very much looking forward to the fall as an opportunity when we could in fact engage in discussion.”
Another hot-button issue was the lack of financial data supporting the proposals. Students wavered between criticizing the university for prioritizing finances — Ken Kawashima, undergrad co-ordinator of EAS, spoke passionately against the “culture of the university increasingly dictated by financial necessity” — and demanding to see hard financial evidence that the changes would actually have a positive impact, with one speaker commenting that they had no idea whether a proposal represented $800,000 in savings, or $3-million in savings.
Gertler told The Varsity that to this end, the faculty’s budget was publicly available, though recognized that this “doesn’t give the level of detail that people are seeking in this case.
“The best way forward to advance these discussions is to start discussing models with specific stakeholders at the table…and at that point we would get down to talking about detailed figures.”
Though several departments are slated for reorganization or dissolution in the plan, EAS was by far best represented at the meeting.
Julianne Kelso, an EAS student who had written the distributed letter, cited the popularity of the department — home to over 1,000 students — as well as its global relevance, renowned research, and interdisciplinary nature as reasons for its dissolution and inclusion in the School of Languages and Literatures would be unacceptable, expressing fear for the value of her degree and future course offerings, “with only five members of our current faculty in the new program, and the remaining faculty dispersed throughout the university.
“As students we are not only interested in studying Asia’s languages,” she said, amongst loud cheers from the audience.
The Dean asserted unequivocally that the current EAS faculty could stay together as a unit if that was their preference (as opposed to a Chinese history professor going to the history department, for example), and pointed to the figure that 45 per cent of students enrolled in EAS courses are in language courses, as reason for its inclusion in the school.
Thomas Keirstead, chair of EAS, claimed that “this isn’t really the case,” as that figure was correct in 2005 but has been “steadily dropping.”
“It is perhaps generally accepted that those who are most unhappy with the specific elements of the proposal are going to come forward with great intensity and express their unhappiness, and we’ve certainly seen that process take place,” said Gertler, later telling The Varsity that “thusfar an overwhelming proportion of unhappiness has come from the units slated for restructuring, probably 95 per cent.”
He maintained that there “is indeed widespread support that hasn’t come to the fore in a publicly visible way yet,” but asserted that they “view this as a long term process” — its appearance before the GC has been pushed back to June 2011 — and that “we are seriously interested in welcoming and engaging everyone.”