On March 23, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr published a memo describing the next step in a discussion on making changes to the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. A consultation process involving “faculty members and librarians of potentially affected Academic Units” was announced. The memo has spurred dissent amongst members of the Forestry community and highlighted an apparent history of mistrust between the faculty and central university administration. Members of the Forestry community are concerned that the faculty itself could be dissolved.

Regehr’s memo and academic restructuring

Regehr’s memo details a multi-phased consultation process to help determine the future of the faculty and suggests that official academic restructuring changes could follow.

The memo follows the publishing of a review of the faculty conducted by Anja Geitmann of McGill University, J. Keith Gilless of the University of California, Berkeley, and Lisa Sennerby Forsse of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The external review places emphasis on the importance of the forestry issues and expresses confidence in the faculty. Its criticisms mainly centre on the faculty’s lack of resources. Currently, the faculty does not have its own undergraduate program — instead offering programs to undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts & Science — and faces an inability to offer all classes every year.

The review mentions the current “indeterminacy” of the faculty as it continues to undergo discussions of academic restructuring. An acknowledgement of the uncertain stage at which the faculty finds itself seems to have pushed both the faculty and the university toward finding a more permanent and stable solution for Forestry’s future.

“Basically, we want to ensure that we have the best structure in place, the best support in order to support our forestry education and forest science research,” Regehr told The Varsity. “Are there other kinds of structures that might enrich the program and provide more support for the research?”

Regehr was not direct in addressing how the restructuring process might play out, but members of the Forestry community are concerned that the faculty itself could be dissolved.

Her memo says that restructuring could “include consideration of potential structures that will allow academic programs and research related to the discipline of forest sciences at U of T to flourish, and have stability and sustainability, including related programs and research in other units.”

According to Regehr, this sort of change “happens around the university all the time.”

“We moved visual students also into the Faculty of Architecture, so there’s changes that happen in structural programs,” Regehr said. “Change and review is just a part of what the university does in order to ensure that we stay at the cutting edge, and so this is just one of those processes.”

Forestry group fights back

Discussions surrounding the faculty’s termination has been met with backlash from alumni and current faculty members.

Forestry Matters is a group meant to encourage activism in these upcoming discussions. Organized through its website by David Grant, the Executive Director of a non-profit called Cabbagetown ReLEAF Tree Stewardship, Forestry Matters is led by students Theresa Reichlin, Annonciade Murat, and Basil Southey.

“Forestry Matters is a collection of concerned students, alumni, and forestry community members who are coming together to help secure the future of U of T’s Faculty of Forestry,” Southey wrote in an email to The Varsity. “We are not a formal movement of any one group but rather a platform to encourage greater participation in the consultation process from those who may not be aware of it.”

Forestry Matters’ website features a petition in support of keeping the Faculty of Forestry. The organizers behind Forestry Matters are concerned that the opinions and suggestions of members of the Forestry community will be left behind in the discussions.

“Above all else we want to help make sure that this consultation process goes forward in a transparent and accessible manner,” Southey said. He is also concerned the consultations are happening “at a time when the vast majority of forestry students are spread across Canada and the world, often without any access to internet.”

Forestry Matters’ petition needs 1,000 signatures before it is sent to President Gertler. At the time this article was published, the article had 927 signatures.

A history of mistrust

Underlying the discussions of the faculty’s future is a history of mistrust between the Forestry community and central university administration.

Marcin Lewandowski, Chair of the Faculty of Forestry Alumni Association, published a response to Regehr’s memo explaining his concerns for the future of the faculty and its importance for the future of forestry as a field.

In an email to The Varsity, Lewandowski claimed that there is reason to doubt the collaborative spirit the university is touting.

“The University of Toronto has been trying to get rid of forestry for many years now,” Lewandowski claimed. “The Faculty of Forestry had one of the top undergrad forestry programs in the world, but that was slashed in the 90s. Since then, the University has been strangling the Faculty out of resources (despite increased interest and enrollment in forestry), hoping that eventually there will be no one to defend the Faculty.”

Lewandowski also claims that the faculty’s building is related to the issue. “The Faculty of Forestry is located in one of the nicer buildings on campus. Of course Arts and Sciences would love to put a hand on that. It’s a fight of David with Goliath,” he said.

Elizabeth Church, a spokesperson for the university, told The Varsity that “space considerations are not part of this process” of consultations.

“The relationship has certainly been strained. There is a distinct feeling that the administration does not want us to continue,” said Southey. “It feels as though the administration ignores our successes because they want to take our building and labs and give them to other departments.”

Within the faculty, there is the same feeling of skepticism. Anne Koven, an adjunct professor and a lecturer with Forestry, told The Varsity that she feels there has been a long history of conflict with the central administration. “I think they’ve put Forestry into the position of being seen as troublemakers,” she said. “That somehow Forestry is… not doing what the university wants it to do.”

“I wouldn’t say that there’s a strain,” Regehr said when asked about the relationship between the faculty and central university administration.

Koven shared her own reasoning for the faculty’s skepticism in light of the consultations, saying that the administration started on the wrong foot. “Without consulting with the faculty people in advance, they announced this consultation process, which was supposed to be collegial and transparent,” Koven said. “I think the faculty feels that just isn’t happening.”

The faculty’s dean, Mohini Sain, concluded his term last June. Koven believes that Sain’s exit adds to the nervous sentiment amongst faculty members. “The faculty felt it was strange that there wouldn’t be a process to find a new dean before a consultation process,” she said.

“In my opinion, [the] best possible solution would be to have a Faculty with a broader mandate to address issues such as sustainability, forestry and resource management,” Sain wrote in an email to The Varsity. “This new Faculty must have a dean and independent departments in those three areas and each department must have their undergraduate and graduate programs administered by the department.”

Sain’s suggestion would involve dissolving the current Faculty of Forestry, creating a new department more conducive to the growing variety of programs that he said relate to forestry. The question remains whether the supporters of Forestry Matters will trust the administration to acknowledge the importance of forestry studies, and, in turn, construct a new academic unit well equipped to address the changes to the field.

The university accepted online submissions for the first phase of consultations until June 30. Regehr’s office will publish a summation report and initiate the second phase of consultations in the fall of 2017.