Governing Council will issue a final vote today on U of T’s proposal to disestablish the Faculty of Forestry and restructure it as a graduate unit under the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The vote follows recommendations by the Planning and Budget Committee and the Academic Board, as well as an endorsement by the Executive Committee. If approved, Canada’s first forestry faculty will close on July 1, after 112 years of operation.

The university administration and the deans of Daniels and Forestry all maintain that, despite the faculty’s probable disestablishment, Forestry programs and research would continue as usual under Daniels. However, the Forestry Graduate Students’ Association (FGSA) and Forestry faculty members and alumni have criticized the proposal for its perceived failure to ensure that Forestry would still retain its distinct identity, a concern they say was brought up during the university’s consultation periods. The University of Toronto Students’ Union and the Arts & Science Students’ Union have additionally expressed concerns over the proposed disestablishment.

The root of the problem

U of T opened the Faculty of Forestry in 1907. At the start, the faculty endured a strenuous relationship with the U of T administration, which stunted its early ambitions, according to history professor Mark Kuhlberg. This issue was punctuated by Bernhard Fernow, the faculty’s inaugural Dean, who, in his 1912 report, wrote, “…it cannot be said that the Faculty has reached a permanent form”.

Since then, the faculty has continued to face issues of instability and, at times, volatility. In 2018–2019, it had the third-smallest attributed revenue of U of T’s 20 divisions and was home to just five tenure-stream faculty members and 122 students. In its restructuring proposal, the university notes that these factors indicate that, despite posting balanced budgets, the faculty is not financially sustainable.

Following stagnation within the faculty and ongoing informal discussions, the university hosted a consultation process in 2017 that would act as the source of its current proposal. The consultation considered a number of possibilities for Forestry’s future, including maintenance of the status quo, closure, expansion, and a merger with another division.

U of T opted to pursue the final option.

Sowing the seed

On July 1, 2017, the university appointed Robert Wright — the Director of the Daniels’ Centre for Landscape Research — as the Dean of Forestry. Wright was given a two-year term ending June 30, 2019. If the university’s proposal succeeds, that would also be the last day of Forestry’s existence as a faculty.

“I took the position because I believed… that forestry programs needed to continue at the University of Toronto,” Wright wrote to The Varsity. “The Faculty of Forestry was in serious trouble, and if it continued as such, it would quickly cease to exist. Our academic mission was paramount. We needed to focus our efforts on the long-term sustainability of existing programs, faculty renewal and new program initiatives.”

Following consultations, the university administration and Wright deemed that Daniels would be the best fit for Forestry, given that both are professional faculties and that there are numerous potential avenues for interdisciplinary research between the two. The proposal highlights “areas of bio products, landscape conservation, or mass timber use in building design and construction” as examples.

Daniels is also a more secure faculty than Forestry. In 2018–2019, its attributed revenue was $26.8 million greater and it had 22 more tenure-stream faculty members and 1,346 more students.

According to Daniels Dean Richard Sommer, the faculty only formally entered discussions regarding Forestry’s restructuring in November 2018, one month prior to the proposal’s first draft release.

The draft’s release in December then triggered a mandatory minimum 120-day consultation period, after which a final draft was released and entered formal governance, beginning with the Planning and Budget Committee meeting on May 9. There, U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that restructuring Forestry under Daniels would be “a unique moment when the discipline can be redefined within the context of the university and wider society, and where the new synergies and opportunities can be realized.”

Indeed, the FGSA and Forestry faculty members and alumni all agree that restructuring under Daniels can be beneficial, but only with additional provisions. 

The consultation trail

The restructuring proposal notes that by the time Daniels entered formal discussions, “Forestry faculty members unanimously supported moving forward with a restructuring process that would move forestry activities into Daniels.”

However, FGSA Chair Nicole Tratnik said that this claim and the proposal misrepresents Forestry. In an interview with The Varsity, she clarified that some Forestry faculty members had left the faculty in the past few years and, while they did not wholly oppose restructuring under Daniels, nor did the university force them out, they felt that they would be more productive in other faculties.

Tratnik also noted that the proposal wasn’t voted on by Forestry’s faculty council. U of T’s academic restructuring policy does not require it to receive approval from either the affected or destination faculty’s council. Instead, it requires “potentially affected Academic Units [to] have had a reasonable opportunity to participate in a collegial, inclusive and deliberative process.” While Daniels’ faculty council provided a vote of confidence in the proposal, there was still opposition from remaining Forestry faculty members. Nonetheless, the university deemed this requirement to have been met.

While Tratnik said that Wright has been willing to meet with Forestry students, some of the FGSA’s concerns regarding the proposal draft were not addressed when U of T released its final draft in April.

Seeing the forest for the trees

In March, the FGSA sent a letter supported by 34 Forestry students to the university, asking it to clarify its intentions of establishing a distinct identity for Forestry, maintaining Forestry program accreditation, and continuing Forestry’s endowments.

The university addressed all these concerns to varying degrees of detail when it released the proposal’s final draft in April. It clarified the continued administration of endowments and communicated that the Master of Forest Conservation would remain an accredited professional program despite Forestry’s shift from a faculty to a graduate unit.

Maintaining Forestry’s identity is a decidedly more complex matter that the various stakeholders do not see eye-to-eye on. 

In a bid to ensure that Forestry maintains a degree of administrative and financial autonomy, the FGSA is requesting that Daniels recognize Forestry as a higher-level Extra-Departmental Unit (EDU). 

According to U of T, EDUs are “flexible and multidisciplinary entities organized around emerging research and teaching areas that span disciplines.” An example is the School of the Environment, which is an EDU:B under the Faculty of Arts & Science.

At this time, U of T has not communicated a stance on Forestry’s potential establishment as an EDU under Daniels. In an interview with The Varsity, Regehr wrote, “The program could evolve over time after the restructuring has taken place, but it would need to come about as a collegial process at Daniels.”

Sommer, however, believes that establishing Forestry as an EDU under Daniels contradicts the FGSA’s desire for a distinct identity due to EDUs’ multidisciplinary nature.

“How is it that Forestry would have its own EDU without forging it together with [Daniels] around our interdisciplinary interests?” Sommer told The Varsity. “[The FGSA’s] primary concern is a way for Forestry to have an identity… and some independence as a discipline within our faculty, which they will have [as a graduate unit.]”

According to Wright, “The main concern for [Forestry members] is to ensure Forestry programs are promoted and have a distinct identity if moved into a larger faculty… I believe this proposal [addresses] that concern and we can continue those discussions at Daniels.”

While the Faculty of Forestry’s 112-year history will likely soon come to an end, the rebuilding process of the Forestry community’s identity is set to begin in earnest.

Editor’s Note (June 26, 2:07 pm): This article has been updated to correct a quote from Sommer on Forestry and Daniels’ interdisciplinary interests.