On Campus

Academic ‘crisis’ at the U of T

Faculty association to file grievance over sweeping academic plan

Faculty at the University of Toronto are digging in their heels over a sweeping academic plan that would see several arts and science centres and departments either closed or stripped of their independence. Responding to an “unprecedented” number of complaints, the U of T Faculty Association (UTFA) is preparing to file a grievance with the provost’s office by the end of the month. The five year Academic Plan, released by arts and science dean Meric Gertler in July, proposes to reduce the number of administrative units in an effort to control overhead costs.

The faculty association is calling the situation a “crisis” and wants implementation of the plan to be shelved until their forthcoming grievance is settled. “A spirit of fear and distrust has taken hold, and UTFA is distressed to hear that departments are asking, ‘Who is next’”? Cynthia Messenger, UTFA’s vice-president, grievances, stated in a written response to Maclean’s.

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Because U of T faculty are not technically unionized, the faculty association says it has limited means to address complaints from its members. There is no official mechanism in place to deal with the closure or amalgamation of academic units, a process UTFA wants to establish through their grievance.

Among the proposed changes would be the creation of a new School of Languages and Literature that will house six previously autonomous units, such as East Asian Studies and Italian Studies. The creation of the new school has drawn international criticism because it includes a plan to disestablish the Centre for Comparative Literature that was created in 1969 by Northrop Frye.

Other centres on the block to be closed are the Centre for Ethics and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational studies. The Centre for Biological Timing and Cognition would fall under the umbrella of the psychology department.

Although no professors are slated to lose their jobs, UTFA is concerned over the “scholarly standing” of affected units. “The downgrading of status from department to ‘program’ conveys to potential graduate students, granting agencies, international research collaborators, and donors that the unit is not sufficiently productive or academic,” Messenger said.

Gertler, who wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a grievance being filed, has maintained that the Plan is necessary to bring the Faculty of Arts and Sciences within its financial means. A 2008 external review noted that the faculty was growing at an unsustainable rate, with 15 new departments or centres being created in the previous five years alone.

“All I can say is that structural changes of the kind that have been recommended are always going to be complicated,” Gertler said. “There will be winners and losers, and we have been very careful to assess what we think are the benefits and the costs associated with these proposals.”

Messenger doesn’t buy that argument, and points to a January UTFA report that suggests undergraduate programs are subsidizing professional programs. According to the review, in 2006-2007 approximately $50 million was transferred from arts and science, engineering, and the U of T’s Mississauga and Scarborough campuses to faculties like medicine, management and law. In 2009-2010, the subsidy was $47 million.

“Some of the University’s professional faculties [receive] transfer funds from Arts and Science. Are those faculties therefore unsustainable”?, Messenger asked.

Gertler says cross-subsidization is simply a reality of operating a large institution like the U of T. “We have long abandoned the idea that every unit, department and faculty in the university has to pay its own way,” he said.

When asked under what circumstances UTFA would support the closure of a centre or department, Messenger said only for scholarly reasons. “The Academic Plan produces no evidence that the affected units are not academically viable,” she said.

In addition to controlling costs, Gertler says the proposal will “strengthen” program delivery. “A number of [units] are small, have difficulty attracting students and we think that by joining forces with larger units . . . that they will succeed in attracting students,” he said.

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