On Campus

‘Academic vandalism’

Proposal to shut down prestigious comparative literature program at U of T draws international rebuke

The proposed closure of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature has ignited an international campaign in protest. Scholars from all over Canada, the United States and Europe have written letters pleading with the U of T to reconsider shutting down the prestigious Centre that was founded by Northrop Frye in 1969. The proposal is one of several recommendations in a sweeping academic plan released by the Faculty of Arts and Science earlier this month.

Frye, author of the Great Code, was arguably Canada’s greatest literary scholar, with the world renowned Centre often seen as one of his most important legacies. There are currently 33 PhD students and nine master’s students pursuing degrees through the Centre.

Graduate studies in comparative literature will remain possible through a new School of Languages and Literature, where six previously independent units will be housed if the academic plan gains approval from the U of T’s governing council. Students studying comparative literature who graduate before July 2011 will earn their degree from the Centre, while those graduating after that will receive their degree from the school of languages. Once current students complete their programs, the proposal is for comparative literature to become a collaboration with other disciplines, where students would elect it as a supplementary option.

So far no professors are expected to lose their jobs, but the faculty hopes to save on administrative expenditures. “The general approach here is to find ways to reduce some of the overhead costs associated with each of these existing departments or centres while retaining the teaching and scholarship,” arts and science dean Meric Gertler said.

Other proposals include transferring courses previously taught by the Centre for International Affairs into the Munk School of Global affairs. The Centre for Biological Timing and Cognition would fall under the auspices of the psychology department.

But it is the possibility of closing the Centre for Comparative Literature that appears to have generated the biggest response. Students have organized a campaign called “Save Comparative Literature” that includes a petition with around 5,800 signatures, including Margaret Atwood’s. Online forums have seen an unfavourable acronym attached to the School of Languages and Literature at U of T, namely “SLLUT.”

Some students see the plan as a breach of contract. “I think something that is going to be very difficult for us going on the job market is that we are the last classes for the [Centre] and that’s damaging to us,” fourth-year PhD student Jonathan Allan said. “We didn’t agree to come to the University of Toronto to become a part of some school of languages.”

Professors are similarly disappointed. Linda Hutcheon, who teaches at the Centre, although her home department is English, says that interdisciplinary studies, like comparative literature, are being threatened. “There’s no other Centre that brings people together, not only from other languages to work together, but from other disciplines, from history to sociology to the theatre,” she told Maclean’s. “Almost every school in the United States has a comparative literature department. That’s the joke.”

In a previous interview with the Globe and Mail, Hutcheon remarked how the University of Toronto pioneered the study of comparative literature. “We had Europeans coming from all over the place because it was the only place in the world that you could do it,” she said.

Dozens of letters, from Canada and around the world, have been written in protest of the plan, with new ones coming in on an almost daily basis. Noreen Golfman, president of The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, wrote that she would be “remiss” not to express concern “about the fate of one of the better known Canadian assets in the humanities.”

Françoise Lionnet, vice-president of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) wrote:  “As the premiere institution in Canada, and as the leader among Commonwealth universities, Toronto cannot afford to send the message that the Center for Comparative Literature is slated for disestablishment.” The ACLA is set to host its next annual meeting in Vancouver.

Daniel R. Lamont, of the University of Central Lancashire wrote that the Centre is “well regarded” in Britain and called the decision to close it “academic vandalism.”

Gertler says scaling down the number of units in the arts and science was necessary to address concerns arising from a 2008 external review that concluded that the faculty was growing beyond its means. In particular, the review noted that 15 new units had been added in the previous five years alone. Gertler does, however, emphasize that nothing is final, and that he is continuing to meet with students and faculty. “We’re certainly listening carefully to the comments that people make and we will continue to be open to good ideas,” he said.

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