A Modest Rejoinder

Those of us at Arts Squared wish to express our disappointment with the remarks of the University’s President, Indira Samarasekera, as published late Tuesday night in the electronic edition of the Edmonton Journal.

In the article, “Modest Cuts at University Won’t Impact Students, President Says,” President Samarasekera characterizes the two rounds of cuts proposed for the operating budgets of the Faculty of Arts this year and next as “modest.” She also claims that everyone is to understand that there is “pain everywhere,” and that the cuts will not have a negative impact upon students.

We are very disappointed that the President did not use her conversation with the Edmonton Journal to explain what we see as the reality: that the funding choices that the University has been making, along with a lack of an increase to the Campus Alberta Grant by the provincial government for the last two years, are having deep and unfortunate repercussions for the Faculty of Arts, and the University more generally. As a student put it at a forum held at the University yesterday by the Dean of Arts, the President’s remarks suggest that she does not understand the facts “on the ground.”

Students already know that the claim that they will experience no negative impact cannot be true because they are already feeling the effects of cuts.

And those effects are negative.

Some students spoke to the situation at the Dean’s forum yesterday.

The Dean also spoke to the issue.

The cuts that the Faculty was put through in 2009-2010 forced most Arts departments to cut back on their “teaching plans.” As a result, many students cannot get into the courses they want either because the courses are not currently being offered, or are full.

When students cannot get into the courses that they need to graduate, they have to extend their degrees. As the Dean noted at yesterday’s forum, current “bottle-necks” for courses, which sometimes make it impossible for students to get courses that they need to graduate, means that the average time-to-completion for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta is not four years, but five. You can imagine what this means for students who are every year being made to pay more for their tuition. (And raising the “caps” on classes to squeeze more students into courses is not a solution. That simply diminishes the quality of the learning experience for all concerned.)

Even where students do not experience more course “bottle-necks” as a result of these cuts, they will lose out.

They will lose out because the Administration proposes to find some of the money for the cuts to be applied this year and next by letting faculty “lines” close. What this means is the University’s Administration is going to let faculty retire without replacing them. This is a mistake, one that will deepen the already negative effects that students are experiencing from cuts to the Faculty of Arts.

Let us put it this way.

When the University invests in people in the form of faculty members, it is able to offer students a rich and diverse array of courses from which to design their degrees. The more faculty that we have, the more opportunities students have to design their degrees so that they may pursue all of the fields of inquiry that interest them, whether they be in literature, philosophy, history, political science, an ancient or a modern language, the history of ideas, sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, cultural studies, world cultures, art, music, film, linguistics, religious studies, or drama. Every Bachelor of Arts is a unique degree — a degree that our undergraduate advisors help students plan — and the more courses we offer, the more wild-and-wonderful the combinations of courses students can invent as they put together degrees of unique importance to them — degrees that permit them to learn, in dynamic exchanges with professors and fellow students in our classrooms, about the world, past and present, and what they might bring to it. 

It is thus vital that we find the money that keeps the Faculty not only from losing support staff this year, but any faculty members this year or next. We cannot let our senior faculty members retire without being replaced. For us to do that is for us to short-change the students who are currently enrolled in our programs, as well as the students who will enrol in them over the next few years.

It is true that the University has begun to recover from the cut-backs of the Klein government in the 1990s. It is precisely because we have started to recover that we cannot permit a fresh loss of faculty now. We need the University’s Administration to take decisions that are consistent with the vision of the university as one aiming to be amongst the world’s best universities by 2020. If there is any chance of that, the Administration must nurture its Faculty of Arts so that it can be one of the most exciting and dynamics places in Canada for the research and study of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

The University does not need to do what the most visionary universities in the “Top 20” would do in such an instance, which is replace retiring professors not only with talented young professors who have just completed their PhD’s, but also with well-established professors of international reputation bringing the wealth of years of teaching and world-class research to our classrooms. That is, however, a goal that the University should build towards, if it truly wants to be one of the world’s great universities. As the writers of an important internal report issued in 2008 to the Dean of Arts, the Provost, and the President, noted, “the recruitment and retention of talented people” is essential to the University’s achievement of its vision as set out in the University’s academic plan Dare to Discover. Those people included talented support staff, and to that end we would like to note that the 2008 report called (amongst other things) for the Faculty to “hire and train additional support staff members to assist faculty members to: meet accountability expectations; apply to, administer and report on external funding; and, generally, help with basic tasks required by the contemporary university.”

We are not asking for new buildings like the Centennial Centre for the Interdisciplinary Science that cost half a billion dollars. (No, the “b” is not a typo for an “m.”)

We are not asking for expensive new labs.

We are not asking that the University replace our retiring professors with academic “stars.”

Our requests are in fact modest.

We are asking the President and the Provost to help us find the $1.5 million dollars for both this budget year and the next that will keep us, as the President put it in her remarks in the Journal yesterday, from “los[ing] any of our people.” People are our chief resource. And if the cuts are as, the President claims, “modest,” surely the money can be found. We therefore respectfully ask that the President reconsider her claim that she and the other members of the Administration’s team have already “done what we can.” We ask that the President do everything in her power now to resolve the budgetary crises to the Faculty of Arts without the loss of support staff or faculty members. For when we educate this generation of students in the ideas, knowledge, and ways of thinking from cultures around the globe, past and present, we all gain from the brave new future our students may bring into being.

* * * * * * *

Video Available!

A link for video footage of the Dean’s forum on 18 January 2012 can be found on the main website for the Faculty of Arts (http://www.foa.ualberta.ca) under the heading “Arts Forum Q & A.”

Read Full Report!

The internal report referred to above, Arts in the 21st Century (by George Pavlich, Debra Cairns, Lois Harder, and Dennis Sweeney) has been uploaded to this website under “The Virtual Square.

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3 Responses to A Modest Rejoinder

  1. Julie Rak says:

    I would like to point out a couple of difficulties with President Smarasekera’s argument. Since 2005, the enrolment for full and part time students at the University of Alberta has increased. The enrolment in the Faculty of Arts has stayed relatively stable, but that figure stays that way because the Alberta government does not allow Arts take more students than those we have. However, the rise in enrolment in other faculties means that in fact, Arts professors and instructors do teach more students than they did in 2005, because many faculties send their students to Arts to take courses. My comments about university enrolment are based on this data: http://www.registrarsoffice.ualberta.ca/General-Information/U-of-A-Facts-and-Stats.aspx

    The number of graduate students in programmes has also increased since 2005, due in part to Samarasekera’s own urging to departments to admit more students. Therefore, cuts to faculty numbers do in fact affect graduate and undergraduate students. As Dean Cormack clearly said, there will be changes in class delivery as a result of the cuts.

    A second difficulty is that the President seems to think that all professors do in the university is teach. The cuts will affect how administrative commitments are handled and how (or whether) research is carried out. As observed above, this affects the ability of the university to meet the goals of senior administration, as articulated by the President herself.

    A third difficulty is connected to the idea that there are more professors now than there were in 2005. President Samarasekera made this comment as if the number of professors has increased for each department in the same way. My department actually lost professors since 2005 from one programme, and other departments and programmes were joined to my department during that time. Perhaps other programmes received more professors and so service reductions were not experienced. But this is not true of the degree programme in which I teach, and so there have been reductions in course offerings and availability since 2005.

  2. Laurie Adkin says:

    One of my colleagues made an excellent point at our department meeting yesterday: Be careful about stressing too much the shortage of “required” courses for completion of degrees. Resources can be channelled there and diverted from other courses that students take “by choice” (or would take by choice if they were available). Students’ choices (to specialize, craft relatively unique degrees, and so on) are also being circumscribed by cuts in faculty. Programs need both “core” and optional courses to be programs. Students may be unable to complete requirements for certificates, majors, etc., because not enough of the optional courses were available to them.

  3. Arts Squared says:

    An interesting and good point, one that certainly supports our larger contention that our students and all of us benefit the most the richer the array of courses that we are able to offer.

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