Reflexions on the Arts Faculty Council discussion of the MLCS BA proposal (Guest Post by Marisa Bortolussi)

In response to the request for a summary of what happened at the Thursday May 25 meeting of the Arts Faculty Council regarding the BA proposal for Modern Languages and Cultural Studies (MLCS), here is a summary, with a few post-meeting reflexions.

First of all, the proposal passed: the result of the vote was: 37 against, 49 for, with 7 abstentions. 

AFC Council members were placed in a very difficult situation at that meeting. It was pointed out to them that the department of MLCS was divided over the new MLCS BA proposal, with half of the faculty members in favour of it, and the other half against. This meant, effectively, that Council members were being asked to choose between siding with one half of the department against the other. How does one go about making such a decision? Was a thorough knowledge and understanding of the proposal required to decide which half was right and which half was wrong? No. Because understanding the proposal would have required being walked through every detail of the document, hearing all the pros and cons, and reflecting on all that information. But that is not the role of Arts Faculty Council. That is the role of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, a duly elected committee, whose job it is to vet proposals before they reach Arts Faculty Council. And the AAC members had indeed devoted much time and effort to scrutinizing the proposal; after much discussion, they arrived at the conclusion that the proposal did not cut it. Under normal circumstances, the proposal would then not have been forwarded to Arts Faculty Council. Dean Cormack admitted at the meeting that she had overruled the AAC’s decision. This complicated the Council members’ decision making process, as they now had to decide between, on the one hand, choosing to honour the judgement of the AAC, whose members they elected, or, on the other hand, siding with the Dean. Without even knowing what the concerns of the AAC were, the majority of AFC members chose to side with the Dean and advocates of the proposal. 

This decision is very troubling for several reasons. The first is that it deals a blow to a fundamental principle that I thought we all endorsed—collegial governance. We have these committees in place to ensure the right of academics to participate in the decision-making process. They serve in part as a system of checks and balances to limit the powers of administrators. When we side with administrators, rejecting the hard work and professional decisions of our own elected colleagues, do we not undermine the legitimacy of the decision-making process? Do we not open up the door for administrative micromanaging of our programs, and potential abuses of power? 

Now some may argue that, although they didn’t know the reasons the proposal had not been approved by the AAC, they believed the arguments raised by the supporters. This too, is problematic, because for every argument made by the supporters, the opponents countered with facts that negated those claims. Here are some examples:

  1. A necessary step in this process was the surveying of students. The ‘yea’ side maintained that students were enthusiastic about the proposal. The ‘nay’ side claimed that there is no reliable evidence to support that claim. As proof, it was explained that the method used to survey students was not objective, the satisfaction rate low, and that the comments made by students actually showed they did not understand the proposal. It was explained that the method used consisted of a few advocates of the proposal visiting a few undergraduate classes, giving a rah-rah pep-talk, and then asking students some questions such as “what do you like about this proposal?” Some students heard the talk more than once, and it is possible that they answered the questions more than once, so we don’t know how many different students were surveyed. Of those students, only 62 (again, we don’t know the exact number) were registered in a Minor, Major, or Honors program in MLCS. The satisfaction rate was 3.5/5. Not overwhelmingly positive. More telling are the comments that were made. The two main aspects of the proposal students liked were “access to study abroad”, and the flexibility to study more than one language. Since MLCS students have always studied abroad, and have always had the option of studying more than one language, the responses indicate that students did not understand the proposal. This is not surprising given that they had not been asked to read and study it carefully. It is important to point out here that there are objective methods of surveying groups of people. If MLCS does not have questionnaire-design specialists among its faculty, there are resources on campus to help with that task. (We availed ourselves of those resources for our last unit review.) Conclusion: these facts prove the “student satisfaction” narrative wrong. 
  2. Advocates of the proposal argued that for 4 years there had been ample consultation and discussion. Opponents countered with several facts: i) that in 2015 members of the Curriculum Committee were not permitted to discuss the proposal because it had allegedly been discussed enough the previous year; ii) members of the department were denied the right to submit alternate proposals. One person pointed out that she had sent the Curriculum Committee a proposal; it was never acknowledged. Others received e-mails from the Chair clearly stating that no other proposals would be discussed; iii) the proposal was never discussed at the level of our areas (e.g. Spanish, French, etc.), where much of our business is conducted; iv) discussions at departmental council were short, given the time constraints; v) committee membership was cherry-picked. The Chair of the Curriculum Committee stated that members of the hardest-hit program under this proposal, Comparative Literature, had been invited to serve on the committee, but declined. Members of the Comparative Literature program gave testimony that they had never been invited. Conclusion: these facts seriously undermine the “ample discussion and consultation” narrative. 

One of the most important issues: the potential consequences of this proposal received only minor attention (more on that in a separate blog thread to come). A member of the French area explained how the proposal weakens the French program to the point where it will no longer be competitive with other strong French programs in the country because it lowers the standards and requires students to take more courses in English. Some perceptive students had mentioned in their student survey answers that the new program would entail decreased language proficiency. They are absolutely right. One does not have to be a linguist to know that one does not gain proficiency in a foreign language by taking courses in English. 

It was also pointed out that the proposal pits some areas of the department against others; it saves Scandinavian by weakening the academic integrity of French, virtually destroying Comparative Literature. Someone obviously decided that Scandinavian is more important than Comparative Literature. But members of the opposing side pointed out that it was not necessary to save some programs at the expense of others, that it was entirely possible to craft a proposal that saved endangered programs while maintaining the strength of the stronger programs like French and Spanish. The opponents of the program asked for the opportunity to produce such a proposal, an opportunity they had always been denied. The majority voted not to give the department that chance. Conclusion: the vote of the majority displays a lack of concern for the very negative consequences of this proposal.

On Thursday, Council members who were not in a position to judge for themselves the merits or flaws of the proposal, decided to disregard the decision of the Arts Academic Affairs Committee, and side with one half of the department of MLCS. What a truly sad sign of our times that facts do not guide decision-making.  The vote suggests that the ‘yeas’ won and the ‘nays’ lost. But it’s not that simple. The ‘yea’ vote condemns a department to continued internal conflict, paves the way for the implementation of a very flawed program that will have very dire consequences, and deals a slap in the face to the commitment to facts as well as to collegial governance. We have heard so many complaints about the erosion of collegial governance and the rise of a corporate culture in universities. But we can hardly complain when through our actions we become complicit. The ‘nays,’ armed with facts, argued with courage and integrity; the courage and integrity to stand up to the administration and denounce a flawed process and product. 

I am truly proud of being part of the “losing” side.


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