Letter 1 (Professor Sale, English & Film Studies)

12 December 2011

Indira Samarasekera


The University of Alberta

Dear President Samarasekera,

I write to take you up on an offer you made to faculty members at the University of Alberta who joined you at a roundtable you hosted in the 2010. At that roundtable, you heard, graciously, a variety of concerns from faculty across campus, and when it concluded urged all present to write to you with any future concerns we might have. I cannot imagine a more pressing concern than the one I raise here. I write to urge you, in this time of budgetary crisis for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, to do everything in your power to halt the proposed cuts to our Faculty scheduled for this academic year and next.

As you know, the Faculty of Arts has been asked to cut $1.5 million from its operating budget for 2011-2012. Another similar cut is being asked of the Faculty for 2012-2013. The Faculty’s operating budget is already so lean that the proposed cuts are untenable.  

You will recall that in the last round of cuts the department of English & Film Studies had to take the decision to cut its phone-lines to meet the demand that it slice its operating budget in half. It was the only thing we could do. Our other choices would have involved ridiculous things like not giving students paper copies of the syllabi for their courses. As that last round of cuts had already cut the Faculty down to muscle and bone, this year the Dean of Arts has proceeded with a “task force” charged with analyzing the “processes” of our administrative staff and the “functions” that they perform, with the stated aim of laying off of about 15 of our administrative staff (this despite that the furlough days given by faculty in 2009-2010 were explicitly designed to preclude this as an eventuality). The administrative staff were told months ago that they should be prepared not to have jobs to return to in January 2012. They have been living, in short, for months, under immense stress that those of us in the Faculty feel has been generally inhumane. The process also calls for a radical “restructuring” of the faculty’s administration in the form of a centralization of staff whose jobs are not cut that will fundamentally alter the character of departments, and the humanity and efficiency with which they are currently run. In the name of a budget shortfall, in short, we are being asked to take dire steps with unpredictable long-term consequences for the administration of the Faculty, and the current models for this process, which involve the laying-off of staff who are crucial to the daily operations of departments, suggest that the entire process is deeply flawed.

I write to ask that you intervene into this extraordinary situation to save the staff whose jobs are at risk. In fact, I urge you to go further, and intervene to turn crisis into opportunity. The University needs to ensure the immediate and long-term health of the Faculty of Arts if it wishes to have any genuine hope of reaching its “Top 20 by 2020” ambitions. Cutting the administrative legs out from under the Faculty to secure an amount from us that is a pittance within the University’s overall budget is not a fitting way for the Central Administration of this University to manage our collective affairs, or to work towards the larger ambition to which it has “dared” us all to contribute.

As I suggested at the roundtable in 2010, the best universities in the world distinguish themselves by the quality of their Faculties of Arts. As I noted then, if you examine the world university rankings carefully, a notable feature leaps out: the Faculties of Arts at many of the universities in the world’s top 20 outrank the institution as a whole. There is good reason for this. Traditionally, a University’s Faculty of Arts and its Faculty of Science (often combined, of course, as its Faculty of Arts and Sciences) are the core of the university. They are such because these are the faculties in which the research and teaching of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and ideas for ideas’ sake are pursued. Faculties of applied science such as Engineering and Medicine, and Schools of Business and Law, are later growths on the core of the University. The universities that are in the “Top 20” in the world are so in part because their Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts understand the value of their Faculty of Arts, and are unflagging in ensuring that these faculties receive the support they require not merely to survive but to be the best in the world.

You have been a great supporter of the applied sciences, and earlier this month you were able to speak of the University’s securing of 6 new NSERC chairs in Engineering as evidence that the University is a place where “knowledge useful to society” is produced.

It is of course wonderful when the University can translate what it does into technology “useful to society.” But the University is most importantly a place where we pursue ideas and knowledge that are not necessarily of any immediate use.

We are told that the Faculty of Arts deserves the situation that has fallen upon it because it does not know how to secure corporate dollars. The money for our funding should, however, come from government. In this regard I know I am not alone in asking, where is the public campaign on our behalf? The money could also, of course, come through creative arrangements with our donors in which (for example) $1 of every corporate dollar that the University accepts for funding any of its technological or scientific research has to be matched with $1 for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. (The donation of $400 million by the William Hewlett estate to Stanford University in 2004 provides some instructive aspects in this regard.) My larger point, however, is that we must stand up for idea for ideas’ sake in order to define and defend the university as a place of intellectual freedom and collaboration unburdened by corporate interest.

The support of ideas for ideas’ sake is not, as you well know, to champion uselessness or wasted energy. Rather, this approach to knowledge-making affirms how societies flourish, economies grow, and environments renew themselves through thought that resists a simple appeal to use value. We produce lots of “knowledge of use to society” in the Faculty of Arts, but we often do this by challenging what our culture deems “useful,” and by analyzing the social forces that work against ideas or knowledge that might bring into being a world organized in ways different from current forms (a world organized around something other than corporate interests, for example).

As a public university, the University of Alberta has a special responsibility to safeguard the university as a place of intellectual freedom. That is the way truly to “uplift the whole people”: that is, by demonstrating that the University is a place to which all Albertans may come to participate in the production of ideas that may bring the Alberta that they wish into being, whether or not corporate interests will support those ideas or deem them “useful.” I urge you, as the President of this public university, to stand up for ideas for ideas’ sake, and the Faculty of Arts as the home of the innovative thinking that helps us understand, critique, envision, and shape our world by doing everything that you can to assist the Faculty of Arts in this time of crisis.

In you we would have a powerful champion. Some of us remember well the statements that you made about the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the months leading up to your first term as President, and in your first year or two in office. You spoke of the importance of the humanities in a personal way. “My education, being an engineer, was sadly lacking in the humanities,” you said. In a 2006 talk in which you called for a “renaissance” in funding for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, you remarked, “Nobody remembers the Italian Renaissance for its GDP. In our day we can certainly calculate the 16th-century Italian GDP. But what is it we remember? I remember the brilliant cultural growth that was led by the Medicis and other leaders of the Italian Renaissance who were, in essence, simply engaged citizens with a vision for the future.” And in another talk you claimed, “What the arts allow us to do is think outside our current set of boundaries, our current reality and look into possibilities that one can create in one’s imagination.” In a 2008 video that celebrated you as that year’s “Champion of Public Education,” Dr. Peter George, then President and Chancellor of McMaster University, said “We all understand that education is the key . . . to social and cultural prosperity, but not all of us can make the arguments in such a commanding and compelling way as Indira can.”

Indira, could you please stand up for the Faculty of Arts now, in this time of crisis, as the place where we nurture “engaged citizens with a vision for the future,” and where we actively pursue ideas that take us beyond “our current set of boundaries” towards the better, more generally prosperous world we might create in the University as the place for the production of knowledge and ideas that do not cater to special or select interests? More immediately and more practically, could you please help the Faculty of Arts in this time of crisis by making the arguments necessary both within the University and outside it to resolve the budgetary crises for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 without the loss of any of the Faculty’s administrative staff this year; without the closing of any of the Faculty’s programs or departments threatened for next year; and in such a way as to ensure that this Faculty flourishes as one of the most exciting and dynamic places in Canada for the research, teaching, and study of the arts, humanities, and social sciences?

We need, in short, an explicit and rigorous public relations campaign both internal and external on our behalf, and you are the person to lead it. I understand that it may be harder for you to call for a “renaissance” for funding for the arts, humanities and social sciences now than it was when you first did so seven years ago when it seemed that there was money, money everywhere. But it is precisely because it is harder to do it now that it is all the more necessary. It is now that such talk truly matters. Could you please rise to our aid?

Yours sincerely,

Carolyn Sale

Associate Professor

Department of English & Film Studies

University of Alberta

cc:       Professor Lesley Cormack, Dean of Arts

            Coalition in Solidarity with Faculty of Arts Staff

1 Response to Letter 1 (Professor Sale, English & Film Studies)

  1. Dear Professor Sale,
    As a recent alumna from the Department of Drama, I fully support the statements that you have included in your letter. What you wrote gives a voice to some of the inconsistencies that we in the Faculty of Arts have been facing for many years. My relationships with my professors throughout my degree have been the source of my greatest learning and inspiration; they are my mentors and I daresay that some of them are also my friends. I would never have had that experience if my Humanities classes had 300 students, and if those teachers did not have their jobs. We are made to feel as if the University cannot afford the luxury of teachers to teach small classes when the rest of the University receives large scale renovations to support the advances in Engineering and Science. I feel a great sense of loss and sorrow for those people who face the future with uncertainty. What does that mean for their families? Their students? What does that mean for the future of the Arts in Alberta? I wonder about hope in a province that pretends to value arts and culture while the dollars always seem to say otherwise. We have already seen the effect across the province as Arts funding continues to decrease. We cannot support ourselves and we seem to have very few friends in the political, administrative, and academic communities whose voices are loud enough or influential enough to speak on our behalf. For your sake and for all of us, I hope that this time someone listens.
    To hope, wherever it can be found.

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