Illustration by Chloe Cushman/Torontoist.
Back in July, the University of Toronto brought forward the results of a year-long planning exercise in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Facing unprecedented deficits, the aim of the exercise was to trim fat, or, in the ever-poetic words of the Dean’s office, to “grow without growth.” To the shock and chagrin of many, the Academic Plan that emerged during the summer included proposals to pool several language and literature departments into a single unit and to shutter a number of interdisciplinary graduate and research centres altogether, moves the Dean’s office claimed were made with academic best interests in mind.
Several months’ worth of well-organized hissy fits later (we mean that in a good way), the Dean’s office has back pedalled on many of the plan’s more dramatic proposals. The five language departments that were slated for amalgamation will retain their autonomy, and the three centres that were to be kiboshed—including the renowned Centre for Comparative Literature established by Northrop Frye—have been spared. At least for now.
Dean Meric Gertler is careful to keep his wording soft—original proposals are being “reconsidered” and future plans “negotiated,” he told Torontoist. Involved parties are “in discussion.” “We’re now looking to see if we can achieve most of the same objectives by other means,” he says. “The plan hasn’t been reduced. It has been modified, but the goals remain the same.” Ways of achieving these goals include the introduction of “Big Ideas” courses that can be shared across the humanities, and yoking graduate centres with undergraduate programs in order to piggyback costs.
While the spared centres and programs are breathing easier, many are worried about letting their guard down: the woeful lack of consultation and transparency in the early rollout of the Academic Plan has, for them, highlighted a systematic problem in the way the University of Toronto is run. Some are accusing the dean’s office of trying to save face by reimagining both the plan’s content and the process by which it was created only with the rise of criticism.
“The Academic Plan was never up for discussion, and it did not—as the Dean would have it—morph into a modified version through collegial collaboration,” says Ryan Culpepper, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature who was elected to the Faculty of Arts and Science council this fall. “The plan is now dead for one reason only: students, staff, and faculty killed it through concerted and unified opposition.” Culpepper, like many, wants assurance that such an incident will not be repeated. “Dean Gertler now has substantial work to do restoring trust and collegiality. To this end, an important step will be the Dean’s admission that the planning exercise he oversaw was a catastrophe.”
Gertler makes no such admission, and he credits the debacle that ensued in his faculty to the inevitable difficulty of treading unfamiliar turf. “In the last year or two, there have been big changes at the university, and we were the first large faculty to go through an extensive planning exercise since the transition to the new regime,” he says. Gertler claims that any changes made to planning processes are not in his hands. “There’s going to be continued interest in thinking through how that process goes in the future, but it’s appropriate for that to take place at the university level.”
The unintended consequence of the ill-conceived Academic Plan is that it has rallied together a wide-ranging group of students, faculty, and staff who plan to continue pushing the university to make better choices for the academic community. As the university continues to struggle financially as it faces its uncertain future, these unified voices will be all the more vital. “This is a community that has never been shy about sharing its feelings,” Meric Gertler admits. “And,” he adds as an afterthought, “I see that as a plus.”
Suzannah Showler is enrolled in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science, in a department not directly affected by the Academic Plan.