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No 'sacred cows' as U of T slashes arts budget

Linda Hutcheon is a professor in the University of Toronto's Comparative Literature program, and its first alumna. That program is now in danger of being closed.

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Faced with a deficit that is set to reach $60-million by the end of the coming school year, the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts and Science cannot afford any "sacred cows" in its efforts to find savings and preserve the quality of education, says the dean in charge of plotting the future of the largest faculty in Canada.

That future, laid out in a new five-year plan that provoked protests even before it was released on Wednesday, includes shutting or consolidating high-profile units, including the Centre for Ethics, the Department of East Asian Studies and the Centre for Comparative Literature, a unit begun more than 40 years ago by one of the country's most accomplished scholars, Northrop Frye.

The massive arts and science faculty - home to 29 departments and several independent research units - "is now engaged in more activities that it can properly sustain," the plan said.

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Details of the proposals began to circulate earlier this month after meetings with those who would be affected, and quickly gave birth to Facebook groups, petitions and letter writing campaigns to halt the plans, which critics say were drawn up without adequate consultation or understanding of the departments involved.

Arts and science dean Meric Gertler defended that process, saying the difficult nature of the decisions required that they be made behind closed doors by a small committee that included selected department chairs, vice-deans and the principal of one of the university's colleges. Now that the report is public, there will be a chance for debate at town hall meetings and when it goes before the university's governing bodies for approval, he said.

"We are a great faculty and a great university at dreaming up new things to do. We are not very good at deciding to stop doing things that we have been doing for a long time," Prof. Gertler said in response to critics. "I have been given a challenge to rethink what the faculty does. You are always going to end up making some people unhappy."

The committee, which met from January to May and considered 80 submissions from departments and students, looked at all programs with the same criteria, he said, which included their contribution to research and undergraduate and graduate education and with an eye to making better use of resources.

"There were no sacred cows here," he said. "We looked at every unit across the faculty with an equal degree of scrutiny. I think the results bear that out."

Gavin Nowlan, president of the Arts and Science Student Union, who appeared before the committee and submitted a brief, wonders why a department such as East Asian Studies, with 1,000 undergraduates, is targeted to be dismantled while smaller departments would remain intact. "Peoples' jaws are on the floor," he said, describing the reaction to the plans.

Thomas Keirstead, the interim chair of East Asian Studies - set to be consolidated into a new School of Languages and Literatures along with the Centre for Comparative Literature and the Slavic, German, Italian and Spanish and Portuguese departments - said the proposed changes would likely cut his department in half, with language specialists remaining with the new school and other scholars sent elsewhere, depending on their discipline.

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The University of Toronto is far from alone in its cost cutting exercise - or in meeting strong opposition to proposed changes. Earlier this year, Hamilton's McMaster University backed off plans to eliminate the school's art history degree after aggressive opposition. Responding to critics, the principal of Queen's University in Kingston this month extended the consultation period for a similar strategic review that advocates doing "less with less." At the University of Alberta, the phone lines of some professors were recently disconnected to cut costs.

Prof. Gertler said the faculty must eliminate the shortfall between its revenue and its expenses, which reached $22-million in the most recent academic year. In addition to savings and revenue expected from the new plan, he estimates more than half of that amount will come from increased revenue from a flat fee structure approved last year and increasing the number of foreign undergraduate students and cutting domestic students.

Efforts will also be made to direct more students to departments with lower enrolments to make greater use of faculty. The creation of a department of earth science is proposed as part of that effort.

While the plan includes several measures to improve undergraduate education, including hiring of 61 faculty, Prof. Gertler cautioned that the hiring cannot happen without cuts to free up money. "You can't do one without the other," he said.

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