Policy compose before we close

Queen’s should consult with interested parties when cutting programs

Without a policy on program closures, the choice to cut can seem somewhat random.
Without a policy on program closures, the choice to cut can seem somewhat random.

Isabelle Duchaine, ArtSci ’14

The practice of suspending admissions — from Fine Art, graduate French Studies and now perhaps to Theological Studies — has opened a can of worms at Queen’s.

If a program is struggling to attract applicants or support itself financially, should we stop offering it? Or, does offering a wide variety of academic programs improve the overall calibre of university, even if it comes at a financial cost?

The unfortunate reality of the situation — and this is the situation affecting programs like the Ukrainian folklore program at the University of Alberta and the Centre for Studies in Social Justice at the University of Windsor — is that some programs are more popular than others.

Prospective university students are prepped to enrol in certain degrees over others, by society urging them to seek degrees with a high return on investment and by their own particular interests. Some, like Engineering, Medicine and Commerce have a competitive admissions process, while others, like French studies and Theology, aren’t currently in vogue.

The majority of funding for universities comes from tuition, so fewer students means fewer resources to fund programs. The costs of running a program, including faculty salaries, overhead costs, departmental administration and teaching assistant salaries must come from somewhere; if not from students, then through some method of cross-subsidization or equalization payments.

I do fundamentally believe that society should be increasing its commitment to post-secondary education. I believe, and the data supports me, that well-educated citizens are better at refuting lies by politicians and contribute more to the economic and social well-being of our society.

However, living in the reality of ballooning health care costs, underfunded pensions and environmental degradation, I don’t foresee a larger commitment to post-secondary funding.

We can’t wait for Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill to fix chronic funding shortages at Queen’s.

We now need change to happen at an institutional level.

When a program is created, as the Indigenous Studies program was last spring, it requires a Byzantine level of bureaucratic planning and oversight. The steps include:

1. Interested faculty members beginning to devise a curriculum.

2. Consultations taking place with respective partner departments and programs.

3. The proposal being assessed and voted on by Arts and Science Curriculum Committee.

4. The proposal being assessed and voted on by Arts and Science Faculty Board.

5. The Senate Committee on Academic Development assessing and voting on approval.

6. The program being presented to the University Senate, which votes on approval.

Throughout this process, administrators compare the proposed program with others across the province. They also address funding variables, ensure faculty are available to teach, analyze learning outcomes and assess the impact of the program on the broader Queen’s learning environment.

But what process exists to close a program? None.

This isn’t to say Queen’s has never closed programs before. We no longer offer a Russian literature program; German and Italian converged into world languages; and the literatures and cultures department and Canadian studies program completely disappeared. The conversations within university governance bodies have revolved around the legality of closing a department.

Article 39 of the Queen’s University Faculty Association Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)covers “Closure of an academic program or academic unit for academic reasons” and raises questions of process. Highlights from the CBA include:

“This Article applies only when there is a risk of closure of an academic Program or Unit arising from concerns about academic quality, relevance or enrolment ... which may result in the layoff of one (1) or more Members or the non-voluntary redeployment of one (1) or more Members.” Nowhere does the CBA seek to define “academic quality” and “relevancy,” terms which are incredibly difficult to quantify.

The CBA ultimately limits its relevance to circumstances in which at least one faculty member is laid off or involuntarily deployed, therefore excluding its applicability to departmental mergers or closures in which faculty are reallocated without complaint.

I’m personally uncomfortable with a set of procedures that excludes students from the decision-making process.

When the administration considers closing a program, the CBA mandates the creation of an academic review committee of five members, none of them students, to review the program in question.

Queen’s needs a set of procedures on program closure, procedures which will lead to a more balanced academy and allow for broader consultation.

The University of Guelph has undergone a “program prioritization process” which identifies the programs that are critical to the university’s mission and those which are more peripheral. The process at Guelph remains highly political, and I remain hopeful that our conversations here will be more inclusive.

Nobody wants to hear that their passion, research or area of study is “peripheral.” Nor do I feel comfortable, as a history-politics student, labelling other fields of study as “not critical” to my university’s mission.

Queen’s desperately requires a broadly consultative process that allows professors, administrators, staff and students the ability to transform aspects of our education system instead of quietly underfunding programs until they wither away.

These conversations may be difficult. They will encourage much soul-searching about the tension of Queen’s as an institution responding to consumer demand, and the sanctity of a university as a house of intellectual thought.

Unfortunately, even ivory towers need to pay the bills.

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