Wednesday 14 May 2014

Open Letter to the University of Saskatchewan

This letter is addressed to the University of Saskatchewan administration. Should you wish to sign the letter, please send your name, and any relevant details (institutional affiliation, degree, etc) to
The University of Saskatchewan recently published its project briefs for the program prioritization process TransformUS. We, as humanities students and concerned individuals, have a number of criticisms and shall present them in this letter. Criticisms of TransformUS are not new. Many have been made in previous letters, and shall be made again before the process is complete. We do not wish to restate those criticisms. They have been made well, and made firmly. They already have the support of many members of the university. We seek only to criticize the project briefs pertaining to the humanities, and to show the ways in which a close reading of the language of those briefs can point to the flaws with the broader project of TransformUS.
In the project briefs the university expresses an aspiration to improve the quality and quantity of humanities research. It intends to do this by removing some programs, and merging others. Research is a valuable goal, but to suggest that the problem with specific humanities programs within Arts and Science is that they are insufficiently productive is to miss the point. The University of Saskatchewan is not just a research institution. It is a university for the residents of Saskatchewan and for its students, and should take some time to consider their needs. The study of the humanities is a creditable pursuit and central to the idea of the university, it should be clear that the University of Saskatchewan has some obligation to provide a space, perhaps small but at least well defined, for the pursuit of that study. It is our belief that the proposals enumerated in the recent project briefs fulfill only half of this obligation. The space for the humanities presented in the briefs is certainly small, but it is also poorly defined.
Such poor definition entails that the university has failed in whatever duty of clarity it possessed. We know from reading the brief only that some future program shall exist, taking ‘the best parts’ from each of four programs: Religion and Culture, Philosophy, Women and Gender Studies and Modern Languages. Forgive us if we remain sceptical of the virtues of such a combination. The attitude of presumption that must be required for university administrators to suppose that they, and not the cumulative force of tradition, are sufficient to develop a new program from the base materials of these four programs is beyond us, and our understanding. Most plausibly, the four programs shall be made into one ‘interdisciplinary’ program, which offers more upper-level classes than any of the four previous programs individually, but fewer than the four programs collectively. Most students, however, are not interested in a poorly-defined ‘interdisciplinary’ program, but instead are interested in Modern Languages, or Philosophy, or Women’s and Gender Studies, or Religion and Culture. Most universities, considering applicants for postgraduate degrees, are not interested in students who have taken poorly-defined ‘interdisciplinary’ programs, but are instead interested in philosophers, or linguists, with a thorough education in their subject.
It may be that one shall still be able to receive a Philosophy degree, or a degree in Modern Languages, or a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, or a degree in Religion and Culture through this ‘interdisciplinary’ program. We fear that this is not the case. The course guide implies that every program grants a single degree, although some allow for limited specialisation. Even if it were the case that one could still get a degree in (for example) Philosophy, the proposal remains unattractive. How easy it would be for the university to refrain from hiring a needed scholar in Modern Languages, or Women’s and Gender Studies, because the ‘interdisciplinary’ program as a whole seemed well stocked with other scholars. Furthermore, would each specialisation struggle for a required faculty member against the others? How would such a struggle be resolved? It is difficult to imagine how a happy conclusion could be brought to a dispute over whether a single program would be better served by a Russian linguist, an epistemologist, a scholar of medieval Christian culture or a theorist of the portrayal of gender in film.
The problem with the creation of a such a unique program is that it is unclear what such a program could look like. The four programs that the university wishes to combine are not obviously similar in so many ways as to make their combination attractive. We must, then, suppose one of two things. Either we lack the imagination required to see the intellectual virtues of such a combination, or the administration lack the imagination required to see the intellectual vices of such a combination. Regardless of which it is, we can say one thing quite certainly. None of us, presented with this new program, would remain or have remained at the University of Saskatchewan as undergraduate or postgraduate students.
Our grievance with the administration is not just with these changes, it is also with the way these changes have been presented. Project brief 8.4 ‘addresses faculty take up of the incentive plan for retirement,’ with regard to the four departments previously mentioned. This is a peculiar remark, phrased as if the university could not have expected that an incentive plan for retirement would be offered, and that faculty would respond to such incentives. The university offered the retirement plan, and hoped for “take-up.”The real point, that the university has gutted departments by offering retirement and choosing not to replace faculty, is a little unhappier. The university knew that, perhaps even hoped that, faculty would retire. Those faculty are unlikely to be replaced. The university, then, intends to address a state of affairs of its own making and in what we believe to be a damaging way. It is more at fault than the language of the brief suggests. The situation is as follows: there are now fewer faculty, who shall be forced to teach students in a strange and overly broad program; the university believes that this is best described as ‘revitalisation’.The university believes that it is bringing new life to these programs. The justification for this change is that it shall benefit students and faculty by providing the faculty with the resources to produce more and better research, and to increase their profile.
We believe this justification to be unsatisfactory. There shall be fewer members of the faculty, and the administration has promised that they shall not have to do more work with less resources. We may suppose, then, that whatever time for research faculty currently have will be reduced, or that the number of classes shall be reduced, or that the administration did not really mean anything by its promise. If time for research is reduced, then we wonder how more and better research shall be produced. If classes are fewer in number, then students shall suffer. There are not so terribly many classes now, and reducing them further shall remove any possibility of student choice within a discipline. If the administration meant nothing by its promise, then faculty shall be required to work still harder to produce more research, and to fill the gaps left by retiring colleagues.
Therefore, any of these eventualities would leave the four programs in a worse state. There will be fewer faculty, and therefore there will be fewer courses. The remaining faculty shall be demoralized, and students, who would have chosen the University of Saskatchewan as the place at which they wanted to study one of the four programs either because of proximity or quality, will go elsewhere. This is not ‘revitalization’; this is devastation. The study of the humanities will be damaged irrevocably.
The study of the humanities, however, is important. Consider some powerful defenses:
First, Martha Nussbaum:
Today we still maintain that we like democracy and self-governance, and we also think that we like freedom of speech, respect for difference, and understanding of others. We give these values lip service, but we think far too little about what we need to do in order to transmit them to the next generation and ensure their survival. Distracted by the pursuit of wealth, we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens. Under pressure to cut costs, we prune away just those parts of the educational endeavor that are crucial to preserving a healthy society.
Second, David Bromwich:
The scholar’s old exemption from the claims of utility had never been more than partial, but it was founded on an interesting possibility: that the good of study, while not directly translatable into a social good, might always serve some distant and less measurable good. The commercial spirit of American society never had much time for this justification; it was always ready to pick up a more serviceable rationale, as soon as scholars would declare themselves willing. ‘If it doesn’t lead to hard knowledge, useful knowledge, what’s the good of it?’ There’s a true answer we have almost stopped giving: ‘The imaginative and interpretative part of education is a learned art, it is a moral habit, and it leads to people who can think. Do you see the good of that?’
We point to these authorities to show two things. First, it is neither peculiar nor atypical to believe either that universities must play some role in nurturing a healthy society, or that the sponsorship of the humanities is important in the pursuit of that end. Second, for a university like the University of Saskatchewan so thoroughly to gut its programs will be for it to appear lower and less adequate in the eyes of many scholars, academics and students, all of whom retain the firm belief that there is a good to humanistic scholarship quite unlike the goods of other forms of scholarship. The University of Saskatchewan’s reputation shall suffer.
The goal of this university is to become a world-renowned research institution. This is admirable. The truth, though, is that most institutions of renown have, at the very least, passable humanities divisions, and offer individual programs in Modern Languages, Women’s and Gender Studies, Religious Studies and Philosophy. It may be that the University of Saskatchewan is prescient  in this regard, one of the first institutions to appreciate just how little parts of the humanities are needed. This would be a surprising discovery, however, and would contradict the avowed desire of the University of Saskatchewan to become a major research institution akin to the other institutions in the U15. As we have said, those institutions have humanities departments with a clear purpose and adequate funding. Those institutions have a department of Modern Languages, a department of Women and Gender Studies, a department of Religious Studies, and a department of Philosophy. It is the smaller institutions, staffed by more close-minded administrators and with a weaker institutional tradition of humanistic education, that have removed or ‘reconceived’ many of their humanities departments. These smaller institutions have done so in response to funding pressures, and with the persistent refrain that ‘this is for the best’. A sensible inference from the financial position of the University of Saskatchewan, and examples of past ‘transformative’ changes, would be that the study of the humanities in Saskatchewan shall be harmed by these reforms. These changes are not for the best, either for research or for students.
Last, we should like to address a recurring problem with the project briefs. The authors of these briefs tend to disguise quite radical changes behind perversity of language and a relentless lack of clarity. The theme of many of the briefs, we are told, is the “simplification and amalgamation of structures”. This is a wide theme, upon which almost any decision can be based and by which any decision justified. As such, it is unedifying. We are disappointed, though not surprised, to discover that the university administration has so little respect for its students that it feels comfortable putting its plans for the future of many departments within Arts and Science vaguely.
Recently we were told that ‘prioritization means that we allocate [the University of Saskatchewan’s] resources to support clear priorities.’ The priorities of the university are anything but clear. It wants to be a major research university, with a dilapidated humanities division and considerably fewer libraries. It wants to be transparent to its stakeholders, but hides every major decision behind an ugly vagueness.  It wants to improve its programs, but would be satisfied merely if it could maintain student satisfaction. One gets the impression of an unguided flailing on the part of the university, as it responds to unhappy political decisions and poor financial ones by maintaining, as if hope could make it true, that all of these changes are beneficial for the university.
The project brief is only a brief. It is possible, then, that the university intends to be clearer about its intentions, and about the sort of changes that will be made. It is possible as well that these changes will not be devastating. We hope that this is the case. Our experience suggests otherwise, however, and we remain pessimistic as a result.
Stakeholders have not adequately been consulted, but the decision to merge four disparate programs has been made. We hope that we shall be involved in the decision, and that it is conditional upon our agreement. We hope that the administration shall recognise that it has made these four programs unsustainable, and that it shall work to make the programs, sustainable before interference, sustainable once more. We hope that the administration recognizes its duty to the residents of Saskatchewan and to its students, and that it recognizes that this duty entails that it make the study of the humanities at least possible. Most important, we want the administration to justify the aimless blending of these four programs with something more than the vacuities and obscurities that have, until now, been offered. This justification should be clear, should explain precisely how the changes will improve the work of the four programs, and should include an adequate academic defense of the changes that shows that a merged program would not be a disagreeable compromise, but instead something appropriate to the study of the humanities.

James Aston, BA in Philosophy, U of S, Student
Chris Green, BA in Philosophy, U of S, Student
Erica Lee, BA in Philosophy & Political Studies, U of S, Student
Nicholas Marlatte, BA in Philosophy & Political Studies, U of S, Student
Ryan Meneses, MA in Philosophy, U of S, Student
Brandon Murray, MA in Philosophy, U of  S, Student
Will Robbins, MA in Philosophy, U of S, Student
Colin Ellis, College of Medicine, U of S, Student

Dustin J. McNichol, PhD Candidate in History, U of S

Tara Chambers. BA (English and Philosophy, T.R.U), MA (English, University of Saskatchewan), PhD (English - in progress, University of Saskatchewan).
Joel Entwistle, B.Phil. in Philosophy, Oxford, Student

Brian Leiter, Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values, University of Chicago

Simon Evnine, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Miami

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