The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

University continues to ignore arts and humanities

By in News/Opinions

Arts and humanities get a shitty deal in these parts.

The treatment of these areas of study at the University of Saskatchewan is embarrassing. There was yet another town hall on cuts to sessional lecturers across the fine arts and humanities at the University of Saskatchewan April 20, and it was at times hopeful, but mostly frustrating.

Worst was seeing teachers practically beg for resources to be able to teach classes properly.

“Students are told to pay more, get less and be grateful,” said Len Findlay, one of the most vocal professors on the subject. He taught nine extra credit units this year to keep the English course offerings up to snuff — English, mind you, not some 5-grads-a-year subject.

“Teaching staff are supposed to stay on message, and stay on edge,” he continued. “Where are the resources? All I see is a disaster area… meanwhile other parts of campus are mysteriously flourishing.”

And he’s right. No matter how much administration asserts that resources are adequate, and that allocation of resources is the responsibility of the colleges and departments, that doesn’t make it acceptable.

“What we think about is the funding to Arts and Science as a whole,” said university provost and VP academic Brett Fairbairn.

Brett Fairbairn, university provost and VP academic
The college gets $50 million a year, which is then divided among the departments. And while that’s more than most colleges receive, most colleges are much smaller than Arts and Science.

The university budget isn’t examined in terms of need, but rather by what has been done every other year. Fairbairn described yearly changes to the budget as “nominal” and characterized the Arts and Science budget as “stable.”

“Subsidiary decisions should be made at the lowest level that’s competent to make them,” said Fairbairn. So if a department doesn’t have enough money to survive, well, that’s not the problem of upper administration; as far as they’re concerned, $50 million dollars is more than enough to provide educations to over 8,000 students — or almost half the student population of the entire university.

That just tells us how little concern the administration has about the working of the little things, like our educations.

Fairbairn hasn’t attended any of the town halls.

Neither has anyone else from the upper administration.

Vice-dean of Arts and Humanities David Parkinson called and ran all three town halls, much to his credit. The meetings, while they show some tangible results, are in large part just sessions to vent concerns and frustrations in what seems to be a hopeless situation, and as the only administrative representative, he takes a lot of undue aggression.

“Frankly, I don’t understand why the provost doesn’t attend these meetings,” said outgoing USSU president Chris Stoicheff. His efforts to help fine arts and humanities have been notable, including the formation of a student committee to lobby the administration.

The rest of the USSU has shown little concern for the meetings. Incoming president Scott Hitchings hasn’t showed up to the town halls and Kelsey Topola, who’s going into her second year as VP academic, has barely attended the meetings. She attended part of the March 31 meeting missed the April 20 meeting entirely.

Hitchings says he had Stoicheff as his representative at the last meeting, and Topola says she had an academic programs committee meeting all afternoon.

About 55 students and teaching staff attended the meeting, which was inconveniently held during finals at 3 p.m.

Parkinson, acting as a conduit for passing arguments to the administration, has his hands tied. He went over adjustments his staff has made to keep courses on track, like the addition of a music fee for private lessons and the guarantee of two tenured positions being refilled next year in drama.

In the end, without a change from the upper administration, there is just not enough money to go around.

When the recession hit, the U of S Board of Governors decided to cut the overall Operating Budget by three per cent over two years. Arts and Science, in turn, was asked to find four per cent in cuts. Sessionals have been hit hard across the board, but the fine arts and humanities are facing the most serious cuts. According to a 2010 issue of the Sessional Lecturers’ Union’s newsletter(pdf), it looks like cuts will be ongoing up until 2014, when “there will no longer be base-fund allocations for sessionals” in the department.

Two years ago, when these cuts were just starting to be whispered about, the collective sent a letter to VP Fairbairn warning that cutting sessionals, while possibly an effective short-term solution, would “likely prove a false economy overall.” Sessionals, of course, are cheaper to keep around than tenured instructional staff, and they often fill highly specialized positions.

The worst-hit areas seem to be music, drama and languages. The administration’s willfully blind eye to them might be predictable, but it is definitely hypocritical. You see, they plan the university’s direction in great four year swoops, with the details filled in year by year. The documentation for these plans direct advertisement and image management for the university over time.

If one takes a look at the Areas of Focus(pdf) for the 2012-16 plan, they’ll note that along with “Knowledge Creation,” “Aboriginal Engagement,” and “Innovation,” the university has a commitment to “Culture and Community.”

The university offers — barely — three languages as it is. Even these are in danger of mega class sizes and non-existent second year options.

“Language and culture are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can’t have one without the other,” said Rachelle Ternier, a member of Speak Up!, the activist languages and linguistics student group trying to save their degrees.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of fighting for an education. Parkinson suggested that students should take on the responsibility for hosting meetings like the town halls, noting that the current meetings were held at his invitation.

Hopefully, he’ll maintain the burden of hosting these meetings. Students like Michelle Thompson demonstrate why. She works 20 hours a week to pay for her four classes, and even attending meetings is a strain on her limited time.

“So much of my energy is trying to get an education,” she said, near tears with frustration.

We pay to be here. We pay for education. We pay for the administration to administer that education.

In part, that means hosting town halls and moving money from endless building projects to actual coursework, all issues mentioned at the town hall.

We shouldn’t have to fight so hard. Or what the hell are we paying for?

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