Talking ‘Bout My Institution

Over at Historiann’s corral, there’s a great discussion underway, inspired by Tony Grafton’s review of a raft of books on the crisis in higher education. Historiann’s charged her regular commenters, including yours truly, to describe our institutions and what the problems look like from our vantage points. Keep in mind that, as a Canadian, my perspective may seem unusual. Scratch that, I know that what we have here is downright unique. At the same time, we’re facing a lot of the same problems that anyone in higher ed knows all too well today.

In a nutshell, I teach at a regional, remote and underestimated university that just passed the fifty year mark. We show up at the middle of the pack for Maclean’s 2011 University Rankings: Primarily Undergraduate. Our student body’s under 10,000, all told, with about 7000 full-time undergrads (as well as hundreds of grad students), studying in one of our two language streams, French and English. That bilingual aspect is rare, even in Canada, and it brings with it a particular challenge. It’s expensive to offer full programs in two language streams, especially when the French enrolments are often a fraction of the English but it’s part of what we need to do in a region that’s vibrantly bilingual (about 30% of the region identifies as francophone).

I’m sure that some bean-counters think of this bilingual element as waste. Certainly it’s expensive (and one reason why our university has the most spending per student in our ratings category) but there aren’t any short-cuts to providing the full program in both languages. Right now, my francophone colleagues number only three: three full-time faculty members to provide an entire undergraduate and M.A. program! We anglophones aren’t as numerous as we used to be, either: right now we’re at six, down two in the last year and with no word of new hires to replace the lost capacity. Having lost almost half a dozen faculty in the last few years in our department alone, we’re struggling just to provide what’s needed from classes to administrative functions and always, always!, that all-desirable research element. The key element is that bilingualism is an integral but resource-intensive part of our mission. Even if we share supervisions of senior theses and graduate work across the language stream, we still have to offer courses enough for anglophone and francophone students to complete their degrees. For the first time, we have more than one person teaching in an adjunct capacity on our main campus. We’re fortunate to have their expertise but we’re frustrated because it’s still not enough. We’ve been cut to the bone, even if our faculty complement is higher than it would be at a comparable-sized institution because we have more bones.

Another key factor? We see a lot of students whose families aren’t familiar with higher education. We teach a lot of first-generation university students: it makes sense when you realize that, despite a healthy international and specialist program recruitment, we’re still drawing students from a distinctly isolated region, far away from the Toronto megalopolis. (There’s one two-lane highway north/south and one two-lane highway east/west. When bad weather, an accident or a moose intervenes, those life-lines can be cut off for hours or even days. Not to mention the fact that a lot of people have to drive more than four hours to reach our urban area, let alone the further four to reach the megalopolis.) A lot of our students wouldn’t thrive in the big urban universities to the south where tens of thousands of undergraduates mingle with the millions of urbanites. Heck, I remember my own trepidation at starting grad school in that megalopolis and I had grown up with frequent trips to major Midwestern cities in my youth.

This fall, pretty much every program across the U was asked to come up with ‘savings’ – ways to offer the program with fewer resources in terms of faculty complement. We considered a lot of options: did we want to eliminate multiple course choices at the first year and go to one super-course? Should we reduce the number of electives choices at the second and third year level? How about fewer senior seminars? We opted for the latter choice, at least for this year. Who knows if next year we might be forced to revisit the request and cut yet more resources.

I believe that our administration, like so many others, would like to push distance education and cross-listing of courses from other departments as a solution to program resource problems. We’re wary of these, even though we’re proud of many of our distance ed courses. Even the best distance ed course often fails to serve students who aren’t experienced enough to pace themselves wisely and advocate for their own needs. Cross-listing is, ironically, more of a concern the more the university pushes majors and minors, new streams with lower course requirements than the conventional four-year degree with 60-credit program. If we cross-list courses with Political Science, Classical Studies and English, say, the number of History courses a history major takes may be very few, indeed.

We all know the curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I’ve been at this university for twenty years now (and I have the logo-bedecked pen to prove it!) and I’ve never seen a more interesting time than this one. Sadly, I’m sure times could be still more interesting, here and elsewhere! But whatever changes, from our faculty complement to how we define our program, some elements remain constant or so I hope, particularly our bilingual nature and our service for students who’re just starting out in higher education. These elements make me proud to have spent twenty years here and worries for their maintenance inspiring only a few nerves, given the prospect of twenty years more in the traces.

What are YOUR institutional or program points of pride or problem? Get in on the discussion here or at Historiann’s!

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6 Comments

Filed under academe, teaching

6 responses to “Talking ‘Bout My Institution

  1. Sm

    Wow, I had no idea our history dept was so much bigger than yrs now!

    Our students, too, want a smaller institution, evenl those who don’t come from tiny places in the North. One student from London told me this week she never even considered going to Western — too big.

    • J Liedl

      Of course, the prospect of easy access to winter and summer sports doesn’t hurt. You can swim or launch your canoe from our beach or ski the Nordic trails on campus. We’re spoiled for easy access to the great outdoors and I know that attracts a lot of students from elsewhere. It goes to show that bigger isn’t always better!

  2. Canuck Down South

    I hopped over here from Historiann’s, and it was interesting to see a point of view from up north…especially as, despite the bilingual bit, your comments seem to describe a situation more similar to a rural regional American state school than I’m used to seeing in Canada. If you work where I think you work (Northern Ontario), then that explains a lot: I drove across Canada a few years ago, and the poverty in Northern Ontario was like nothing I saw anywhere in Canada–and that definitely includes traditionally economically depressed areas, like the rural prairies and the cod-fishing east coast (of course, the prairies are getting rich off of mining, but that’s another story). You might be interested in hearing one reason why: a friend of mine who works for the Ontario gov’t told me last summer that Ontario has as much debt as California, but with only 1/3 of the populations…somehow, that knowledge hasn’t become common in the public sphere yet, but I’m sure it will. The times are going to become a lot more intresting….

    • J Liedl

      We are in the near north of Ontario, yup, and poverty is an issue. So is the reality of a resource economy with mining and forestry as mainstays of the communities. A university that doesn’t ‘get’ the communities’ needs and values in the region would be impossible to sustain.

      Regarding the debt and interesting prospects, I lived through the “Rae Days” of the 90s as an assistant prof, so I’m always wary about government spending. Our current pie-in-the-sky plans for huge tuition cuts for some are just one example of the craziness that comes out around election time. I just keep my fingers crossed that the fact we haven’t had a huge real estate boom and bust like California might mitigate some of the financial problems. . . .

  3. Pingback: Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? Some (internet) dialogue | Brush off the dust! History now!

  4. Pingback: Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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