It starts with a story. There was once a fine restaurant that specialized not only in serving fine cuisine, but in collecting and experimenting with recipes from many different cultures, time periods, and persons. Because of its excellence in this, its fame spread by word of mouth, and more and more people kept coming. The owners were happy about the restaurant’s popularity, but they had one problem. Having started out as a small operation, their building was not very aesthetically pleasing. Their ovens and kitchen tools, though still workable, were not cutting edge. And every night they had to turn people away because the restaurant wasn’t big enough to hold them.
Their profit on the business had increased greatly due to their popularity, and so they began to use this profit to fix these problems. They were able to purchase some kitchen tools and new ovens. But there was not enough left over to renovate and expand the building. That is, until the joint owner of the place, young and wise in the ways of the world, came up with a brilliant idea. “People love this restaurant,” he said, but they are being turned away. And other people who might love it choose not to come because, aesthetically speaking, the place is a dump and not very progressive. So let’s do this. You know those hot dogs they sell at Ikea – the really cheap ones, for fifty cents? Let’s get rid of our old menu and only serve those. They are easy to make, so we can let go our highly trained and expensive chefs, and the ingredients are not nearly as costly. With the left over money we can do our renovations and make the place sexy, and no one will know the difference.”
Another story: Once upon a time there was a university. It was not the richest or sexiest or most glamorous of universities. It did not rank where it wanted to rank in MacLean’s university listings. But what it did do, it did well. Though it was not liable to win any popularity contests, its students were grateful for the humble patience, rigor, and attention they got from their professors – often moreso than students at bigger name factory-like universities that generate more prestige than solid critical thinking.
At some point someone came along and said, “This university isn’t very sexy. Let’s spend a lot of money on advertisement and recruiting to raise the profile of the university. And let’s renovate the university, and make it bigger and more cutting edge.” When asked how he planned to do this, he did not of course say that he meant to get extra money by cutting at the very heart of the university, the scholars without whom the university does not exist. Administrators never say this. Rather he made abstract decisions he refused to discuss, and let things fall as they may, without acknowledging the effects. Things were, as they always were, tight all around, and everyone had better just tighten their belts and prepare for winter; what he didn’t mention is that for some of those “tightening their belts,” this would mean starvation – not an altogether bad thing from a fiscal point of view because one less mouth to feed costs less.
These are parables, and you can take them as you will. What is not a parable is what is currently happening to the University of Regina English department, and it is in many ways similar to both stories above. The English Department, of which I am an Alumnus (both BA and Masters), is experiencing cuts so severe that it has become nearly if not completely impossible to teach both the writing courses that are prerequisite for English and non-English students alike, and the more specialized courses that are the business of the English discipline proper. What’s more, the discussion of this with upper level administrators largely consists in the ruse of pitting faculties and disciplines against each other in such a way that it merely looks like the cuts are unfortunate but necessary cuts serving the needs and demands of the public – if science and computers are more popular and useful than the arts, it’s not the administrators’ jobs to put money elsewhere – they must put it where the people want it put.
And if this were the real problem, I might have some sympathy. After all, some of the Arts, grounded in the humanities, have done a good job of making themselves irrelevant by boldly ushering us into the brave new world of a “post-human” or “post-person” age. If the idea of humanity is an old fashioned construct used as an instrument of oppression, then surely disciplines grounded in the humanities must die with the deconstruction of humanity. Perhaps university administrators are listening more closely to the humanities than we think – after all, in a university after cyborg theory, does it really matter whether there is anything human – or humanities oriented – left?
But though this is a problem, I submit that the real issue at hand is not between departments or faculties, but rather between a university designed for real education, and a sophistic shell that needs to sing its own hollow praises because no on else will. At bottom, it is not really a question of funding more popular and “useful” classes and cutting smaller and “less useful” classes. Because there is another element at play. At the same time that all this business of Arts cuts has come up, the university is spending massive amounts of money to renovate its downtown campus and expand its program for continuing education. It may just be me, but I fail to see how a university can even begin speaking of continuing education when it is failing to fund education, plain and simple. And like most modern universities, it seems that U of R is increasingly caught up in the need to preen its image through advertisement and rhetoric, and to ensure that its technological standards are cutting edge. And if someone protests that the money used for renovation is not the same as that being taken from the Arts, and that it was raised independently in a variety of ways, I would suggest that there needs to be a seismic shift in the rhetorical orientation of the university. When we raise money for buildings and let the primary business of education wither, we are not being a university but something else.
As an alumnus, I can say with the utmost honesty that, when I think back to my degrees at U of R, the moments that changed my life did not involve architecture or renovation. Nor did they involve the most up to date experiences of technology. Nor did they involve advertisements so loud in their self-praise that they seem to be compensating for something. No, it was those classes where I met ideas I had not before – more than this, had the opportunity to discuss these with classmates who were likewise new to the subjects as well as professors who had been studying these subjects and ideas all their lives. I know I will be critiqued as an idealist who does not understand the complexities of fiscal systems, but I also know that these systems have no way of gauging the ongoing impact of real professors doing real research and engaging in person with students. I’m sure it looks good on the books and at the fundraisers to have new technology and prettier buildings and a media campaign that makes you look good, but to be quite frank, it is not these things that university students remember throughout their life. No one will look back and say, “Gosh, I’m sure glad I got to work in that smartly renovated building,” or “Gee, I’m glad we got to use touchscreen rather than the old fashioned computers with qwerty keyboards.” No one’s life will be changed by the inflated advertisements telling you how the U of R will help you fulfill your dreams. In fifty years, the architecture will be outdated, the technology will seem archaic, and the ads will seem so backward and cute, “so 2012.” But I guarantee that certain discussions and certain books encountered in university will stick with and influence a student for the rest of his/her life – if nothing else, my own life is a testimony to that. And that would not have happened without fair, knowledgeable professors who knew how to lead me through the right texts, and knew the right questions to ask. So, yes, it may be that the university has to make some cuts in these hard financial times. But making cuts that cripple departments like English is a little like claiming to save someone’s life by removing that person’s heart. Yes, sacrifice will have to be made – but it may have to be made by those who prefer a university that looks good over a university that is good.