Reflections on the Report “Imagining the Future: Towards an Academic Plan for Queen’s University”:
by Mark Jones
The central weakness of the so-called “academic planning” exercise now underway at Queen’s is its subordination to a budget-cutting agenda. Arts and Science cut programs like Italian early in 2009 for baldly budgetary reasons; an outcry went up for the necessary precedence of academic planning; and a new Principal arrived promising academic planning. But even he made doing “less with less” the slogan and the keystone of his planning exercise. What now parades as “academic planning” at Queen’s remains budgetary planning in disguise. Sometimes the disguise is rather thick; sometimes it is rather thin; but very few of the main suggestions voiced on campus so far reflect purely academic (i.e., pedagogically oriented) priorities.
For instance, among the main propositions floated in the Arts and Science Response to the Principal’s invitation (15 April 2010), or in its various drafts, were: expanding first-year sections; virtualizing learning; re-weighting course-credits, such that a course now worth 1 credit might eventually count for 1.5 or 2; centralizing departmental administrative support by buildings; reducing the complexities of degree program requirements; and expanding the intake of students, especially of the more useful and lucrative graduate students. All of these proposals were academically dressed up as measures toward optimizing learning, but—surprise—they all dress down as excellent means for cutting educational costs or generating university revenues.
“Imagining the Future” is more of the same. It intones academic priorities throughout, e.g.: “Among the common resonances we heard was the importance of teaching and learning as crucial to the Queen’s mission” (p. 18). It compliments Queen’s students, staff, and faculty, e.g., for being so “curious, inquisitive, and on a life-long journey of knowledge discovery” (p. 4). It specifies “goals” that are unimpeachable in themselves, e.g., “To provide transformative learning experiences that assist students in becoming self-directed, responsible, life-long learners” (p. 18). And it invokes buzz-words like “interdisciplinarity,” “internationalization,” “discovery-based learning,” and “capstone-courses.” But in its specific recommendations it reproduces, one after another, the same old budgetary ideas in the same old “academic” togs. Thus it advocates larger 1st-year sections (p. 23); “virtual learning” (p. 20); “more flexible course-credit allocation” (i.e., re-weighting of courses) (p. 27); reducing the complexity of degree program requirements (pp. 16, 20, 25); and maintaining recent increases in the intake of graduate students—who, coincidentally, “contribute substantially to the university’s revenue” and “generate a significant net financial gain from a complex of tuition, scholarship, and BIU … funding” (p. 13).
What can it mean that the “academic” recommendations by the Principal’s specially appointed “Academic Writing Team” so consistently echo the financially motivated recommendations made by the Dean of Arts and Science four to five months earlier? It reflects, first, that there has been little meaningful dialogue in the interim, and second, that the Administration has no real intent to implement ideas based on academic priorities. The “academic” in our “academic planning” so far has been merely nominal and sedative.
Some of the academic window-dressing is thick and needs to be read carefully. Thus the Report’s “academic” justification for enlarging first-year class sizes takes cover as an attack on the “common view . . . that only small classes can offer a quality experience.” “We disagree,” pronounce the authors, “with the assumption that only low student:faculty ratios translate to quality education.” And on this basis they explicitly recommend “that Queen’s . . . not dwell on class size as a specific end goal” (p. 23). The problem is that no one really does pretend “that only small classes can offer a quality experience.” The point of the “common view” is rather that other things being equal, smaller class sizes do make for better educational experiences—which would be hard to deny. A properly academic planner would, therefore, indeed advise Queen’s to strive for smaller classes. This is a plain instance where a financial consideration (that small first-year classes may no longer be so affordable) has generated an “academic” rationalization (that smaller is not academically desirable)—a case of “sour grapes.”
More insidious is the Report’s use of “interdisciplinarity,” one of modern academia’s most sacred cows, as a cover for reducing core requirements in particular disciplines:
A significant proportion of students is increasingly interested in flexible, interdisciplinary programs, which allow them greater freedom to be more active participants in directing their studies (see also 4.3 Interdisciplinarity). Such programs are less dependent on specific core courses, allowing for more flexibility in program delivery. Interdisciplinary programs and streamlining degree options are also ways to maximize resources. (p. 20)
It is an important and revealing passage. The primary emphasis falls upon the students’ “freedom to be more active participants in directing their studies”; but the objective of reducing students’ dependency “on specific core courses, allowing for more flexibility in program delivery,” is a budgetary matter. The subtext here, and in the Report’s recommendations for simplifying “complex” degree program requirements in general, is that the university’s movement toward fewer, larger course-sections has rendered “program delivery” more difficult. In English, for instance, there used to be 50 or 52 sections offered per year. Now that there are only 35 or so, it is harder to guarantee that students can satisfy requirements for medieval or American literature in any given year. That is no doubt a problem the university needs to face, but it is a budgetary problem, and it does not help to pretend that it is an academic virtue to have fewer course-requirements by calling free-for-all registration a matter of “interdisciplinarity” or of students’ “freedom.” The passage as much as admits the “resources” subtext in its final sentence.
The serious academic question that goes begging here is whether one can have interdisciplinarity without sustaining disciplinarity. If academic units are discouraged from specifying “complex” program degree requirements (see p. 22), disciplinarity will suffer, and true interdisciplinarity will suffer with it. For interdisciplinarity requires more than letting students take what they wish in assorted departments (see p. 24, paragraph 2). A more laisser-faire registration regime may ease the “burden for the Faculty,” but that is a resource issue; to pretend that a move to “simplify program degree requirements” is an academic recommendation is to confuse matters.
The Report occasionally admits its budgetary priorities: “If resources continue to decline and student-faculty ratios continue to increase, we recommend that we adapt our learning models” (p. 18). That would be a sad event, and it could even be an inevitable one; but let us get our academic priorities straight from the beginning so we can truly make the best of our situation. Let’s not betray ourselves by presenting our budgetary compromises as academic innovations.