Death of The Arts Triptych by Sarah McNeilly

A series of three political cartoons (above) can be seen posted around campus sarcastically celebrating the “death of the arts” at Trent. Trent is planning for a lot of change to various departments in the future, particularly the Cultural Studies and Ancient History and Classics Departments are losing a lot of funding.

On March 5, almost 50 students, primarily from the Cultural Studies Department, came out to an open forum with Provost Gary Boire, said cultural studies representatives and authors behind the political cartoons, Zara Syed and Sarah McNeilly. Some students expressed concern that they would no longer even be able to graduate in their current focus.

Syed had tried to get the TCSA involved earlier in the fall, but they refused, based on a perception that Trent students are “apathetic.”

“For the second year in a row the Cultural Studies Department has seen a reduction in its staffing allocation,” said Ihor Junyk, Acting Chair of the Cultural Studies Department. “This means we have fewer resources with which to hire sessional faculty. Since these faculty have played a large role in our arts and workshop courses these areas will be hit most directly.”

“Well, we have fewer tenured positions in the department but that’s happening all over the country to arts departments. But we also don’t have that many students,” commented Ancient History and Classics student Francheska Langebeck.

“I have attempted to provide cultural studies and ancient history, like all departments in the Humanities, with broadly similar staffing allocations to last year. The staffing allocated to each department is intended to be sufficient to provide the minimum number of courses required for each degree,” stated Dean of Humanities Hugh Elton. “At the time the staffing allocations were issued, the Dean’s Office had attempted to provide the same levels of staffing support to the Humanities as a whole as for the current teaching year. The only way that this can be done in the context of the two percent budgetary reduction requested by the Provost. The same request has been made to the Deans of Science and Social Sciences.”

Still, Syed said that “Courses I needed to take this year I couldn’t.”

“We will be able to offer fewer courses in [workshop] areas which will mean students will have fewer choices,” remarked Junyk. “As I understand it, this is happening because of the financial pressures the university finds itself under. Flat enrolments and decreased government funding have put tremendous pressure on the university budget and have meant cutbacks in variety of different areas including Humanities staffing in general and cultural studies staffing in particular.”

As Dean Elton explained, “Since at least 2009, the university has been running a budget deficit of $4-million annually … Every year the increases to university income from raised tuition fees and government grants are approximately matched by increasing costs. The only choices open to the Board of Governors are to cut costs or to increase income. Trent has hoped to increase its income by increasing the number of students but has so far been unable to attract sufficient new students to eliminate the structural deficit. The collapse in interest rates since 2008 has also increased the contributions the university and its employees have had to make to pension plans.”

But as Professor of Cultural Studies Michael Morse asked, “If retention is a bad thing at this school, then why piss off anyone?”

“If departments are going to grow based on enrolment and you’re cutting the department, how are they going to grow?” asked McNeilly. “The government instructions are ‘What are you good at [as a school]?’ I thought this was going to be a great opportunity for cultural studies.”

“Trent’s biggest financial problem stems from its mediocre retention rate. Courses like these are the courses that make a difference on whether students stay or leave,” said Professor of Cultural Studies, Ian McLachlan.

“If Trent loses 10 students because of these courses [that are to be cut], then it will lose three times what its getting from cut-backs.”

Morse also believes the cut-backs will have “a negative effect on retention and recruitment.”

Syed and McNeilly also cite raises in the administrations’ wages as being incongruous to the statement that Trent doesn’t have the money for these courses. Furthermore, Trent consistently raises tuition without any visible improvements for current students.

“Where is that money going if it’s not going to our programs?” asked Syed. “How is there not enough money in the budget? Then why are they raising administrations’ wages?”

“It feels like we’re being phased out,” said McNeilly.

Syed explained that budgetary decisions are made under valuation of Basic Income Units – basically, how likely you are to get a job in your field and how much those jobs make.

“I’m here to learn, not to get hired,” McNeilly stated.

“Virtually everybody in the Peterborough arts community has ties to Trent,” said Morse, “Conservatives and budget hawks will deny this, but arts bring in profit…. It’s a part of what keeps this town alive.”

“Trent is a training ground for artists; artists bring us money,” he continued. “Is computer science a guarantee of a job? You can’t guarantee that.”

“There’s a long tradition in Peterborough of a strong connection between arts community in Peterborough and Trent,” said Professor and Founding Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre, Robert Winslow.

“They just don’t understand what art is at all … [Trent’s president] doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The thing about art is you have to engage with it as art itself,” remarked Director of the Cultural Studies PhD program, Jonathan Bordo.

“This is really an example of how the university has lost its mission. Trent’s becoming a monoculture.”

“Even the erosion of the downtown colleges has disconnected Trent from the community,” Winslow commented.

McLachlan cited the close ties between Trent and Peterborough, saying, “It wasn’t just from the government, it was local money that went into setting Trent up … Generally, there’s always been a close symbiotic relationship between the Trent community and the local arts community. If it cancels these courses, it’ll be another sign that Trent doesn’t care about Peterborough.”

“Even if students are majoring in something else. They may have an interest in the arts and may choose Trent because of this,” explained Winslow.

In his Theatre and Community Engagement course, McLachlan stated, “one of the really good students in that course is a business major; another is a psychology major.”

Morse said the same of his course, Music in Society.

“One of the biggest problems is things are done without forward planning. We used to have one. We knew well ahead of time what staffing was likely to be,” said McLachlan.

“Students, as they pay more and more for tuition, will see less stability. The administration should be making the commitment ahead of time for what [is available].”

“From your first year to the time you graduate, it’s already changing,” said Morse. “It’s bad policy. There are other places that have been sued. It’s fraud.”

“I can’t imagine these courses are all that expensive,” remarked Winslow.

Bordo cited the Mitchell Report on ultural Studies, saying, “I think the most important thing he isolated … was the way in which its important to combine the workshop courses with discourse courses. What we’ve had is that combination.”

“To me it’s quantifiable -” Winslow continued, “seeing a healthy arts community in Peterborough and Trent.”

McNeilly stresses the importance of transparency for the budget. “If you can’t afford it, prove it.”

“Show exactly why we need to cut anything,” agreed Morse.

“The bottom line is functionality of what you are doing. Before you tell me dollars and cents, tell me what you’re doing. What are you doing to justify the money?”

“Sadly I just think [cuts to the arts departments is] the way academia is going,” said Langebeck.

“The arts are just becoming a less popular career path based on a lack of jobs. It doesn’t affect me very much right now but it most likely will after grad school. I’m sure I’ll have a hard time finding employment in my field. As much as we’re turning into a more science-based society, I do still think there are things the arts teach you that the sciences can’t.”

“It is a very difficult time for everyone – students, faculty and staff alike,” Junyk said.

“There is a good deal of frustration and uncertainty but we have been working very hard with the Acting Dean of Humanities to ensure that we can offer the broadest and most robust program possible.”

However, the future is looking brighter because of the three positions (meaning 9-10 courses) being cut, one stipend has opened up and there is possibility for more to come.

“The arts matter for education, for a well-rounded citizen,” said McNeilly.

“We shouldn’t have to prove our relevance … We should have the freedom of choice to do it all.”