Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Restructuring York University: My contribution to ongoing debates at the University (Part 1)

I probably need to provide some background to this blog post. It represents my contribution to restructuring processes started by senior administrators at York University, my Employer, over a year ago and still ongoing. As a result of this restructuring process, the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) created a taskforce to develop a strategic vision for the future of York. I was part of that taskforce - see here for a revised version of my 'application letter' - and I helped write its recently completed report. However, the suggestions I make here are my own personal take on a complex set of problems facing the University and do not represent the views of anyone but myself. They are specifically focused on my own Faculty, Liberal Arts and Professional Studies (i.e. LAPS), rather than the University as a whole, but could be extended to the whole University. I am publishing this here in light of the agreement between YUFA and the Employer at York University that all discussion about restructuring should be collegial, open and transparent - see here.

Restructuring LAPS for the 21st Century

  1. Background to issues with higher education in Ontario;
  2. Recommend policies LAPS could adopt;
  3. Discussion of resourcing implications these policies would entail.

Most universities appear to offer the same thing as each other, or that is what governments seem to think – hence the calls for “differentiation” by the Ontario Provincial Government. This is, obviously, an inaccurate characterization of higher education; for example, generally each (social science and humanities) subject can be studied from multiple and very different analytical / empirical perspectives (e.g. positivism vs. postmodernism) and generally different perspectives find homes in different institutions (e.g. orthodox vs. heterodox institutions). The pursuit of difference, then, should not be about offering different subjects per se, but different ways of delivering subjects that students can study. Note that I do not say “want” to study; this is because a higher education degree is not like a commodity students can knowingly pick and choose from, despite what some people may think. Often there is a process of learning on the part of students in the early stages of their university lives as they find out what they enjoy, are good at, and so on, which then informs their final choice. However, this leaves open the question of what York can do to attract and retain students. While there is much concern about enrolment shortfalls, what this overall fear hides is that there are shortfalls in some areas and over-enrolment in others; some programmes at York are bursting at the metaphorical seams (e.g. Business and Society, my home programme) and in desperate need of more resources.

  1. York has a national and international reputation for interdisciplinarity, innovation and heterodoxy; it should build on this reputation rather than rejecting it and trying to become like every other university.
  2. York's advertising and marketing would be better directed at attracting students in light of York's current reputation rather than by trying to link specific degrees – usually professional ones, to boot – to specific outcomes (i.e. jobs). It is rare that any student actually gets a job in their subject, if such a thing makes sense (e.g. there are no or very few direct jobs in “English Literature”). York should try and “sell” itself inside and outside Ontario as the alternative or the heterodox university – that is, a place you can go to think and do outside the box.
  3. York should get rid of 90-credit degree programmes, for the following reasons.
    1. They were designed for a different age in which grade 13 existed.
    2. They do not serve students well: students would be better off doing a 2-year college degree than wasting their money on a 3-year degree that will not get them into law or business schools or graduate programmes.
    3. They do not serve York well: the impacts of 3-year degrees on York's reputation are likely to be significant. For example, employers who hire graduates with 3-year degrees are likely to find graduates to be less well prepared than other university graduates, leading to the assumption that York is a poor institution to train at – this then feeds into student perceptions.
  4. LAPS has the opportunity to take a lead in the wider University restructuring process. It could restructure its programme offerings with the above in mind as follows:
    1. Get rid of traditional departments (e.g. history, sociology, political science, English, etc.).
    2. Establish interdisciplinary 'departments' based on key themes that draw from across existing departments, courses, faculty, etc. The rationale for this change is that it will provide students with a clearer idea of what they will be studying (i.e. topic); it will provide students with a means to “market” themselves after graduation (i.e. their knowledge); it will bring together researchers/teachers from across subjects to create thematic synergies (i.e. interdisciplinarity); it will enable York to better differentiate itself from other universities; and so on. Thematic departments could include (but are not limited to):
      • Area studies: could be split into different areas (e.g. Europe, Asia, America, Africa, etc.).
      • Business and Society: an obviously biased selection on my part.
      • Cities: there is a range of research across departments on urban issues.
      • Climate Change Studies: could combine with courses in Science, Engineering and Environmental Studies.
      • Global Studies: ranging from issues of development to global governance.
      • Innovation and Creativity Studies: bring together both social science and humanities to explore the creation and promotion of novelty.
      • The IT Society: bring together training in IT and critical analysis of it at the same time.
      • Literature, Communication and Consumption: covering different ways we read, write and enjoy language.
      • Poverty, Inequality and Justice: an all-encompassing topic.
      • Rethinking Capitalism and Economics: broader than economics, introducing students to range of normative and political issues connected to the economy.
      • Social Studies of Medicine: topics in health, illness and medicine.
      • Sustainability: could combine with courses from other Faculties.
      • And so on.
    3. Traditional subjects would then be repositioned as service departments providing the Minors to the thematic Majors that students would take. What traditional subjects would provide, in this structure, is a grounding in theoretical and methodological approaches rather than any substantive topics. That way, students get both a thematic and analytical underpinning to their degrees. 
  5. The construction of new thematic programmes of study would also enable LAPS to restructure their programme requirements so that they are simplified, more coherent and focused than at present. This would reduce the demands on student advising and the frustration students have with York's frequently Byzantine structure.
  6. A secondary benefit to this restructuring would be that ORUs could be more clearly aligned with specific thematic departments, rather than sitting somewhere between departments as is the case at present.
Resources & Constraints

The suggestions I make above are likely to entail minimal direct resource costs, but they will necessitate significant buy-in from faculty, librarians, students and staff in order to carry it off. In light of recent experience, it is important that all groups are brought to the table as early as possible to debate, discuss and vote on these issues.

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