Students and professors 'blindsided' by U of A decision to merge 2 arts departments

Some students and teachers in the faculty of arts at the University of Alberta fear a decision to merge two departments is step toward eliminating their program. 

‘This is designed to preserve the programs,’ arts dean says

The University of Alberta plans to merge the East Asian studies department, located in Pembina Hall, with the department of modern languages and cultural studies by July 1, 2020. (Hiromi Aoki/University of Alberta)

Some students and teachers in the faculty of arts at the University of Alberta fear a decision to merge two departments is step toward eliminating their program.

"We felt completely blindsided," said Xiaoting Li, a Chinese linguistics professor in the East Asian studies department.

The university intends to merge Li's department into the department of modern languages and cultural studies.

Faculty members were confused by news of the merger, which came in a memo a few months after the department received a largely positive external review, said Li, who is leading a committee fighting the move.

All 13 teachers in the department oppose the change, Li said.

More than 360 people have signed a letter asking the faculty of arts to reconsider.

Students and professors worry East Asian studies courses, including popular language classes in Chinese, Japanese and Korean, could be eliminated especially in times of shrinking budgets. 

They point to comparative literature which now exists only as a stream within modern languages and cultural studies after the two departments were merged.

"There isn't really a guarantee that our major is going to continue to exist," said Alexandra San Diego, a master's student in East Asian studies.

'Designed to preserve the programs'

Combining the departments makes sense for administrative, pedagogical and strategic reasons, said arts dean Lesley Cormack.

"This is designed to preserve the programs that they think are so important and actually to allow them to flourish in the future," she said.

A larger department could reduce administrative work for faculty members, give students opportunities to collaborate and help protect both small departments from potential provincial budget cuts, Cormack said.

Students in both fields of study would maintain access to the same courses and receive "more focused" advising, thanks to administration changes, she said.

The programs would maintain their own web pages and recruitment strategies, Cormack said.

The faculty has no intention of eliminating East Asian studies, which wouldn't be easy to do in any case, she said. 

"That's a decision that would have to be made collaboratively within the department and then taken through a very rigorous series of governance committees with good rationale attached to it," she said.

Carrie Smith, chair of the modern languages and cultural studies department, said if given enough time and opportunities to collaborate, the two departments could merge in a positive way.

"I do think as long as we are open to listening to one another, and truly open to listening to one another, that something really great can come out of it," she said.

Both department chairs have been asked to make recommendations this fall on achieving the merger by July 1, 2020.

About the Author

Madeleine Cummings is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton.


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