Laurier’s reputation seriously at risk
Since I arrived here in 2005 I have been a proud part of the Wilfrid Laurier University community, confident that indeed we are “inspiring lives of leadership and purpose” as this year’s Laurier centenary celebrations have emphasized. Recently I received in my mailbox the colourful and attractive publication “100 Years” that the university has produced. I also returned from a productive sabbatical abroad energized by my research and eager to step back into the classroom and to share my own learning with students.
However the year away has enabled me to gain a valuable perspective on life at Laurier. Sadly there is a growing discrepancy between the message that the administration promotes and the reality that students and faculty experience on a daily basis.
Yes there is a century of learning associated with our institution, even if Laurier itself is comparatively new. Certainly we have an impressive administration with more vice presidents than some departments have faculty. To be sure ancillary services at Laurier are impressive. No doubt our O-week is among the best in the country, our residences are cutting edge and our commitment to accessible learning is impressive.
Yet at the same time the academic integrity of the university would seem to be under threat. In recent years faculty have challenged the culture of cuts that has become the norm. Now students too are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of these decisions on the education for which they ultimately came here.
In my own faculty of arts, the relentless focus on the bottom line has meant not only that class sizes have grown, but also that small classes which encourage closer professor-student interaction increasingly are suspect. If the university really is committed to preparing our students for the future then it must demonstrate that it values the learning that takes place in such intimate environments. What possible explanation can there be for the fact that this year, the more than twenty students hoping to enroll in third-year Arabic had to fight to ensure that the course would go ahead? Just how many students have to sign up to make a language course viable for the administration? This is compounded by the fact that Arabic is a discipline in which small classes are essential for effective learning.
At the same time, students now face the reality that small programs are being cut as are the number of courses taught by contract academic staff. Small programs offer students the opportunity to explore areas of learning that truly interest them and that draw on the expertise of the faculty. Surely these only attract students to the university.
Our rich pool of part-time instructors mean that students have a much wider variety of courses available to them. That too is positive. Instead, as these classes are no longer offered, students find that they cannot find the courses they need to graduate in four years. The consequence? Another year, more debt.
Among the faculty (in arts at least) morale has never been lower in my time here. As faculty we face tremendous pressure couched in what we perceive to be an increasingly negative message from the administration. From our limited perspective it is difficult for us to understand just what the administration’s intentions are. Yet it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that we are inadequate in almost every area. Our research isn’t adequate. We are not teaching enough classes. We are not teaching enough students. We are not teaching effectively enough.
My sense is that the administration has bought into the attitudes towards post-secondary education that prevail in our society today. Education itself is severely undervalued. Everywhere we go we are told that a university degree must prepare students for future employment. The failure of young graduates to find lucrative full-time work is frequently attributed to universities — and their faculty — as though the global economic crisis doesn’t have any impact at all.
On the contrary, we must stand up for the value of learning, not just of preparing students for a specific career. If we really are about inspiring lives of leadership and purpose, then Laurier must invest much more in the very core of the experience — the student-professor relationship in the classroom.
As professors we are committed to this. We thrive on communicating our love of learning to new generations. Each interaction with a student is worthwhile and meaningful. We spend hours engaged in this part of our work, often to the point of taking evenings and weekends to prepare for class, grade papers and engage in our own research. Being a professor is more a lifestyle than a job. We do not think about the costs as long as we enjoy the work and feel that our efforts are valued.
Two weeks ago The Cord reported on a faculty of arts meeting at which we discussed raising the average grade required of entering students. At 72 per cent, our entrance requirements are apparently the lowest in the province. This is significantly lower even than what is required down the road at our sister university known not for its arts program but for its leadership in mathematics and science. We are, as the dean informed us, “Last Chance U.” My own heart sank when I learned this reality. The administration’s decision to consistently lower entrance requirements so as to bring in more students in order to pay our bills has finally caught up with us. There must be a better way. What is more dispiriting is the reality that if things do not change, we will no longer be only Last Chance U. Laurier will also be Last Choice U. For students and for faculty.
Gavin Brockett is an associate professor in Laurier’s history department.