U. of Toronto Plans to Shut a Distinguished Center as It Restructures Humanities

U. of Toronto

The U. of Toronto is planning to close a highly regarded comparative-literature center and consolidate foreign-language programs to cut costs.
July 13, 2010

Faced with a ballooning deficit, the University of Toronto plans to close its internationally renowned Centre for Comparative Literature, which was founded by the iconic literary critic Northrop Frye. It would also downsize or eliminate several other entities in the humanities and amalgamate most language departments into a new school.

"We had to take a hard look at everything," said Meric Gertler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee that is proposing major changes in its impending five-year plan. "It's time to move around the furniture a bit. A number of departments and units are quite small, so, by restructuring and amalgamating, we can save significantly on overheads."

Students and professors have expressed shock and dismay, especially at the proposal to close down the literature center that Mr. Frye created more than 40 years ago. It is a graduate school that has attracted hundreds of international scholars to the campus. Current students would remain part of the center under the restructuring plan, but professors and future students would become part of a new School of Languages and Literatures.

"I'm very concerned about the graduate students," said Neil ten Kortenaar, the center's director, who wrote a strongly worded letter to the administration warning that Toronto's reputation will take a hit, along with its intellectual credibility, and predicting there will be a loss of scholars. "Comparative literature attracts some of the most engaged, most interesting students at the university. They work in different languages, in very different fields, and you might think they would have little to say to each other. But because they have comparison in common, they actually find a lot of common ground."

Letters of Protest

Mr. Frye, the critic and author of The Great Code: The Bible and Literature who died in 1991, made the university one of the premier, if not the best, places for studying critical theory. Letter-writing campaigns and petitions are under way to try to prevent the closure, but the center's survival is unlikely, said Mr. Gertler, the dean. "Yes, it's sad to see it go, but Frye's legacy will continue," he said. "What was revolutionary or radical in the 60s has become embedded in the mainstream."

The center's doctoral students are particularly worried, especially over what the closure may do to their employment prospects. "It's scary and even more so when you look at the attitude trends against the humanities," said Rachel Stapleton, one of the students who has organized a protest Web site. "It's scary to think that this is the attitude of the university toward the humanities."

English and French would remain as departments, but other languages would become part of the School of Languages and Literatures. Ricardo Sternberg, a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department, says the problem is in the lack of details about how the school will function. "Our problem is not knowing how it's going to run. The devil will be in the details."

More will be known later this week when the five-year plan is officially released. The unveiling will be followed by a series of meetings.

Fears of Loss of Prestige

Professors in the East Asian-studies department worry that the proposal would require them to take a backward step. Their department teaches more than language, they point out, and, with 1,000 major and minor students, it is probably the largest of its kind in North America. A letter to the administration from Thomas Keirstead, interim chair designate, posted on one of the Facebook sites, says that the move would adversely affect East Asian studies' recruiting and reputation.

Toronto's changes to its language departments come amid some concerns over what's happening to programs in the United States.

Linda Hutcheon, a former president of the Modern Language Association who earned the first Ph.D. granted by the center, in 1975, said in an e-mail message that other colleges' experiences make her fear what may come next. "The flourishing individual language departments that will be united in the new school will now compete with each other for resources; in many other institutions, this has meant a gradual atrophy of the study of languages," she wrote. "We understand the economic realities of difficult times but fear this is too drastic a measure for a university that has always cared deeply about its fine reputation in the humanities."