• August 30, 2015

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

U. of Toronto Plans to Shut a Distinguished Center as It Downsizes Humanities 1

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.

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close U. of Toronto Plans to Shut a Distinguished Center as It Downsizes Humanities 1

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.

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."


1. trendisnotdestiny - July 14, 2010 at 09:41 am

One might ask: "the why now question"

2. 11134078 - July 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

Well 1, I think the probably answer is pretty simple and relatively clear. Fiscal exigency is always an opportunity for corporate-minded administrations to go after disciplines they fear and/or consider useless. Given the attitude, there is scarcely a better target then comp. lit.!

3. realist123 - July 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

It's so sad when seminal, innovative research centers are treated like "furniture" to be scrapped... I hope that U of T's reputation really suffers from this move to assembly line, cookie-cutter restructuring...

Sadly, this "reshuffling" probably means the end of comparative literature studies in Canada. The Center was one of the very few places students could be admitted to a Ph.D. in comparative literature. In the move towards "mainstreaming", there is no place for difference however, and soon there will be no difference in programming between small McUniversities and large ones...

4. prje8199 - July 14, 2010 at 12:20 pm

To those above; I really can see how this hurts and how it looks heartless, however, all administrations (academic or corporate) have a fiscal responsibility to keep their institution operating in a legal and effective manner.

I recognize that the Chronicle often serves as a "bash the evil administration" vehicle but as of late it sees that the word administration or administrator is interchangeable with that older buzz word "Nazi" or better yet "fascist." A university administrative team is not a faceless group of money-grubbing B-School grads looking to streamline "the system," it is often a strong group of fellow academics and scholars who have a better view of ongoing fiscal reality than does the average faculty member.

A decade or so ago the creation of so-called centers was in vogue and money, evil money, was flowing across the campus like rain water in the gutter. Those days are gone and won't be back anytime soon. I can remember serious debate between scholars over the creation of such centers as they would dilute the meaning and capacity of broader, more inclusive departments that had been in existence for ages. They dreaded a university that might become a cacophony of demanding voices instead of a chorus of learning and scholarship. That did not happen and indeed this change will not destroy the legacy of Comparative Literature at Toronto.

5. realist123 - July 14, 2010 at 01:12 pm

I fail to see how eliminating the PhD and MA in Comparative Literature will "not destroy the legacy of Comparative Literature at Toronto."

To retain this degree-granting program, and ensure the survival of Comparative Literature in Canada, please sign the petition at

6. nerd4u - July 14, 2010 at 02:13 pm

This is not "fiscally responsibility" as far as I'm concerned; rather, as realist123 points out, it's McDonaldization. Now, there will be very little to distinguish U of T as a "world-class" institution in the humanities; rather it will look just like the other 30 university in Ontario... Canada's best and brightest will look elsewhere, as will all the international scholars who used to come to roost at U of T.
Goodbye U of T's international reputation!

To defend all this Arts and Sciences Dean Meric Gertler has argued "This school will show the world how much expertise we have, showcase our strengths, attract more excellent students to our undergraduate and graduate programs, and also attract donors"... (see rabble.ca). Just like prje8199, Dean Gertler is deluded. Homogenization, efficiency and calculability do not equate with expertise or strength. Nor does cutting top-notch programs attract donors. Goodbye alumni and corporate funding!

7. more_cowbell - July 14, 2010 at 02:18 pm

I feel bad for the students currently enroled there but this seems to be the unavoidable future of a lot of humanities centers and depts in Canada. There simply are too many of them producing graduates for a job market that doesnt exist.

I dont think closing this center will not hurt the employment prospects of students, as the person in the article claims. This is because 1) there are no jobs or prospects anyways in academe and 2) it will actually help over the long term by reducing the number of graduates seeking work.

8. nerd4u - July 14, 2010 at 02:35 pm

As for job prospects, cowbell, advanced students these days have to specialize if they want to get a job; they need a degree in Slavics in order to get a job in Slavics. A degree in "modern languages" will just not cut it...

9. prje8199 - July 15, 2010 at 09:51 am

To nerd4u,

Your comment to me and later cowbell hits the mark. We do not need more "speciality" PhDs, that is the problem with academia today. Why would any college in the world pay for a so-called expert in so many stunningly limited fields, especially in the liberal arts (where I work) when what they need are more gifted generalists.

A few years ago a department at a nearby university hired a specialist in Iberian Studies. She has yet to get a single grad student and her undergrad classes draw less than five students per year. While she is a remarkably gifed person, her work has nothing to do the region the school where the school is located (there is no significent Iberian population here) and does her university little good (it has not become the areas premier university for Iberian Studies). as good as this person is, she digs her heels in at the thought of teaching anywhere outside her comfort zone. I say pick a few books, learn something new, and teach it to others. There is always room to fit your speciality field into the broader context of the existing narrative.

Again, I am sure comparative literature will survive just fine in the broader School of Language and Literature. In fact, for those looking to work in the academy it will likely prove a boost as new graduates will appear more balanced and diverse.

10. my2cents - July 15, 2010 at 10:38 am

We are not talking about a small SLAC here. We are talking about Canada's leading university. Which, in many ways, represents Canada. Or at least, the biggest chunk of Canadian tax-dollars tagged for education.

On its Website, U of T claims to be one of the "third in the world in published academic research", "one of only 5 universities world-wide ranked in the top 16 for all fields" etc.
Does this move reflect this reputation? Is the future of academics one without languages or humanities?

11. my2cents - July 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

To clarify -- this is not just about Comp Lit. Five language departments Italian, German, East Asian Studies, Slavic languages and Spanish and Portuguese will be amalgamated into new school for modern languages and cultures.

12. nerd4u - July 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

I am not getting your argument prje8199: Comp Lit PhDs make for gifted generalists. However, without an MA or PhD, they will never be able to showcase their talents in academia, and increasingly, outside aademia as well... I don't see how cutting the PhD and MA in Comp Lit leads to to "comparative literature surviving just fine" in this new proposed formation...

As for my comment regarding slavics, it relates to my2cents point. We are not talking about Iberian studies here. We are talking about Spanish, German, Slavics, East Asian studies being cut at Canada's largest university.

13. performance_expert2 - July 15, 2010 at 12:49 pm

First, they came for art... then they came for music...

This reminds me of the Obama mantra, "Yes we can." Then he hired a WH Communications Director that has published a paper advocating paying US government employees to go into internet chatrooms and strategically promote disinformation. "Yes we can."

14. performance_expert2 - July 15, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Next up, after cultural diversity and in the name of identity politics, identity has been dissolved and otherwise appropriated, and a common North American "Amero" currency has been installed, it is made certain there will be few with insitutional title to counter the re-writing of history. Another way to look at this is that the university is broke and therefore disassembling cultural accomodation. Why are they broke? First, broke, then broken into pieces. Broken into pieces and sold off, if possible.

15. blueconcrete - July 15, 2010 at 07:29 pm


Am I correct in assuming you slept through most of those critical thinking and reasoning classes during your time at university?

16. prje8199 - July 16, 2010 at 09:23 am

My apologies to nerd4u. I did not recognize that the university is ending the PhD program entirely, I thought they were reorganizing a center that was, perhaps, too focused. If UofT is going to ultimately cease issuing advanced degrees than you are right and I am wrong. If you are concerned the piece of paper that calls you "Doctor" will say "School of Languages and Literatures" under University of Toronto rather than "Centre for Center for Comparative Literature" than your argument smacks of elitism.

Equally I may have put my point about a academic work in "Slavics" and "Iberian Studies" into a poor light. I am not arguing that these skills go away or not be taught (and learned) by world class experts, I am simply stating that spalling off concepts from the greater school of humanities and placing them in distinct centers of specialized study limits, in my opinion, the effectiveness of students to learn and work across the entire field of humanities.

Taken as a whole, I hope the Centre survives if only because it seems to have inspired some passion. That said, I simply don't like that any fiscal cutting decision (which are often very difficult choices) should not simply be called the irresponsible act of a heartless administation.

17. universityoftoronto - July 16, 2010 at 09:54 am

Contrary to the impression conveyed by your article, the humanities are strong and healthy at the University of Toronto. Much of our reputation is deservedly based on the excellence of our humanities scholarship. The humanities are the heart and soul of the University of Toronto, and will remain so in the future.

The University of Toronto is facing the same financial pressures that are being felt today by all publicly supported universities, and the Faculty of Arts & Science has had to develop a strategy to respond to its financial challenges. At the same time, respected peers reviewed the Faculty in 2008, and advised that we reduce the number of administrative units in light of our increasingly constrained resources.

Our planning process has directed equal scrutiny to all units within the Faculty. As a result, our proposals to restructure existing units, identify resources for redeployment towards more pressing needs, and require undergraduate teaching from graduate-only units are distributed across all three sectors of the Faculty: humanities, social sciences and sciences.

Moreover, the benefits accruing to humanities units in the first wave of commitments arising from our plan will be very similar to those flowing to social science and science units. We have already committed 19 new faculty positions to humanities units, and more than $3.4 million in base budget resources to support teaching and research. Over the full five years of the plan, our forecasts indicate that additional new appointments in the humanities will most likely exceed those flowing to science and social science units by a substantial margin. These commitments are in addition to the $60 million the Faculty has already contributed to support the establishment of the Jackman Humanities Institute, our flagship interdisciplinary humanities centre. Finally, we have recently implemented changes to the undergraduate curriculum which ensure that even more of our students undertake study in the humanities.


Meric Gertler
Dean, Faculty of Arts & Science
University of Toronto

18. uoftpeter - July 16, 2010 at 01:54 pm

Dear Dean Gertler,

I think what is so baffling is that your claims (to support interdisciplinary work at UofT) seem strangely alienated from your means (shutting down the comparative literature graduate program, placing EAS, which appears to promote primarily historical and cultural work, within a very narrow language and literature school). Your claims that the humanities are the heart and soul of UofT also ring hollow upon a brief examination of the publicly available Public Sector Salary Disclosure, which reveals that of the 217 top paid employees at UofT (those paid over $200,000 in base salary), only five are from the humanities, and three of them are in adminstrative positions. Why are professorships in humanities so devalued compared to professorships in almost every other field at UofT? If you want to promote multilingual, interdisciplinary work on literature at UofT, surely the first people to talk to would be the professors who are already engaging in that work, those who teach and advise in the Centre for Comparative Literature, who are unanimously opposed to the proposal.

Peter Buchanan
PhD Candidate, Centre for Medieval Studies
University of Toronto

19. barnaby - July 16, 2010 at 02:21 pm

Dear Dean Gertler,

Your active participation in the debate is appreciated, and I'm glad you're not simply resorting to repeating the party line, as it were. Albeit without the attention you have no doubt paid to the reports on which your decision is partly based, I did read the 2008 one that discussed the many levels of administration that appear to be clogging up the system at the U of T. There are clearly things that could be done administratively to solve some of these issues, namely by making the reporting structure clear and consistent throughout the institution. Perhaps the role of the Colleges in academic matters should also be reconsidered (and if they have, if you could point us in this direction). As far as Comparative Literature is concerned, there has been a natural relationship between the Centre and the Vic Literature program that could be formalised; and there are no doubt many others.

But I would request that you seek, wherever possible, to preserve the academic integrity of the University. The current plan simply does not amply address this. Attempt to reduce the administrative burden to ensure the teaching talents of existing faculty are optimally utilized; reduce the number of graduate places, if you must-although as pointed out elsewhere, the graduate students in Comp Lit bring in a considerable amount of external funding; and by all means bring undergraduates in to support those units currently without them.

I'm sure there are many, many options you could explore, some of which must simply be forgotten for their impracticality, but none of which should be included if they threaten to undermine the ability of the University to continue to offer the range and breadth of programs a top-tier institution is built on.

I don't envy you the task ahead, but please proceed with the utmost caution and flexibility.

Barnaby Clunie, PhD (2007)

20. adamastornow - July 17, 2010 at 10:31 am


21. mrhead - July 17, 2010 at 03:00 pm

Furniture, eh?

22. totosy - July 22, 2010 at 11:32 am

dear dean gertler, it is impressive that you respond to some of the comments posted! along with the majority of commentators re the closing of the u of toronto centre for comparative literature, i too regret the decision; while your take on comparative literature's raison d'etre as having merged into humanities mainstream is in some ways correct, there are lacunae in the argumentation and i list here four major ones: 1) graduates of comparative literature have traditionally and consistently a higher placement rate than such from english or other national literature graduates, ergo, why reduce the placement rate of comparative literature phd-s? 2) the decision includes the eliminatation of phd degrees in comparative literature altogether and this is contrary to what is happening elsewhere, i.e., in latin america, india, china (also in some european countries such as spain), where comparative literature is flourishing and developing with new professorships, departments, and high numbers of students: why would the university of toronto not pay attention to international developments? taking globalization as a standard today, would it not make sense to think and act globally and not go, in this case, with the short-sightedness of the local? 3) the savings the university's administrators argue would come about is a red herring: see the situation of the university of alberta where in 2000 they enacted the same misguided decision to eliminate the department of comparative literature and within a few years it became clear that virtually no savings were made... 4) the decision to eliminate comparative literature but keep national language departments -- foremost english -- disregards the importance of comparative literature where students work in several languages: again, the problem with this is the unilingualization of scholarship: hardly a preferable direction in my opinion; a better solution would be to name the new unit a department or faculty of "comparative literature and culture" whereby single language departments would be included in the structure and where students would be able to obtain degrees in comparative literature and also in single language scholarship (including english!); with my best regards,

steven totosy de zepetnek ph.d. professor
editor, clcweb: comparative literature and culture
http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/ clcweb@purdue.edu
series editor, purdue books in comparative cultural studies
http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweblibrary/seriespurdueccs &
8 sunset road, winchester, ma 01890 usa

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