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Carleton appoints new President: Summerlee oversaw Guelph cuts to Women’s Studies and other programs

by Jenna Amirault

University of Guelph students hold "funeral for education" rally against Summerlee’s program cuts, November, 2014 Credit: Joanne Shuttleworth

University of Guelph students hold “funeral for education” rally against Summerlee’s program cuts, November, 2014
Credit: Joanne Shuttleworth

Students, faculty and staff returned to Carleton University in September to find that its former President, Roseann Runte, is no more and in her place stands an Interim President, Alastair Summerlee. Summerlee is former President of the University of  Guelph. For her part, Runte is now President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a federal government-funded body that invests in research infrastructure projects at Canadian universities in partnership with institutions, private companies and provincial governments.

Summerlee’s appointment via the Carleton Board of Governors Executive Board in May took Carleton’s student associations and unions by surprise. His track record at Guelph from 2003 to 2014 points to Carleton senior management’s continued commitment to the privatization and corporatization of the university.

Under Summerlee, the University of Guelph introduced a Program Prioritization Process (PPP) in fall 2012 under the guise of eliminating a $32 million budget shortfall. Summerlee appointed a 21-member Task Force of “community members” to review and rank all academic and non-academic programs and departments and hired U.S. consulting firm Academic Strategy Partners (ASP) Inc. to guide the process.

ASP provided the criteria for evaluating programs and campus services. Faculty members on the Task Force were pitted against one another to ensure their departments and programs were not on the chopping block. Academic programs were compared to non-educational services such as parking and food services in a competition for funds.

Student activists at Guelph referred to Summerlee’s PPP as “rank and yank.” The Guelph Central Student Association argued that the process resulted in “programs being valued strictly by their revenue generating abilities or the amount of money that could be saved through their downsizing or elimination.”

By the final year of Summerlee’s term, Guelph’s Women’s Studies program was eliminated while Environmental Studies, Organic Agriculture, Italian, Math and other programs faced cuts. In November 2014, Guelph students held a “funeral for education” and marched against program cuts. A math student at the rally told the Guelph Mercury that he could no longer complete his degree due to so many courses being cut or blended.

Ontario government’s neo-liberal program for post-secondary education

In Ontario and other provinces, this program prioritization is also referred to as “differentiation.” The Ontario government defines this as building on and focusing “the well-established strengths of institutions.” By virtue of that, those that were not “well-established strengths” had to be discarded.

The University of Guelph was the first Ontario campus to go through significant cuts and restructuring along the lines of differentiation. At a town hall meeting in October 2013, Summerlee noted that the Ontario government was “taking an interest in what we are doing.”

Driven by decades of austerity from the federal and provincial governments, initiatives mimicking the PPP have now cropped up at Ontario universities such as Brock and Laurier, and at York where ASP Inc. was also hired to oversee “program prioritization.”

Every three years, the Ontario government releases a new Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) that acts as a blueprint for university funding. The 2014 SMA tied funding for each institution to enrollment levels and progress in differentiation. To guide differentiation, the government works with universities to identify their specific “strengths” and fund them accordingly.

The 2014-2017 SMA between the Ontario government and Carleton University shows the concern of both Carleton and the province to have the university serve private business interests. The first “area of strength” for Carleton is defined as “jobs, innovation and economic development” and “serving the needs of the economy and labour market.”

Among the achievements cited by Carleton senior management and the Ontario government are the university “spawning” 185 companies; the offering of minors and concentrations in “entrepreneurship;” matching students in the Faculty of Engineering and Design with “industry partners;” offering a program for “students with startup ideas to bring them into being;” the Sprott School of Business launching a “venture accelerator called Carleton Entrepreneurs;” and “1125@Carleton,” which is supposed to be an “innovation and collaboration facility that brings researchers together with the community and public and private partners to implement solutions to real-world challenges.”

Carleton is set to sign a new 2017-2020 SMA with the Ontario government this month but students and faculty know little about what the document will contain. Biology professor Root Gorelick in a June blog post noted that even Carleton’s Senate, ostensibly its academic decision-making body “is foreclosed by the president’s office from having any meaningful role in drafting [SMAs] with the province of Ontario.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 1 (Sept/Oct 2017).

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