TRU Faculty Association seeks legal advice after university board votes to axe visual arts programs

Faculty seeking legal advice

Thompson Rivers University faculty members are seeking legal advice after the university's board of governors voted Monday to axe the fine arts programs, but the head of the TRU Faculty Association won’t say whether a lawsuit is on the table.

TRUFA president Tara Lyster told Castanet Kamloops the union is seeking legal advice after TRU’s board of governors voted to discontinue TRU’s visual arts major, minor, diploma and certificate over the next three years.

“TRUFA is seeking legal advice and advice from the Federation of Post Secondary Educators on what actions we will take next,” Lyster told Castanet Kamloops.

In a memo sent to the university’s faculty on Tuesday, the day after the board's vote, Lyster said the decision to discontinue the programs appeared to TRUFA to be a “done deal” from the start.

“In April 2023, faculty members in visual arts were told by their dean that their program was being closed and student enrolment was being suspended immediately,” the statement reads.

“This was done ahead of any of the required processes under both TRU policy and the University Act related to program closures.”

In a statement to Castanet Kamloops, TRU said it is aware of concerns among some faculty members and it appreciates the dedication of the visual arts faculty to their programs.

“The process and the decision made by the board are entirely in accordance with [policy], as well as with the Thompson Rivers University Act," the statement reads.

Was process out of order?

TRUFA is taking issue with the university’s following of its program reduction and elimination policy, claiming the university missed steps before adding them later and claiming "superficial compliance with the act.”

Lyster cited providing a notice of which programs were to be eliminated only after a stakeholder presentation to the university’s senate as an example.

“The president and provost claim that as long as all the steps are followed, the order does not matter,” the statement said.

“This nonsensical explanation defies the spirit and letter of both the act and the level of academic governance one should expect from a research university in closing an academic program.”

Lyster said it was TRUFA’s opinion that the process should have begun with a notice to faculty, and applications to the impacted programs shouldn’t have been suspended before the final decision was made.

“As soon as they cancel enrolment they de facto cancel a program, because with no students there's no enrolment and then they can say the enrolment's down,” she said.

“My understanding of policy is that policies are followed in order. The steps are there for reason — one follows the other for a reason.”

Last September, former TRU senator and law professor, Craig Jones, previously claimed TRU could be placing itself at legal risk by not following the policy.

‘Spirit’ of the policy

In its statement to Castanet, the university said it stands by the information presented to the board of governors as a “comprehensive assessment of the program’s situation."

“TRU wants to clarify that it has adhered to all necessary policies and procedures for program closures,” the statement said.

During a board of governors meeting in December, TRU President Brett Fairbairn said the steps outlined in the policy are a guideline and don’t constitute the policy itself.

“The regulations provide guidelines and an orderly process by which the board and governors shall decide on the need for reduction or elimination of particular programs,” he said.

“The regulations outline the steps that are used pursuant to the policy, and as an aside, these aren’t actually cast in stone.”

Gillian Balfour, TRU provost and vice-president academic, has acknowledged the process was followed out-of-order, but said the university’s administration followed the policy as closely as was practical.

“No set of rules can foresee every future circumstance, and this is particularly true of rules penned almost a generation ago,” Balfour said.

“Despite the inherent challenges, the administration adhered as closely as practical to the spirit of the policy and did cover every specified step in it.”

‘Deeply flawed decision’

TRUFA also took issue with the university’s rationale for the closures, saying low course enrolment caps that led to higher costs for the discontinued programs were approved by the dean of arts, Richard McCutcheon, and the faculty themselves are not to blame.

“The dean of arts has been approving the current faculty workload credit allocation for years,” the statement said.

“After years of approving the current costing model it is bad faith for TRU leadership to now attempt to blame faculty for the closure of the program.”

In its statement, TRU said it remains dedicated to continuing visual arts courses popular among undergraduate students and will continue to explore options for the reallocation of resources to other programs.

“TRU values open, constructive dialogue and faculty engagement, and we will continue to seek opportunities for meaningful discussions and collaboration to ensure that decisions made reflect the best interests of our students, faculty, and the broader community,” the statement said.

High cost of the programs, financial sustainability, student demand and graduation and employment outcomes were cited as factors for the program eliminations.

Lyster and TRUFA are worried about the implications the process followed in the visual arts closure could have on how things play out next time the university wants to shutter a program.

“We are deeply concerned about the precedent this process sets for other programs seen as too costly,” TRUFA’s statement reads.

“TRU’s actions in this process deepen faculty’s cynicism and concern about how the institution is being managed.”

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