By Siri Agrell
An urban planning professor travelled to Cuba during reading week to explain why students from Ryerson’s faculty of community services won’t be returning to Havana this spring for their annual field study.
The field course, which gave Ryerson students the opportunity to pair up with students from a Cuban university and study the living conditions of people in Havana, was called off last fall after the school of urban planning pulled out of the program to investigate ethical objections.
After last year’s trip, some faculty members express concern that the project was raising unfair expectations within the Cuban community—expectations that the students were going to improve the community when they were just studying it.
Two weeks after urban planning pulled out, representatives from each department within the faculty of community services and conduct an extensive review.
“We had a discussion last fall and decided it made more sense to look at all the factors of the project before committing to doing it again,” said Sue Williams, dean of community services.
Lawrence Altrows has been organizing the trips since the first one in 1999. He felt obligated to travel to Cuba during reading week and explain the cancellation to professors of the Havana university Ryerson worked with.
“They certainly didn’t understand why we pulled out,” said Altrows. “But they know that there’s always unpredictable complications in any sort of exchange program.”
Altrows agrees there are legitimate concerns surrounding any international development program, but he thinks they are unwarranted in this case.
The trip is not being reviewed by Ryerson’s Internationalization Committee, made up of representatives from each department of community services.
Williams said that ethical issues are not major factor in the review, and that the trip was cancelled so the committee can reconsider financial and academic implications.
She expressed confidence that the trip will resume in the future, and defended
the benefits such programs provide to students.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the discussion about Cuba was positive,” said Williams. “But it’s a costly program from a small group of students. There’s not doubt it’s
beneficial but we need to look at the bigger picture.”
Altrows agrees that the review will help the trip develop a more defined academic structure. In past years, the trip has been open to students from various faculties who must attend workshops outside of class time.
But if the faculty decides to continue with the program, they’ll have to find someone else too supervise. Altrows won’t be around for next year’s trip. He’s taking a sabbatical in Cuba for a year, where he’ll work on a book inspired by his experiences with international development.
He hopes someone will come forward to lead the project once the review is completed.
“We’ve build a level of confidence down there that would be a shame to lose,” Altrows said. “ The connections we’ve made and the experiences students have had—you can’t put a price tag on that.”