BUILDING AN IVORY TOWER

In Features /

By Shannon Higgins

Since 2003, Ryerson has started 19 new master’s programs and five doctoral programs. Full-time undergraduate enrollment has increased by 20 per cent, graduate enrolment has tripled and now with 10 Canada Research Chairs the school is poised to tackle foreign territory — traditional academia and research.

If university leaders have their way, Ryerson will add more than $5 million in research funding by 2011 and bring in over 1,000 more graduate students. This is all part of the school’s new Academic Plan, a five-year blueprint for the university’s academic future.

But not everyone is convinced the school has the money to make it happen. Others are afraid that more research will mean more work and less teaching time for professors, and less focus on the type of hands-on education that Ryerson is known for.

The Academic Plan lays out five priorities for Ryerson: engaging students, learning and teaching excellence, reputation, expanding graduate programs, and Scholarly Research and Creative Activity (SRC). For the next five years, the school’s decision-makers in the Board of Governors and the Senate will have to follow these priorities every time they create programs or make budgets for the year.

While the first three priorities aren’t contentious, the last two will be the hardest to achieve.

But Tas Venetsanopoulos, the school’s VP research and innovation, argues that if Ryerson wants to be taken seriously, it will have to bring in more graduate students and pump up its research.

“We need to hire the best academics — and they do not go to universities without research. Building our reputation cannot be done in abstract. We need good teaching and good research,” says Venetsanopoulos, brought on two years ago to propel Ryerson into the big leagues.

The man who drafted the Academic Plan, Provost and VP Academic Alan Shepard, even wants to get undergraduate students doing research.

“One of the big trends across North America is for undergraduates to have research opportunities,” he says. “One of my goals is to have students, when they first get on campus, in the very first year, to be participating in that research culture.”

But research is expensive and Ryerson isn’t exactly rolling in money — the school doesn’t even know how it will fund new graduate programs, including the Masters in Philosophy that Senate approved this week.

Since 2006, research funding has risen from $12.2M to $19.6M, but Ryerson still can’t compete with large research-heavy universities like the University of Toronto, which pulled in $461.4M of funding in 2007 alone.

Professors also worry that, if administration makes them do more research without the money to make it happen, the quality of their teaching will suffer.

During contract negotiations between the Ryerson Faculty Association, the union that represents profs, and Ryerson’s Board of Governors this summer and fall, workload expectations were one of the main sticking points, says RFA president Dave Mason.

“I think the challenge in negotiations was to recognize that if the university wants more SRC [Scholarly Research and Creative Activity] not just [research], but all SRC, then we had need to bring teaching workloads down,” Mason says.

“So SRC was not on the table per se, but it was sort of the pink elephant in the side of the room because it had huge implications on our workload.”

Mason says the school asks professors to produce research without providing adequate facilities, financial resources and time to get the work done. One Ryerson faculty member, for instance, has to drive to McMaster University each week, because Ryerson doesn’t have the right research labs.

Venetsanopoulos says the university understands faculty concerns and doesn’t want to overwork them. “Ryerson is gradually getting closer to more reasonable workloads. We need to hire more people, but it’s difficult to do it in these economic times.”

The new provisional contract puts caps on faculty workloads and promises more money for academic assistance such as TA’s and exam markers, but Mason says Ryerson’s professors still have to put in more hours than the industry norm.

He’s also worried the school is moving away from its roots as an undergraduate-focused school and towards the more traditional university model of bigger classes and less access to faculty, with graduate students and research taking top priority.

“I think that the traditional university model that other universities have been following and that Ryerson is to some degree following in their footsteps, is that grad students get a really good education and undergrad students get a sound education, but not the level of hands on that many faculty and many students like,” he says.

Mason says SRC needs to be broadly interpreted to maintain the student faculty connection. “But as some people push more towards research and less towards scholarly and creative activities, I think there is a risk of that eroding.”

Sholem Dolgoy, assistant professor and co-director of performance production in the theatre school, can see both sides of the equation.

He’s received money from the university to pursue creative activities outside of the classroom — such as Nuit Blanche’s pond of ducks and lighting up the Eaton Centre’s Christmas tree.

This is the kind of marriage of research and applied learning that Ryerson is looking for in the new Academic Plan: professors who work outside the classroom, but still bring their practical skills back to their students.

Dolgoy just learned a newer technology to deliver video to projectors working at the Royal Military College.

“In my field the technology and events are moving very quickly. By continuing to work in my profession, I can keep current,” he says. “If I’m talking about the principle of something, [students are] just as likely to tune out and surf the net or fall asleep because they had beer last night or whatever. But if I can illustrate from a project that I did recently, then it has a greater immediacy and I can use it as an example.”

Ashley Desouza, a third-year mechanical engineering student, prefers professors who teach straight from first-hand knowledge over those who have research careers.

“The professors with the backgrounds are significantly better.” Still, he said Ryerson would rank better internationally and have more cash to support grad students if the school focused more on research.

Melissa Haddad, a third-year theatre performance student, says it’s her professors’ work experience that helps her learn, not their academic background.

“I think it’ll be too bad if Ryerson goes more towards an academic background with their profs,” she says.

“It’ll never hurt for a prof to be studied and academic and have written doctorates and papers and all that, but if the university stops being a practical university, then its appeal to a lot of its students will be gone.”

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