Hey Ma, where do programs come from?

In Features /

By Monique Hutson

Students will consider a lot of things during their time at Ryerson. From applying to a program, to gaining acceptance, all the way through to graduation day, the amount of thought a person puts into their future in that time is astronomical.

But very few consider how the program itself came to be, or that the degree they’ve taken on is somebody’s brain child – their baby.

It was only 20 years ago that Ryerson was granted full university status by the government of Ontario, and in that time, the school has established nearly 60 bachelor programs and the number is rising.

First, an idea must be conceived, and that program idea must serve Ryerson in an area in which the university is currently lacking. Typically, these ideas are thought up by faculty groups, like professors, deans and chairs, who decide what they can create in a new program that will attract and educate students in a discipline within the faculty’s field.

(So, sorry to anyone reading with the intent of creating a four-year BA in beer pong. Ryerson administration isn’t likely to find a use for that sort of education.) But with the approval of a handful of new programs this fall, some educational areas are certainly growing.

Take the creative industries program for example – a four-year degree program that allows students to explore creative fields such as fashion and photography while learning managerial skills. Graduates earn a bachelor of arts with a specialization in business. The interdisciplinary program is geared towards those who desire an entrepreneurial career in media, entertainment, design or the visual and performing arts.

You could call Ira Levine the loving parent of creative industries.

It took the Ryerson theatre school professor about five years before it could give birth to the program, and it’s currently accepting applications for its first semester next fall.

“I had been thinking about the idea for a new program for quite a while. It was a lengthy process because it was an idea for a kind of program that doesn’t exist certainly anywhere else in North America,” says Levine. “However, it could take advantage of the unique circumstances we have at Ryerson, since no university embraces all of the creative industries like Ryerson does.” Aside from creative industries, 2013 will also see the launch of biomedical science, financial mathematics, real estate management, philosophy and professional communication.

In its first stages, those proposing a program must write a “letter of intent” to the provost’s office as well as to the dean of the respective faculty.

The two provide feedback and revisions to the letter while the university planning office looks at the financial aspects of the program. If all agree that the program has a solid academic purpose and will produce graduates with real career opportunities, the provost will post the revised letter on their website for 30 days. Ryerson community members are then invited to comment on the program and those comments are passed along to the proposers.

“It’s a pretty thorough process,” Levine says, taking a moment to dig up his creative industries proposal documents. He heaves up two bounded books with clear plastic covers, both the size of encyclopedias.

He drops them on a table, a small grunt escaping his mouth as the books make a loud thud. “This alone took about a year,” he says, looking at his proposals with pride.

After a number of meetings and consultations between the proposers, the faculty dean, and the viceprovost academic, a formal letter is written, authorizing the school or department to generate a new “full” proposal that meets the requirements of Ryerson’s Senate policies.

Policy 110: Institutional Quality Assurance Process, lists the specific responsibilities and powers of each party involved in the approval process, including the Senate, the Academic Standards Council, and the provost. Policy 112: New Program Development, outlines the specifics of the content within the proposal documentation and the expectations of an undergraduate, master’s and doctoral program. Additionally, the set of skills that students should acquire upon completion of this program must also be specified.

“We were extremely confident putting the BA forward,” says Arne Kislenko, the director and proud parent of Ryerson’s history undergraduate program which began last fall. “I don’t think anyone was too nervous, principally because we were very confident about our teaching reputation and the quality of our program proposal. We also understood that no university can really call itself a ‘full university’ without humanities programs.”

Back in 2004, the idea for an undergraduate history program had been around for some time, but it wasn’t until the new arts and contemporary studies degree was unveiled that year that the History department decided to make their first concerted effort at putting something together. The next five years were spent “wrestling” with the contractions surrounding the content of the program until a proposal was created.

And like an endearing nurse or experienced OBGYN, Carl Benn arrived to assist in the delivery of the baby program.

“I think everyone in my department would agree that Dr. Benn was the real key in getting our BA from an idea to a reality,” says Kislenko.

As a former museum curator and University of Toronto professor, Benn was appointed the new chair of the history department in 2008.

Former initiatives then became focused enough to create an actual proposal, polished and ready for presentation in 2010.

“He has been a tireless and masterful architect of the whole program, and he steered us through some of the debates we had about what directions our program would take,” Kislenko says.

But like in any pregnancy, one must be prepared to face a few complications.

“Every one of these stages can potentially be a problem,” says John Isbister, the interim provost and vice-president academic. “The faculty can disagree and the idea never gets off the ground… Or we may have 15 good proposals, but we’ll only move forward with six because we’re pretty sure that the government will not provide funding for the others.” All college and university programs in Ontario receive approximately half of their funding from the provincial government and the other half through tuition. Though some programs need to be thoroughly reviewed before receiving funding, there is a list of standard subjects, like natural and social sciences, which can potentially receive automatic funding.

“A lot of Ryerson art programs don’t get automatic funding, so most of the time, we need to ask [the provincial government] for funding,” Isbister says.

Then there may also be some cases where a program just doesn’t make it to approval.

“You also might run into trouble if you start a program and get approval and everything. You go ahead and advertise it, but later find out that Ontario students just aren’t interested in that particular program,” says Isbister. “I’ve seen cases come close to that before.” But Ryerson has proven itself to father some pretty well-received programs. Last fall, the Faculty of Arts introduced a degree program in Environment and Urban Sustainability, which has thrived since, surpassing its enrolment targets in its first semester. The biology and sociology undergraduate programs have also followed similar paths after being launched in 2005.

“In my two and a half years of working in this position, I am not aware of any programs that have been rejected,” claims Christopher Evans, Ryerson’s vice-provost academic.

“All of them have been successful and all of the programs that started met their enrolment targets, which is good.” By the second phase of program proposal, the faculty and the dean have approved the full proposal.

A small group of external academics unrelated to Ryerson are invited to visit the campus and critically evaluate the written proposal while analyzing the capacity of the school to deliver the program. The external consultants, acting as academic midwives, write a report based on their findings, and the proposers review it. It is then the dean’s job to write a response to the consultants’ report and take it to the provost.

“We had one professor come down from Drexel University in Philadelphia who was a long-time television executive at CBS, and another one came from Simon Fraser University. The two [professors] made an assessment that was very supportive and also contained some ideas that we incorporated into the proposal,” says Levine.

With the academic response in hand, the provost can then present it to the Academic Standards Council (a subcommittee of the school Senate), who can recommend that the Senate approve the proposal. If the Senate agrees with the ASC, a vote is held to approve the program.

Prior to a program’s birth, the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance reviews the program as well. According to their website, the Council of Ontario Universities created this group in 2010 to oversee the approval of new undergraduate and graduate programs, and to review current university programs for quality every eight years.

Lastly, Ryerson’s Board of Governors reviews the financial aspects of the proposed program. The 24-member board consists of alumni, faculty, administrative staff, students and members of the public. If the Board is convinced that the program will bring in substantial revenue, they approve it. Until Board approval is in place, the program cannot run. The BOG approved all five of the new programs for fall 2013 on June 25, 2012.

“Starting Creative Industries has been challenging, but very rewarding.

I’ve had the support of my dean and the co-operation of the faculty… but I don’t think I’ll be developing any more programs at Ryerson,” Levine says, reminiscing and chuckling a little to himself.

So now, the years have passed and a brand new baby program has come into existence from nothing but an idea, ready to hire faculty and accept student applications from across the world.

“All undergraduate and graduate programs should take a long time to build and implement to make sure that they are strong, academically sound, and worthwhile for students,” says Kislenko. “The checks and balances in the system… ensure that only top quality programs get implemented at Ryerson.”

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