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The closing scene

Redeemer’s painful program cuts reflect wider university enrolment trends.

On April 20, Redeemer University made an announcement with two parts: first, that students are now able to enroll in a new Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree. And, secondly, that its French and theatre arts departments would be discontinued due to low enrollment. The business degree is being accompanied by the creation of new faculty positions in the business, social work and education programs – all areas where enrolment growth has been significant. Meanwhile, all three full-time faculty positions in French and theatre will end this summer.

To say that reactions to these program changes have been strong is an understatement. At the time of writing, the announcement post on Redeemer’s Facebook page has garnered almost 160 comments, the overwhelming majority of which express keen disappointment at the loss of the theatre and French departments or with how the cuts were announced in conjunction with new growth. Even CBC published its own brief report on the program restructurings, quoting Redeemer theatre alumni saddened and hurt by the decision and how it was reported.

Practicing with mask (Lucas Gerrits).

In the wake of these changes, affected current students have also expressed their grief and feelings of betrayal at being unable to continue in their studies of choice and learn from beloved professors. First year student Abigail Berger described the decision to discontinue the theatre department as “a total shock. I had just finished picking courses for my second year of an English Literature and Theatre Performance double major, so I was left reeling and confused about what this meant for my education.” Another theatre student, Kimberly Lobbezoo, who is entering her final year at Redeemer this fall, echoed how sudden the decision felt. She says it would have helped if the programs could have been phased out gradually rather than cut: “I was left wishing the school would have worked with us on this prior to the announcement.”

Sustainability decisions

When reached for comment, Redeemer’s Interim President Dr. David Zietsma emphasized to Christian Courier that the decision to close the theatre and French departments has been painful: “They have always been respected and valued at Redeemer and their faculty, alumni and students have made impressive and important contributions to the university and the world.” He went on to state that, “We also sincerely regret the impact this has had on current students – both for their university education overall and for how and when the news was shared. The options in front of us were extremely challenging. We endeavoured to balance the needs of the various people impacted, while knowing the pain could not be avoided.” He also noted that “since the decision was communicated, Redeemer staff have connected with each of the impacted students and are working with them to determine pathways to graduation, including the possibility of offering select courses to assist students in the latter part of their degree programs.”

Zietsma also provided further explanation about how the program decisions were made “prayerfully, after a comprehensive review of the full program array at Redeemer. The review process considered financial, enrolment and market data and was led by a team of academic and staff leaders. The final decision was passed by the Redeemer University senate, on which faculty representatives sit. The board of governors was consulted in the process.” He also mentioned that faculty had been aware that the review process was happening, and conversations regarding sustainability have been ongoing internally for several years now. Such sustainability is crucial since “no program at Redeemer runs at a ‘profit,’ and all programs rely on the generosity of donors to operate.” Given the fact that there was only one graduate from the theatre department and three graduates from the French department in 2021, Zietsma says those programs were deemed unsustainable and therefore needed to be cut in order to sustain the greatest possible diversity of liberal arts and sciences departments.

White collar trends

Redeemer’s situation is by no means unique. Enrolment in higher education humanities departments, both in Christian and secular universities, has been on the decline across North America for the last decade, forcing significant changes at many institutions. Calvin University discontinued its theatre arts major and program back in 2015, and Dordt University has created select two-year associate degrees, including administration, education, business and computer science, which are advertised as providing “a fast track into the workforce.” Much university program growth and student enrolment is trending towards professional programs such as engineering, nursing, computer science and business – but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Amid these educational industry changes, Redeemer students and alumni stoutly attest to the value of liberal arts education, including in the programs so recently cut at Redeemer.

“I was challenged to live out my faith in multilingual contexts,” Sarah-Ann Wijngaarden, a French alumna, described. “In Dr. Curnew’s classes, I had the privilege of discovering a stunning, demanding, yet worthwhile language I’ve adopted as my own. This language has helped me connect with people in ways I could have never dreamed, but ways God certainly designed.” Another French graduate, Kirsten Klompmaker, who studied in France through one of Redeemer’s programs, said “I learned that studying French is more than just linguistics. It is about understanding a new culture, a history, a new way of living and a different way of communicating. It is about creating a bridge to reach our brothers and sisters; creating more unity, and celebrating diversity within our country and the world.”

Those who have expressed concerns, disappointment and disagreement with the program changes are united in the conviction that the removal of the French and theatre departments and simultaneous expansion of the business, social work and education programs seriously impedes Redeemer’s ability to deliver a true and unique liberal arts and sciences education within Canada. When asked how the university would respond to these claims that the program cuts work against Redeemer’s mission as a liberal arts institution, Zietsma drew attention back to the social work, business and education programs experiencing growth: “At Redeemer, these programs are grounded in an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences core that is unique and continues to shape students holistically to bring the restoring hope and love of Christ to all areas of our culture. That’s an amazing fulfilment of Redeemer’s liberal arts and sciences mission. To preserve this mission, to preserve the current breadth in liberal arts and sciences that we have, and to continue to prepare the next generation, we must use the resources that God allows us with careful wisdom.”

Shaped and shaping

The fact remains that certain programs at Redeemer have enrolment levels which make their survival tenuous. Questions will (and should) continue to be asked about whether Redeemer’s decisions support its liberal arts and sciences mandate. But that mandate also depends on demand from students who want to study the liberal arts. And students will enroll in programs that they value, and as such they possess massive influence over their educational spheres. While Christian institutions like Redeemer certainly shape their members, they are also shaped by those members themselves, perhaps more than we are aware of or want to acknowledge. These program decisions thus represent an opportunity for members of Redeemer’s community in its fullest and widest sense, from prospective students to alumni to donors, to reflect on how their engagement with the university conveys what they value.

  • Noah lives in Halifax, N.S., and is a member of All Nations Christian Reformed Church.

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2 Comments

  1. Wondering if it would be possible to include a link to the open letter that was published in this issue at the bottom of this article. This article could be seen as laying the blame for the closing of the Theatre and French departments at the feet of alumni who didn’t care. I assure you we do care and have stated as much in our letter. https://www.christiancourier.ca/liberal-arts-lament/

  2. Concerned alumni who know the market and that the demand for Theatre and French education and programming is higher than ever have been attempting to help Redeemer better interpret its metrics and leverage its resources correctly. Frustrated with the frequency with which we are asked to donate money to make up for unwise business practices, many alumni have interest in equipping Redeemer to Earn its way out of debt and become a sustainable ministry that operates in the form of a successful business. We have been stonewalled by the administration. Redeemer has been asked to provide the numbers they are looking at and they have chosen to release small portions of those numbers claiming the information is private and that is why it can’t be released in full. The partial and small amount of information released to media outlets and alumni results in misleading conclusions that there is lack of interest which could not be further from the truth of current market demand. We have been stonewalled on other subjects critical to Redeemer’s sustainability such as when asking for documented proof that the school did in fact launch a Respectful Campus Initiative as claimed in September 2020 to address the safety of students experiencing racism and gender descrimination. The school has not provided us with answers to questions about who is overseeing the initiative, what resources have been dedicated to it, any outline of what the initiative actually entails, or what progress it achieved in the year they claim it was launched. We continue to be asked for money while being stonewalled as we attempt to help the school establish sustainable business practices that could eliminate its need for donations entirely and make the school a safe and welcoming environment for a broader diversity of students/clientele. These program cuts are absolutely an issue of sustainability, but not as it is being presented publicly.

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