U of M faculty of human ecology officially shuts down

Last faculty of its kind in Canada absorbed by other academic units

After 105 years in existence, the faculty of human ecology at the University of Manitoba has dissolved, bringing to a close the last school of its kind in the country and dispersing its former programs among other academic units.

On June 23 of this year, the U of M board of governors approved three recommendations from the human ecology faculty council and U of M senate, which resulted in the remaining departments within human ecology merging with other faculties and departments across the university. As of July 1, 2015, the faculty ceased to exist.

The department of human nutritional sciences retained department status as it joined the faculty of agricultural and food sciences leading into the 2014-2015 academic year. The remaining two departments – family social sciences and textile sciences – were absorbed over this past summer into the departments of community health sciences and biosystems engineering respectively.

Students’ degrees will be unaffected – the programs continue to be accredited and the degree designations will remain the same. For undergraduate students, the cost of tuition and associated student fees will change to reflect those of their new academic units. Graduate students are assessed program-based fees that will not change.

The move to close the faculty of human ecology falls under the university’s broader Academic Structure Initiative, announced by U of M president David Barnard at the beginning of 2012. The aim of the plan is to cut the number of faculties from 20 to 13 – a move that the president said is more in line with the academic structure at other large research universities.

Aside from the closure of the faculty of human ecology, the other major change brought on by the Academic Structure Initiative was the creation of the faculty of health sciences to absorb the university’s many health sciences faculties and schools.

When asked about foreseeable changes down the line, John Danakas, executive director of public affairs at the U of M, responded that further rearrangements to faculties and departments “remain at the exploratory stages.”

As for the recent departmental mergers faced by the faculty of human ecology, the university has been striving to make the change easy.

“All efforts have been made to facilitate as smooth a transition as possible for students, faculty and staff. Offices and classrooms remain in the same building,” Danakas wrote to the Gradzette.

Danakas said that partnerships with other faculties should provide new opportunities for research and learning collaborations.

In a letter to the provost’s council, Joanne Keselman, the U of M’s vice president academic and provost, wrote that “the transition of human nutritional sciences, family social sciences and textile sciences to their new faculties will enrich educational experiences for students in these areas, enhance leading edge, multidisciplinary research, and forge new connections with community partners.”

Over 100 years of history

The history of the faculty dates back to 1910. In its early years it was a diploma program in household sciences at the Manitoba Agricultural College, which changed into a degree in home economics in 1915. When the Manitoba Agricultural College became a part of the University of Manitoba in 1924, the program became a division, and later a school, in the faculty of agriculture and home economics.

Home economics was not made into a free-standing faculty until 1970. Eleven years later, in 1981, its name was changed to “human ecology” to represent the diversification of studies. The bachelor of human ecology degree was established the next year.

The faculty’s dissolution has been met with both optimism and criticism.

Before the closure was officially approved by university governance, the Winnipeg Free Press reportedthat the Canadian Association of University Teachers was in disagreement with the decision, arguing that the university should have viewed the unique faculty as an asset.

The Human Ecology building. Photo by Anatoliy Chersakov.
The Human Ecology building. Photo by Anatoliy Chersakov.

According to some recent graduates and undergraduate students who were initially appalled by threats to their faculty, human ecology offered a holistic approach to educating people with skills in food science and nutrition and for understanding family issues and the root causes of poverty.

The Manitoba Association of Home Economists (MAHE), which is charged with regulating the professional practice of home economics in Manitoba under provincial legislation, put out a position paper opposing the closure of the faculty in 2013.

According to the MAHE’s statement, the continuing existence of the faculty as a single unit, rather than a collection of far-flung departments, “is critical to enable the continued credentialing for the practice of home economics professionals.”

The MAHE also praised the holistic nature of the faculty’s approach, saying that it is “unique in the education it provides students, and consistent with promoting interdisciplinary study and practice.”

“The faculty of human ecology is the one remaining fully interdisciplinary faculty in Canada,” the MAHE’s statement said. “The faculty can and should be widely promoted in Canada and internationally.”

Differing responses

Danakas responded to questions about possible harm to interdisciplinary study as a result of the change, arguing that the new arrangement will actually promote interdisciplinary research.

“The approach in the new faculty of health sciences, for example, is one that in fact encourages collaboration, as it brings together all healthcare professionals, and the joining of human nutritional sciences with the faculty of agricultural and food sciences may allow, for example, for ‘farm to table’ perspectives, opening up exciting new possibilities for students and researchers alike,” Danakas wrote to the Gradzette.

Not all students are upset about the restructuring, either. Sarah Turner, a master’s student in the department of community health sciences who completed her undergraduate degree in the faculty of human ecology before its dissolution, spoke highly of her undergraduate program and the recently implemented changes.

“My undergraduate program has actually become part of the faculty that I’m in right now. So it actually makes it easier to transition from the undergraduate to the master’s program,” Turner said.

“So I think that for students in the future it will be beneficial for them to be tied to community health sciences and to the faculty of health sciences to give a bit more direction for those people that are doing an undergrad in health sciences.”

Anthony Ngayan and Darren Fife, former president and vice-president respectively of the Human Ecology Students’ Organization, told the Gradzette that their council supported their faculty’s decision to disband.

“Students are still attached to the faculty itself, like the name of the faculty, but they are beginning to accept the changes,” said Ngayan.

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.