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U of T abandons plan to close famed school

Photos of a bust of Nothrop Frye that sits on a pedestal near the entrance to Northrop Frye Hall , part of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Frye was a professor of English at Victoria College from 1937 till 1991 and was Chancellor of Victoria Collee from 1987-1991.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The renowned Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto has been pulled back from the brink after an outcry from scholars around the world and the determined protests of students and faculty.

The director of the centre said he has been assured that the school, which was slated to close at the end of this academic year, will survive.

"Comp. Lit. is saved. The centre will stay open and we're taking students for next year," said director Neil ten Kortenaar. "I think it was the outcry from around the world. We had a lot of support from a lot of big-name people in academic circles."

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It was a battle that pitted the forces of streamlining and cost-cutting against those who would preserve structures of academic and historical significance. It appears either the university lost the appetite for the fight, or the threat of amalgamation produced enough compromise from the departments involved to satisfy the administration's appetite for reform.

Many of the details remain to be sorted out. Although Prof. ten Kortenaar and his students were celebrating Thursday, Faculty of Arts and Science Dean Meric Gertler said only that a deal is close. He still expects Comparative Literature and several other schools and departments to come back to him with proposals on how they will cut costs, among other things. As long as those goals can be achieved, he said, he's happy to kill the proposal to establish a combined school of languages and literature, which would have meant the end for Comparative Literature, East Asian studies and several language departments as standalone entities.

"It's a little premature to say anything definitive yet, but you can see the way this is going," Prof. Gertler said. "As long as we can achieve these other objectives then there's no reason to establish the [languages]school and abolish departmental structures."

In July, Prof. Gertler issued a five-year academic plan that called for several departments, including Comparative Literature, East Asian studies, Italian, German, Slavic languages and Spanish and Portuguese, to be rolled into the new School of Languages and Literature as a cost-saving measure that would enhance academic co-operation.

The plan sparked an intense debate across campus and led to several angry town halls this fall. More than 6,500 people signed a petition calling for Comparative Literature to be spared. Academic and literary luminaries weighed in to support the threatened centre, which was founded more than 40 years ago by the legendary literary theorist Northrop Frye.

At a meeting of the language department heads Wednesday morning, Prof. Gertler assured five of the threatened departments that they were safe, according to Prof. ten Kortenaar. He said he went into the meeting feeling nervous, but was told at the outset by the dean that the community was clearly opposed to a combined school of languages and literature.

"It wasn't a war," Prof. ten Kortenaar said. "It was, 'Okay, we've heard you. You want to stay as separate departments. How can we work to make things better?'"

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Several other bodies were also threatened by the faculty's academic plan. All appear to be slated for survival, except the Centre for International Studies, which will be absorbed by the expanding Munk School of Global Affairs. The Centre for Ethics will survive, but negotiations have centred on cutting costs and refocusing its primarily research-based mandate to include undergraduate education, Prof. Gertler said. The Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies will also survive.

"I've seen more movement on these issues in the last six weeks than I've seen in the last 15 years," Prof Gertler said.

"While the process has been painful, ultimately I think it's turning out to be quite constructive. If we can get more or less where we need to go without a lot of radical surgery, that is the best of all possible worlds."

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