U of T’s Forestry School Faces The Axe

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail (Includes Correction)
Last updated 

After 104 years of seeing the forest for the trees, dwindling enrolment has left the future of the faculty of forestry at the University of Toronto in doubt.

It was Canada’s first forestry faculty, and North America’s second, but is now also one of the smallest, with a dozen faculty teaching fewer than 80 graduate students. For that reason, the administration has deemed it “not financially viable,” said dean Sandy Smith.

Canada has 10 per cent of the world’s remaining forest cover, and a quarter of its undisturbed frontier forest, but enrolment in forestry programs has dropped across the country, as well as outside it. In a 2009 survey of 65,000 graduating high school students, just six chose forestry as their preferred discipline.

A 2009 external review found the quality of U of T’s graduate forestry programs “unassailable,” but the faculty has been hobbled since its undergraduate program was cancelled in 1996. It still teaches 70 to 80 undergraduates a year through the Faculty of Arts and Science, but receives no revenue for it, and the university has to subsidize forestry with millions of dollars generated by other programs.

Now, U of T administrators are expected to force the pioneering program to join a larger faculty, which would mean it will lose its autonomy. Its professors fear that will eventually kill off a training ground for thousands of conservationists and ecological experts.

Although U of T’s forestry enrolment has crept up in recent years, the funding allocated to the faculty has dwindled.

“What that tells me is [our administrators]don’t want forestry,” Dr. Smith said. “That’s all I can read into that, is that our program is not valuable.”

Forestry faculties across Canada have struggled to stay relevant. The University of New Brunswick program has explored ways to reinvent itself and embraced courses in environmental management. The University of British Columbia developed a new bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources Conservation and attracts some 600 undergraduates each year to five programs.

Declining enrolment in forestry has been attributed largely to demographic trends driven by urbanization and lingering negative associations with logging and clear-cutting, but it also mirrors a decline in the forest industry, which has lost an estimated 100,000 jobs in the past five years.

Still, professors stress that their students remain in demand, with about half taking government jobs at agencies such as Parks Canada and others moving on to environmental groups, NGOs and consultancies.

Provost Cheryl Misak disputes the notion that U of T does not value forestry. But she said it “can no longer flourish” as it exists, adding that “[its changing structure]can be seen as the next step in the evolution of a glorious tradition.”

Dr. Smith counters that entreaties about tradition and history are brushed aside in favour of balancing budgets.

The year its undergraduate program closed, U of T added a professional, course-based master of forest conservation (MFC) alongside its research-based master’s and doctoral programs. Student Eric Jacobsen, 28, said the intimacy of the MFC program is a major draw – it has 22 students this year, an unusually large cohort – but he also saw it as unique.

“We do a lot more social and integrative approaches to forestry – that really spoke to me – and it’s also less of an industry-focused program,” he said.

Mr. Jacobsen’s classmates are familiar, collegial and on a first-name basis with their professors, but also dogged by “some fear that we’re going to lose a lot of our assets if we’re absorbed into the general arts and sciences,” he said.

The faculty is now considering creating a new environmental unit with the department of geography and the Centre for the Environment. Dr. Smith said he worries “the skill set of forestry” will gradually be “watered down,” and that departmental politics have limited the faculty’s options for moving more into environmental domains.

No restructuring can happen before the fall of 2012 as negotiations have been slow. Jack Saddler, a UBC forestry professor who conducted U of T’s external review, said it would be “a pity” if forestry loses its independence, but its low enrolment prospects are hard to ignore.

“Life evolves. People working in a faculty of forestry should know that,” Dr. Saddler said. “If you stay the same, you become extinct.”

Editor’s Note: Sandy Smith, the dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of Toronto, is a woman. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version of this story and an earlier online version. This online version has been corrected.