The Death of a 'Writing Center'?

Grant McDonald, 'Old and New Upward View' 2009

Grant McDonald, 'Old and New Upward View' 2009

 

Two weeks ago today the North American writing center community was shocked and saddened to hear that the University of British Columbia, one of the largest and oldest universities in Canada, ranked among the 50 most reputable universities in the world by U.S. News & World Report, Times Higher Education, and The Academic Ranking of World Universities while educating 58,000 students on two campuses that occupy nearly 15,000 acres, plans to close their writing center in September 2016.

From The Ubyssey, the school newspaper for the University of British Columbia:

Starting September 2016, the UBC Writing Centre’s tutoring services will no longer be in operation for undergraduate and graduate students wanting help with their academic essay writing.

“Although the Writing Centre’s role with the tutoring service will be discontinued in the coming months, the Writing Centre itself will remain in operation as will its online portal which features many tools to assist students in the writing process,” said a statement from Peter Moroney, executive director of UBC Continuing Studies, to The Ubyssey

The reasons for shutting down the program, which has been operating at UBC for 24 years, were not disclosed in Moroney’s statement. Tutors believe that it is due to financial issues facing the Writing Centre, but this has not been confirmed by the university administration.

This article was published on March 14th, and by the 24th The Ubyssey had run an editorial by a former UBC Writing Centre staffer who strongly criticized the decision. In her editorial Alison O’Neil points out that the Writing Centre is perhaps the only low-cost option for writing assistance available to many members of the UBC community in Vancouver, and plays an integral part in the educational mission of the university.  

Think of recent high school graduates struggling to adjust to university-level assignments without access to first-year writing courses right away.

Think of the TAs and profs who are expected to cover exorbitant amounts of content in their lectures, who are burdened by other departmental demands, who are often underpaid and who are also expected to support student success in writing.

Think of the scores of international students who come to UBC speaking multiple languages, who have passed difficult language proficiency exams to earn their acceptance and who are expected to perform at a high level in their writing courses. Students in certain programs must pass further exams post-acceptance, exams for which they pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket and for which there is no free support aside from the Writing Centre's tutorial service.

O’Neil notes that at another institution she’s attended, Montréal’s John Abbott College, she helped staff a writing center she describes as “thriving,” one whose sustainable model, even at a small, publicly-funded university (unlike UBC, as I’ll discuss below) offered students the assistance of highly-trained peer tutors.

O’Neil also notes that the same could be said of many colleges and universities in the same province as UBC, and frames the disparity in terms of finances:

Douglas College, Langara College and UBC-O all house perfectly healthy writing tutorial services despite being disproportionately smaller (than UBC). At Douglas, tutors receive accreditation for their training. Why is a school that makes millions of dollars unable to match the services of smaller institutions?

Her point, that it is patently ridiculous that such a major university cannot keep its writing center open due to a (still-uncomfirmed) lack of funds, would seem on its face valid. The Vancouver campus of UBC houses numerous arts venues including the Chan Center for Performing Arts, with flexible performance spaces that incorporate advanced acoustic technology, and also has a robust scientific institution in TRIUMF, the national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics and accelerator-based science. UBC’s Vancouver campus also features the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, a 20,000 square foot facility opened in 2010 that houses over 2 million research specimens and sees over 30,000 visitors a year, and the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology which houses over 500,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects.

Indeed, even if we acknowledge that Canada’s university system mirrors that of the United States in its steady loss of government funding it does seem strange that the UBC Writing Center, which surely requires fewer resources than a particle accelerator or an athletics program that has produced Olympians capable of winning more than 60 medals, cannot stay open. In fact it is strange, and it is probable that if the University chose to, it could find room in its budget to pay for face-to-face writing assistance for its students. This suspicion is strengthened if we return to the original statement by Peter Moroney, which states both that “the Writing Centre’s role with the tutoring service will be discontinued” and that “the Writing Centre itself will remain in operation.”

Alison O’Neil implies that this logical contradiction points toward a larger phenomenon and states that the ‘online portal’ with its ‘many tools’ is actually a series of programs, courses and ‘self-directed writing resources’ of which only the online resources, which consist of FAQs and tips on things like writing effective titles or developing arguments, will be available free of charge. As O’Neil puts it,

 a series of writing courses that cost hundreds of dollars to register for will stay, while free face-to-face tutoring is cut. I'm not here to debate semantics, but scrapping the free writing tutorial service and still calling oneself a “Writing Centre” really makes me cringe.

From what we can know of this process without having more detailed statements from the parties involved, this would seem to be an example of a writing center, unable to justify its own existence via the financial metrics on which its institution depends, which is being closed in favor of more viable (profitable, resource-light) options.

O’Neil fears that UBC students will lose access to an important resource, one that serves otherwise underserved members of a very large campus community, and obviously people in the world of writing center research and practice would agree. It’s worth noting that what could easily be read as an anti-administration story isn’t really; from what I’ve learned researching this post it seems clear that the administration of UBC is reacting to a widespread dearth of financial resources in the shape of decreasing governmental support and that the Writing Centre doesn’t make the university any money, unlike TRIUMF or the 180 companies spun off from UBC research, the 1,261 research projects with industry partners, or the 1,095 research contracts and agreements with government and non-profits (which intellectual property, Jorge Niosi points out, belongs to the institution when it has been developed using public research funds).¹ UBC bills itself as an institution whose “entrepreneurial perspective encourages students, staff and faculty to challenge convention, lead discovery and explore new ways of learning” and, while they are careful to put a happy face on this assertion, it reads to me like an accommodation to the necessity born of present circumstances rather than an enunciation of UBC’s vision of the ideal university.

Should the UBC Writing Centre close? What do the words ‘Writing Center’ even mean when they are applied to services that could also easily be described as coursework? How can a philosophy based in non-directive, non-evaluative peer engagement over specific writing assignments be enacted without consultants or a place, whether virtual or physical, in which the writing center encounter can take place? These are questions the closing of the UBC Writing Centre forces us to ask, but it is of vital importance that we retain a sense of the context in which we ask them – one in which our societies as whole entities, through the actions of our government representatives, have decided that institutions offering some of the best higher education in the world are not worth funding at the levels that made those institutions (and the societies they support and are supported by) world leaders in the first place.

Notes

1. “Financial Management of Canadian Universities: Adaptive Strategies to Fiscal Constraints” (2014), published in Tertiary Education and Management and written by Darren Deering and Creso M. Sá, gives three useful case studies that offer a more elaborated picture of how Canadian institutions of higher education are reacting to what the authors call Canada’s “financially constrained environment.”