March 9, 1987
Dr. William Saywell
Simon Fraser University
Dear President Saywell
In March 1986, I submitted my resignation (effective September 1, 1987) to Owen Underhill , acting Director, Centre for the Arts; this resignation was formally accepted by Dean Brown on September 17, 1986. At this time, I would like to offer the reasons for my resignation in the hope that remedies may be found to offset the problems indicated below.
My reasons are enti rely professional, not personal, and my criticisms are not ad hominem but refer to a total disenchantment with the direction that the Centre for the Arts has been on for some time. I am directinq my comments to the upper echelons of university administration since I can find no avenue for change either at the department or faculty levels.
When I was appointed to SFU in 1978, I came with the intention of developing a quality film production and film studies program. The early years seemed promising: we implemented a academically sound curriculum, expanded course offerings, and maintained a focus on academic and artistic excellence. Students won national and international awards, and in spite of our small staff and poor facilities, we managed to grow and attract an ever in creasing number of applicants to our program. In fact, such was the demand for entry that we had to turn away more students than the allowable numbers for lower division entry.
If there were any serious shortcommings in the early years (78-81), they were in the area of poor teaching facilities (literally one dingy classroom in the basement of the theatre building) and chronic understaffing. Our lack of faculty number was an anomaly within the department: film was one of the most sought after programs, yet there were no moves to increase per manent full-time faculty. As senior film faculty member, I had to constantly fight for classroom teaching space improvements, I had to fight for the right to conduct research with university equipment, I had to develop courses, deal with a number of non sensical grade appeal hearings, and generally sacrificed much of my time towards maintaining ground in what appeared a hostile departmental administration. Needless to say, these early combatative years produced much exhaustion and sacrifice of research time. Yet, we continued to produce a number of excellent students, curators and administrators, many of whom have gained notice in the film industry, and more importantly the arts.
My resignation in March of 1986 came after the department had "reorganized" and upon my return from sabbatical leave. Some specific points need mention so that the history of the current debacle and its future direction be understood. By 1984, the department had become a virtual autocracy, with the director appointing (without referendum) an assistant director, various "ad hoc" committees (some of which were to remain secret, as in the case of the proposal to the Secretary of State for development funds) - an organizational structure that remained outside of the normal and due process of debate and consensus. For example, when the "ad hoc" committee was struck to submit proposals for a high-technology centre, I was forced to submit anonymously (through a faculty member) a comprehensive proposal for an "integrated media centre" featuring computer and video interfaces. This proposal will surface again below. On the eve of my departure for sabbatical, along standing colleague of mine, Professor Michael E. Eliot-Hurst was dismissed from his teaching responsibilities in history and aesthetics of cinema. His dismissal was prompted by academic differences with another colleague, a half-time appointment with Women's Studies (K. Silverman) and was purely a case of academic censorship. Appeals launched by me and students went nowhere: Eliot-Hurst was replaced by a student of Silverman (Rosenberg) who was more in line with a new direction being implemented in film studies, namely the teachings of Freud, psychopathology in cinema and issues more closely aligned to a single faculty member's point of view.
During my absence on sabbatical leave, the film program was effectively decimated by the department which was acting under the general instructions from the university to severely cut its budgets. The lack of film faculty numbers and the self interest of other areas in the Centre clearly made this move possible. What is ironic here is that one of the most dynamic, in demand, and generally excellent programs was decimated while less dynamic programs, in lower demand and enrollment (but higher faculty presence, such as music) were maintained in a near status quo level. This policy, on the part of our department, its administra tion and ad hoc committees, was largely in keeping with the earlier practices of denying new tenure track film positions in favor of expansionism in the other areas. A survey of faculty and sessional appointments during the 80's would prove my point. It took me at least 5 years of lobbying to convince the administration to convert our only other full-time position from a visiting appointment to a tenure-track appointment. During this time, music and visual arts gained new appoint ments in spite of our own serious understaffing and lack of continuity.
The hidden agenda in our department continues to make policy and offers falie explanations all the whfle it consolidates the vested interests of the political insiders. To illustrate this, I would like to give three examples of issues which are current
The High-Tech Myth:
During my tenure at SFU I argued for an increased presence of video and high-technology with which we could better educate our students for the present decades. These arguments were first resisted by Alderson (previous director) in favor of philosophical studies of media; later, they were shelved by the present director in favor of expansion in other areas. Contemporary media studies and practice is not solely reliant on expensive hardware a%quisition. It requires proper staffing, and a steady committment to the present media-technology reality which can be addressed in the manner of course deve1opment. No such direction was supported and any attempts of mine to have our laboratory instruction upgraded was blocked by a political protectionism emanating from both the director and the assistant director at the Centre. Ironically, the same proposal that sits before the university today as part of the "excellence in education" program offered by the provincial government, the proposal dealing with an integrated high-tech media centre, is the one I had argued for (anonymously, in the above instance) previously. Without adequate laboratory instruction, without basic facilities, it is almost impossible to launch high-tech overnight. Hence, by March 1986, the charade of high-tech in the Centre for the Arts, coupled with the unfortunate decline of the Instructional Media Centre facilities and staff, signaled to me that I should consider spending my energies elsewhere. This charade continues even at the present: while we have a declared 'interest', we have no adequate video instructional facilities, no back up staff, no lab instruction of any consequence or merit that could be appropriate to video or more sophisticated technologies. Any provincial funding that can be accessed will undoubtedly be diverted to repair 'leaks' in the existing system which is in a state of disrepair.
The Praxis Myth:
There is the unfortunate belief among many in our department and the university that "Praxis" represents an enhancement of our core curriculum. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Praxis was initially conceived by a faculty member whose interests were to develop an autonomous institution with more direct ties to the industry. Patricia Gruben, the founder of Praxis, in tended to set up a satellite institution from which to operate a dramatic and screenwriting school. Our core curriculum which focused on excellence in cinematic arts, experimental film and film studies, has suffered dramatic decline while Praxis has gone on to invite Holywood dignitaries and offer many press releases attesting to a new independent film industry direction Praxis is a kind of retrograde attempt to consolidate ties for a few select students outside our program with the Hollywood industry. Professor Gruben and our single lab instructor, Mark Smith, have gone off to administer Praxis and left half of their work loads to underpaid sessionals or production assistants. In this, we have witnessed a general deterioration of teaching conditions, a general lack of program coordination, and a decline of film in favor of screenwri ti ng (by the few). Perhaps this is in keeping with the provincial governments expressed aims to cut back in core curriculum and to legislate into existence certain 'programs of excellence' determined at the Cabinet level.
The Film Studies Myth:
Our film studies program is effectively compromised at the present times for purely academic-political reasons. First the dismissal of Michael Eliot-Hurst from his long standing course followed by an ongoing consolidation of Freudian psychoanalysis (film purchases, course content and requirements) in the hands of our cross-appointment K. Silverman. This direction has had the tacit approval of both department administration and my film faculty colleagues. The students, however, lose out in this and become totally allienated by a retrograde look at old Hollywood cinema. Experimental and avant-garde film studies is marginalized, high technology is marginalized, and cinema becomes to them not an expression of art or imagination but a refl ecti on of 'neurosis originating in infancy' coupled with an academic marxian analysis of culture. Diversity and plurality of opinions is now secondary to this particular dogma, one which I might add has even lost accreditation in many other universities in North America. And every attempt on my part to develop other perspectives and limit this focus has fallen at the hands of the hidden agenda in our department.
In summary, my resignation comes at a time when I feel there is no support in the department for cinema as an art form (the many art forms), where politics is waged behind closed doors, where area/program self-interests and protectionism rule, though disguised by "inter-disciplinary" rhetoric, where historical discrimination against the film program is now offset by false promises of a future with the film industry. If the current trends are not reversed we will be losing students and we will not be in a position to address the media present. My own replacement, I am told, is being advertised as a reduced position (Assistant Professor) and I have not been invited to input towards the search process.
I would challenge any member of our department to show that the above points are false or that they distort and falsify the history. To consider my views as 'personal' or simply agitational is to misunderstand and forget what it took to elevate a program from a dingy basement classroom to more optimal facilities and enhanced curriculum of national reputation. When we collectively congratulate ourselves for producing graduates of excellence let us not forget what it took to get them educated and where we are going now. I am sure my comments will produce some harsh reactions from my department and elaborate rationalizations. But I am confident that in the long term the truth of my, observations will surface and perhaps then someone will be able to develop another quality film and media program in the Centre for the Arts.
Centre for the Arts
Simon Fraser University Burnaby, British Columbia Canada V5A 136 (604) 291-3363
Last February, the government figured out how to directly impose its political agenda on the university curriculum After reducing their budgets to below the fupctioning level, it created the "Excellence in Education" fund. The fund has about $110 million to allocate each year for three years. The money is for special initiatives rather than regular educational costs, and cabinet alone decides who gets it. The special initiatives include programs in entrepreneurial training, computer systems and biotechnology. If the universities offer these programs, they will hope fully get more money. If not, they won't. But because the universities are so strapped for cash, the added money rarely provides for excellence even in the fields targetted.
The fund represents blatant interference in what has traditionally been a university decision based on the under standing that low-demand programs are still necessary and important to those in them.
The fund is also a brilliant public relations scheme: Every few months, education minister Russ Fraser gets to call a press conference and announce the allocation of another portion of the fund. But he neglects to say that the excellence fund is not new money. It represents slightly less than the amount the Socreds have taken away in the last three years.
The Peak, October 1986