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The wreck of home ec

Teachers, grads decry the dismantling of the U of M's faculty of human ecology

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Debora Durnin-Richards (front right) with a group of present and past students from the faculty of human ecology.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Debora Durnin-Richards (front right) with a group of present and past students from the faculty of human ecology. Photo Store

The University of Manitoba is dismantling its 104-year-old faculty of human ecology.

Its major departments will be scattered among other faculties, colleges and departments across two campuses by September.

A freestanding faculty can no longer guarantee it will be relevant to society -- or guarantee its grads will get jobs, or guarantee it will attract research funding, says dean Gustaaf Sevenhuysen.

The decision has appalled grads, who say human ecology's holistic approach to educating people with skills in food science and nutrition, counselling, understanding family issues and poverty is invaluable and should be kept intact. They say the faculty's skilled professionals understand how poverty, obesity and social issues are linked.

It has similarly appalled the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which argues the U of M should see a faculty unique among large universities as an asset rather than a liability. And it has appalled Gordon Bell High School principal and home economist Arlene Skull, who said: "This is weird. Society sees a need for this, and the university is tearing this apart."

But Sevenhuysen insists faculties need to be competitive on campus and nationally. "They do that by specialization. Generalists like home economics are not sought after. It is clear that most employers look for specialized knowledge. It is necessary for the university to be relevant to society."

While cautioning the decision still has to go to senate and the board of governors, Sevenhuysen said human nutritional science will most likely become part of a restructured faculty of agriculture when classes start in September. As well, family social science will combine with community health science in the college of medicine, within the new faculty of health sciences. Textile sciences is expected to be part of the department of human microbiology within the college of medicine.

Human ecology currently raises significant research dollars, Sevenhuysen said. "We are fifth or sixth on the campus for dollars per full-time staff member." He said textile sciences is in the forefront of materials innovation by developing nano-sized degradable fibres that deliver chemotherapy through the skin, or through creating bandages that don't rip off new tissue when removed.

The dean said only by disbanding and then joining similar specialized areas of learning can the faculty's individual components continue to thrive.

'No one would do this to a male-dominated faculty'

-- Marilyn Thiessen, a retired community nutritionist

U of M president David Barnard wants the 20 faculties reduced to about 13 by the 2017-18 school year. That's the standard in the U15, the formal organization of research-intensive large universities with medical schools, to which the U of M belongs.

The U of M is alone among the U15 in having a faculty of human ecology, and only six universities within U15 have equivalent programs within a faculty.

That's a good reason to keep the programs together, argue faculty grads who belong to the Manitoba Association of Home Economists.

"Home economists are everywhere," said Debora Durnin-Richards, a senior provincial bureaucrat. "Where does the public go if they want to know the science behind the issues?"

Hundreds of grads work for the province, she said, in youth and community leadership, nutrition, housing and human resources.

"I feel very disrespected by the university, as a home economist," Durnin-Richards said. "I think it's about U15. I believe Dr. Barnard wants a large well-structured faculty of medicine, and he's couching it under health sciences."

Being unique is an advantage for a university, not a reason to drop a program, said CAUT executive director Jim Turk.

"The idea of our universities is not to make them all clones of each other," Turk said from Ottawa. "Many universities see having a distinctive program as an advantage.

"I'm deeply troubled by the administration's justification that they're the only one in U15 -- it's absolutely irrelevant," said Turk. "The goal of a faculty is to provide a good education for students. It definitely should not be what other U15 universities do."

The Winnipeg School Division's largest high schools have two home economics teachers apiece, people with well-rounded knowledge. Skull said school divisions can't afford to hire specialists in just one of each of human ecology's three main component programs.

"I can see a very negative impact for schools," said Skull, a former long-time president of the Home Economics Teachers Association. "Nutrition, and child and infant development, and family studies are vital. We need nutritionists to understand the stages of life. We just don't understand why it has to be broken up like that.

"We have an infant lab and single parents and a lot of poverty. I've seen so much success from kids coming out of the program," who can raise their children and graduate. "They're missing the boat," Skull declared.

Consultant Getty Stewart said home economics is all about family needs -- they understand the interaction of poverty, sickness, what people eat and what food they can't afford to buy.

"Our approach is always more holistic -- that is what they'll lose," Stewart said.

Education Minister James Allum and Department of Education staff did not respond to inquiries about the potential impact on certification of home economics teachers.

But the U of M's decision is not going over well with one of Manitoba's most accomplished home economics teachers.

"I was shocked. That kind of takes apart my life," said retired Winnipeg School Division home ec teacher Peggy Prendergast, who began a nursery program at Elmwood High School. "We were the first to have boys in home economics."

It boils down to what people eat and wear and how that affects families and personal well-being, with direct impact on obesity and other problems, she said.

Prendergast set up the Adolescent Parent Centre within the Winnipeg School Division. "Manitoba is still the worst province for teen pregnancy."

The centre gives students the information they need to be parents, while providing an education. "We were teaching them not to give your babies away to someone else to raise."

Marilyn Thiessen, a retired community nutritionist in public health, said: "The changes the university are promoting have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of education. No one would do this to a male-dominated faculty."

Prendergast agreed: "A good part of (the dismantling) is a gender issue. There's no large amount of money, there's no patron" providing cheques from $10 million to $20 million to put a name on the faculty.

John Silver, the executive director of Community Financial Accounting Services, said the faculty is definitely an asset -- four of his 11 staff are grads who know how to deal with clients with emotional and social and financial issues, many of whom are problem gamblers.

Sevenhuysen said students can still take an education degree, with a major in one of what will be the former human ecology departments. "They can function as a home economics teacher," he said.

Sevenhuysen rejected any suggestion that female-dominated programs are being picked on: Nursing is intact in the new faculty of health sciences, and the university has asked education and social work to consider merging, while staying intact.

As for the lack of a patron writing huge cheques, "Believe me, I have tried to fundraise for this faculty. Unfortunately, (grads) don't run major corporations."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 A11

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