The music recital hall at the University of Lethbridge.

Faculty and students in the University of Lethbridge Music Department are fearful of the impact of a “drastic restructuring” of academic programs brought about by the Kenney Government’s brutal funding cuts to Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions in last February’s provincial budget.

In a letter published Saturday on the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page, University of Lethbridge music professor Brian Black said the institution is considering merging its music and drama departments into a single department of performing arts, then rolling them both into a new faculty of fine arts and humanities. 

“This would mean that the Music Department would lose its identity as a separate, distinct department — one that has existed at the University since its founding in 1967,” Black wrote. 

“Our Music Department has been an important part of the cultural life of the city for over 50 years,” he wrote in the letter. “We are afraid that its visibility will now be reduced, which will make it harder to attract students and will lessen the impact of our community events and outreach programs, further damaging the cultural life of the city and the department itself.

“Already with serious cutbacks to our department budget and the continuing struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic we have been forced to scale back on activities in the community,” he continued. “The possible merger could make the situation much more difficult.”

Black, a PhD musicologist educated at Montreal’s McGill University, urged members of the Lethbridge community to send him letters to forward to U of L Provost and Academic Vice-President Erasmus Okine emphasizing the importance of the music department’s programs or just telling their stories “if you have been positively impacted in any way.” 

Judging from Black’s comments and other reports circulating among students, many of whom only learned of the proposed changes on Friday, faculty members were only given a few days from last month until today to respond to the university’s restructuring proposals.

Rumours in the university community suggest the changes will soon be announced and rubber-stamped by the administration.

Students are also concerned about the survival of the Music Department’s Bachelor of Music Digital Audio Arts program, which saw its enrolment tripled last September. Graduates are in high demand, and the only other similar degree-granting program in Canada is in Montreal.

“Music always get shafted,” a former music student tweeted Saturday. “Students aren’t going to pay ridiculous [tuition] for a degree from performance arts when they can get a real one from an actual music department.” 

Thanks to Black’s letter, we have a clear idea of what the impact could be on one department, but others may still be impacted as well. In lockstep with other Conservative governments in Canada, all studies in the liberal arts and performance arts are likely to be cut back. 

That may not worry many UCP Caucus members from the rural ridings surrounding the city of Lethbridge. Indeed, some MLAs are likely to wonder why a university would teach music at all when all you have to do to hear the stuff is turn on the radio in your truck!

It’s convenient for the UCP that the impacts of its attack on the province’s public post-secondary institutions can be implemented under the cover of the pandemic when students and community members are unable to gather on campus to make their concerns known.

Unlike public post-secondaries, the UCP did not cut the subsidies the province provides to private universities, many of which in Alberta are religious institutions. 

The restructuring in Lethbridge also comes during negotiations with the U of L Faculty Association, whose collective agreement expired in June 2020. 

Formal mediation between the association and the university began on Dec. 21 and more mediation days are expected to be scheduled this month. 

“If, despite our best efforts, mediation fails, then the way is clear for potential job action, including a strike vote, and, should agreement still prove elusive, lock-out or strike,” the ULFA said in a short update on Christmas Eve. 

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...