Students and faculty outraged by recommendation to suspend the Human Dimensions of Climate Change program

Features

Dean points to low graduation rate as reason for recommendation

Photo provided by Jade Chicorelli.

In early March, just as final papers and exams began to loom, students and faculty of the Human Dimensions of Climate Change (HDCC) program at the University of Victoria (UVic) began to hear rumours that the program had been suspended. 

The HDCC program, which has been taught for 12 years at UVic, is an interdisciplinary social science program that focuses on climate change. The program can be taken as either a minor or a certificate.

As an interdisciplinary program, HDCC seeks to create collaborative conversations on climate change across areas of study, putting students from a range of majors into a single classroom to focus on the most significant threat that humanity has ever faced — the climate crisis. 

As the days passed, it became clear that some of the whispers were true — Dr. Lois Harder, dean of social sciences, had decided to recommend to suspend the program. 

Recommendations for suspension are approved by UVic’s Senate, and the program will continue to be offered as normal until suspension is approved. The HDCC recommendation will come before the Senate in the middle of the spring term next year and, with Senate’s approval, will be considered fully suspended as of May, 2023.

Once the suspension is in place, no more new students will be able to enrol in the program. Suspensions are only meant to be temporary, and the faculty will have to decide within two years of the suspension date whether to discontinue the program completely or remove the suspension. 

As a formal announcement about the program’s recommendation for suspension has not yet been sent to students and staff, many of them were left to piece information together themselves.

Dr. Nick Graham, an instructor in sociology and HDCC at UVic, recounted the moment he discovered the program he taught had been recommended for suspension.

“I found out through students letting me know that it was happening,” he said in an interview with the Martlet. “Very strange for me to find out, as a program I’ve been teaching in fairly regularly alongside sociology, and to find out in this way was quite strange. And also disheartening at the end of a semester that felt like [was] going quite well.”

Malaya Cruz, a second year student at the university who is minoring in HDCC, heard that the program was recommended for suspension when a friend approached her before class. “There was no public thing or email that said we are suspending this program. A lot of people found out from professors and students in other classes,” she said in an interview. 

Cruz, who planned on taking a co-op term this upcoming fall semester, said she will have to rearrange her schedule to ensure the classes required for the HDCC minor fit into her schedule before the program is potentially suspended. 

“Now I have to reorganize things to finish the program if I can,” Cruz said. “I could finish it, but it’s just very difficult to rearrange an entire semester just for one course.”

Jade Chicorelli, a fourth year student who is minoring in HDCC, heard the rumour in class that the program had been recommended for suspension. “All of us just started feeling really anxious … We had to put a lot of time outside of our own five or four courses at the end of the term to figure out what was going on.”

In an interview with the Martlet, Harder addressed students’ fears about finishing the program before its suspension. “Any student who is in the program, we are obliged to ensure they can complete the program,” she said. “They shouldn’t be concerned about that. We will definitely find a way to make that happen.”

Graduation rate too low

In the interview, Harder addressed her reasons for deciding to recommend to suspend the HDCC program. It was important to her to note that she is incredibly supportive of the content that HDCC teaches at UVic, but said the program’s graduation rate is too small to keep it running. 

“In the last 12 years, 12 students have graduated with the certificate, and 12 students have graduated with the minor. That’s 24 students completing the program over 12 years, so that’s not really sustainable as an academic program,” Harder said.

As an instructor, Graham acknowledged that there is a problem with the HDCC program in terms of students progressing through all the steps to achieve the minor or certificate certification, but that isn’t the full story. HDCC classrooms are often very full and in demand, with 50 people typically completing the 200 level class. “It’s obviously a popular program,” he said.

Chicorelli points to the university’s poor support system for HDCC as a reason more students aren’t enrolled in it. When she was trying to add HDCC to her studies officially, she said, “I met with three different [academic advisors] and not a single one of them had ever heard of HDCC.” This has forced students like her to become self-driven to get through the program.

While enrollment might be low, some students say that isn’t necessarily a measure of success. Throughout their research in defence of keeping the HDCC program running, some students found graduates of the program on LinkedIn. 

“[People] who graduated with the minor or certificate, they’re doing high level work in climate change research,” Chicorelli said. “They’ve done well graduating from the program.”

An outraged response

The response by students, faculty, and other campus organizations about the projected suspension of the program has been one of anger and confusion.  

“It’s not just students who are mad about this, it’s faculty too,” Chicorelli said. 

A petition demanding the administration halt its plans to suspend the HDCC program has been created by students and faculty, which has 375 signatures at the time of writing. 

UVic in the Anthropocene, a working group on campus comprised of interdisciplinary scholars and students, penned a letter to Harder asking her to reconsider the decision to suspend the program. While the letter acknowledges that HDCC has not lived up to its best potential, the group argues that HDCC students will be in great demand for working in government and other areas in our society as students “learn knowledge and skills to prepare them to contribute to transforming our society.”

On April 6, students and faculty held an event called the Save HDCC Art Build. At the event, people were invited to talk about how they were feeling about the end of the term and the suspension of the program. They hung a 30 foot banner that said “Save HDCC” on the Michael Williams Building. Cruz recalled that at the event, several people from different faculties showed up to show their support for saving the HDCC program.

Notably, several students of the program co-wrote their own letter to Harder in which they implore her to reverse the decision to “kill our program during the climate crisis.” In the letter to Harder, the HDCC students also write: “We are not asking for your consideration, we are telling you why your actions have repercussions to the students mental health, academic perusement, and ability to engage with climate change at UVic.”

Harder says it’s been a positive experience seeing students respond so passionately. 

“I just really want to underscore that I appreciate the concerns that students have expressed about this and it’s very heartening to see how much students care about what’s happening. I think that’s super gratifying,” she said. 

“I’m very heartened by the energy that I see in the support for HDCC and I hope we can tap into that for what comes next.”

The climate emergency 

One of the most pressing questions coming from those against the decision to suspend the HDCC program is why the university would consider suspending a climate change program in the midst of a growing climate emergency. 

Graham points to the fact that climate change is a complicated issue as one of the most important reasons to keep the HDCC program running.

“In general we need a lot of climate change-focussed courses and programming across the university. I think the real strength of the program does lie in that it’s interdisciplinary, in the fact that it does try and think across multiple disciplines and social sciences,” he said. 

“We’re in 2022 in a deepening climate emergency, so it’s a truly baffling decision to me to not choose to enhance and support and further build the program from what it is right now,” Graham said. “Losing a dedicated interdisciplinary climate change program is a massive loss to the university. It contradicts a lot of the statements about UVic’s commitment to sustainability, to being a leader in climate action.”

Chicorelli believes suspending the HDCC program reveals what UVic’s overall attitude towards climate change really is. “I think it’s really demonstrating that UVic is a science, Western, colonial focus still in this time and I think it’s a really poor decision to cancel out our voices,” Chicorelli said. 

When asked about students’ concerns regarding the suspension of a climate change program during a worsening climate emergency, Harder responded, “It’s our obligation to ensure students have the very best, most accessible programming that they possibly can have … . HDCC as a program, with some parameters, isn’t doing the job if only 24 students complete it in 12 years,” she said. 

Harder says they plan to create more accessible courses as well as create a Bachelor of Science in Climate Science. “We’re trying new things to make sure that, indeed, students can get the knowledge that they need.”

“It’s not because we’re tone deaf to what’s going on, it’s just that we need to find a way to make our programming really work for students.”

The possible loss of a collaborative space

As the HDCC program is the first one of its kind to be developed in North America, and one of the only interdisciplinary climate change programs with a social science focus, some students and faculty alike believe that the suspension of this program will lead to the loss of a collaborative space to grow and critically think about serious issues. 

“You get these really interesting conversations going across economics, sociology, environmental studies, Indigenous studies, geography,” Graham said. “It’s really important in terms of delivering [climate change] content, but also having that space for critical discussion among interdisciplinary students, so it’s been a real privilege to teach in that program.”

In the letter that UVic in the Anthropocene submitted to the Dean, the group discusses how the answers to how to mitigate the effects of climate change do not lie in the natural sciences and technological advances alone, but “rather, the human dimensions of cultural, social, political, economic, legal, business, ethical, and spiritual change.” This is why a social science-focussed climate change program is so important, the group argues.

For Cruz, HDCC is unlike any other program she’s been in, as it brings together different information and viewpoints. “Having a program where students from any faculty can come together and talk about the issue is really important … Having a program like HDCC is a really great way to broaden your viewpoint.”

For Chicorelli, her experience in the HDCC program has helped her feel more connected with people than in any other classroom experience. 

“I’ve really found my place and my voice and what I have to contribute to the climate change conversation,” she said. “The most amazing part about it is we get a place to help the world and not just print out data sheets.”

When asked if she plans on reconsidering the decision to recommend the HDCC program for suspension, Harder was firm in her response.

“No.”