U of Alberta shutters Jewish studies program due to cuts, low enrolment

Lesley Cormack

With the retirement of two professors at the University of Alberta this year, Jewish studies will no longer be taught at the Edmonton university.

The two tenured professors, Ehud Ben Zvi and Francis Landy, will not be replaced because of ongoing budget cuts, said Andrew Gow, director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Religious Studies.

Hebrew has been taught at the university for about 100 years, Gow said in an interview last week. “Suddenly we’re out of money due to [provincial government] cutbacks. It’s not an academic decision, it was a financial decision that was forced on us.”

The university took a 7.5 per cent cut in funding two years ago, said Lesley Cormack, dean of the faculty of arts, and since then, a number of retiring faculty have not been replaced. One of the criteria for replacing professors has been student demand, and Religious Studies, with about 35 students, was too small, she said.

While the study of Hebrew Bible is “unlikely to continue,” because of low student demand, the university, which already has an endowed lecture in Holocaust Studies and a Holocaust library, is looking to add a research fellow in the discipline, she said.

In the future, joint positions such as research in religion and health or religion and social movements will be more likely to be funded than a position in Religious Studies, she said.

About 200 Jewish students are enrolled at the university, said Debbie Shoctor, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. 

Most of the students enrolled in Jewish studies courses are not Jewish.

The disappearance of some departments, especially in the humanities, is not unique to Jewish studies, Gow said. In an article in the Edmonton Jewish News last month, he pointed out that cutbacks have meant that no one teaches Old English, medieval German or medieval French language and literature at the university any more. Canadian and British history offerings have also been greatly reduced.

But the end of Jewish studies at the university is also a loss to Edmonton’s Jewish community, where the two professors have lectured and taught.

Academics offer a point of view quite different than a rabbinic perspective, Gow said. “It really enriches Jewish life. It brings a level of scholarship that’s not otherwise available elsewhere in the community.”

The only solution being offered is for the community to sponsor an endowed chair, at a cost of about $3 million to $5 million. That is simply not possible for Edmonton’s Jewish community, Shoctor said.

“It is a blow to the culture of the community,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that this is what it’s come to here.”

The university had “conversations with a number of philanthropists,” Cormack said, but Jewish studies was not an area of interest.

Universities are tremendously interested in “deeper relations with Israel,” but primarily in the areas of science and technology, unless a private donor specifies otherwise, said Dylan Hanley, associate director of government relations and university outreach for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

Hanley recently met with U of A officials to discuss the situation. While hiring another tenured professor in Jewish studies is unlikely, CIJA is discussing other options, such as bringing in visiting Israeli scholars and fellows.

In his article, Gow asked the community not to simply put pressure on the government to hire a Jewish studies professor. “It’s unfair, and it won’t help anyway,” he wrote.

Instead he asked the community to support the idea of a liberal arts education. “There needs to be a broader support for the university as a research university,” Gow said in an interview. “It’s time we speak up or we should be prepared to see the university wither.”