BIGGEST MAN ON THE BIGGEST CAMPUS
Few of the thirty-seven hundred students whom Dr. Sidney Smith sends out to face the world this spring will he able to match the shrewd wizardry of this ex-farm boy who manages to keep his opinions controversial, his manner folksy and our largest university solvent
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AS PRESIDENT of the largest university in Canada—University of Toronto—Sidney Earle Smith, Q.C.,B.A., M.A., LL.B., LL.D., D.C.L., once a farm boy in the Maritimes, rules twenty-two thousand students and a staff of more than three thousand, controls an annual budget of fifteen million dollars and directs in varying degrees the Ontario College of Pharmacy, Ontario Agricultural College and Ontario Veterinary College, both at Guelph, Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto, Ontario College of Education, Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, Royal Ontario Museum, University of Toronto Schools, David Dunlap Cbservatory, Varsity Stadium, Institute of Aerophysics, an estate in Bayview, Varsity Arena, a botanical camp in Timagami, University of Toronto Press and a camp at Canoe Lake in northern Ontario. This spring, in addition to his other duties, he will manage to find time to preside over the solemn pageantry that marks the granting of diplomas and degrees to thirty-seven hundred of his scattered students.
Dr. Smith, a good-natured, outspoken tycoon of education, is also the country’s best known university president. He not only wades into controversies with a delighted vigor, he sometimes creates them himself. It was he who suggested that all high-school graduates ought to spend a year at some sort of compulsory national (not military) training. It was he who charged that university freshmen are absolute boobs at writing their own language. It was he who urged that teachers make confidential reports on those highschool graduates who passed their examinations by cramming.
Smith’s more forceful statements usually result in a public uproar but he is used to that. A lawyer by training he came into national prominence ten years ago when he was a strong favorite to lead the Progressive Conservative Party.
In addition to the complexities of directing the
sixteen queerly assorted stepchildren of the university, Dr. Smith must also juggle a group of federated colleges -St. Michael’s, Trinity, Victoria, University, Emmanuel, Wycliffe and Knox—a situation about as restful as having dynamite in a desk drawer. Each college is situated on the university campus, has historical rights to complete independence but uses the university’s facilities freely. Each also has its own board of governors, staff of instructors, scale of fees and school yell.
Guiding this chaos through the administrative horror and financial red ink of a modern university requires a strong personality capable of great charm, the mind of an efficiency expert behind the rolling cadences of a scholar and a talent for parting wealthy men from large sums of money while maintaining unchallengeable dignity.
Smith rarely attempts to be dignified, though he can be solemn in his blue and silver robes during
convocations. He astounds his board of governors, most of whom are among the country’s most successful financiers, with his grasp of sane budgeting; he encourages the idealists on his teaching staff with impassioned pleas for a greater emphasis on philosophy, languages and history as opposed to the gulping gains of engineering and other technical sciences; he plays the clown at student rallies, dancing a jig and kissing the football coach on the cheek. A colleague once observed dourly: “The trouble with Sid is he spreads himself too thin.”
A tall and round-stomached fifty-five, Smith accords everyone he meets, from the precise Chancellor of the University, Governor-General Vincent Massey, on down to the man who empties the wastebaskets, with a benevolent beam of pure fellowship. In spite of his fourteen degrees (eleven of them honorary) his manner is folksy.
“Those westerners in Manitoba,” he once recalled blissfully, “they’re just so friendly. They’re the salt of the earth. They’ve got the real pioneer spirit. God bless them, they’re just so friendly.”
In the course of one recent interview he also invoked divine blessing on the Junior League, Dean D. A. McRae, a former adviser, his late mother, the soldiers with whom he served in the First World War (whom he also characterized as “the salt of the earth”) and his predecessor, the late Canon H. J. Cody.
Smith’s unmitigated warmth of personality, plus his heavy jowls and corner-drooping eyes, have caused him to be compared to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt. The resemblance is further enhanced by his habit of smoking cigarettes in a holder tipped up from the corner of his broad smiling mouth. Smith is a heavy cigarette smoker with a peculiar style of taking the cigarette out of his mouth with an upward flourish and holding it poised above his grey pompadour.
Although his bluff, extroverted air sometimes
fools people into believing otherwise, Smith’s qualifications as a teacher are fully as impressive as his qualifications as a diplomat and businessman. A boy wonder in school, he entered college when he was only fourteen and had his B.A. at eighteen. After his years of war service he went back to law school to lead his class for three years and then went on to become the country’s youngest university president when at thirty-six he took over the faltering University of Manitoba.
Iï was his handling of the financial and academic mess at Manitoba that won him country-wide attention. When Sir William Mulock, who had been chancellor at Toronto for twenty years, died in 1944 the white-haired and revered President Cody decided to retire and was named chancellor. Cody himself suggested Smith as his successor as president and he was brought to Toronto to be principal of University College for a year in order to get his bearings. In 1945 he was installed as president.
The president’s office saw a startling contrast. University of Toronto presidents for decades back had been clergymen, devout and thoughtful educators. Dr. Smith is a lawyer, equally devout, but representing the modern trend toward university presidents who are adept at high finance.
The university was facing the greatest test of its history. Its enrollment was nearly doubled by the government-subsidized veterans who filled the campus with their strained, serious faces. New buildings were urgently needed to serve these students—a sixteen-million-dollar building fund was raised—and the staff had to be enlarged. Smith plunged in with gusto and filled every top administrative post with young men in their thirties and forties, all of them almost fanatically fond of their boss. Nearly every dean and head of faculty was ready to retire so every important post on the teaching staff has had a turnover since Smith took office. The new machine hums with friendliness and co-ordination, but it is not without its detractors.
Chief among these are the men who teach what universities call the humanities—history, languages, philosophy and literature. These subjects are in a decline, brought about by the atomic age’s fascination for physics and mechanics and Smith has been among the loudest in deploring the fact that universities are becoming more and more like technical schools, turning out “a nation of jobbers.”
While he was lamenting, however, he was going ahead with a $4,200,000 chemistry building and expensive extensions to the physics and mechanical engineering buildings. The sod hasn’t been disturbed where the university has planned for years to build a library to replace its present one which was designed for a student body of four thousand. Also in the vague future is the arts building, which would be a boon to arts students some of whom must visit as many as thirteen different buildings scattered on the seventy-five-acre campus in order to attend lectures.
Smith’s inability to advance the part of the university’s building program which would assist the humanities is regarded with some bitterness. At one time there was even half-earnest talk of professors picketing the magnificent chemistry building. The president himself feels badly about the situation.
“I am sensitive, I’ll confess it frankly, on the subject of the library,” he observed without smiling. “When I take visitors around the campus I try to avoid taking them to the library if I can help it. As soon as we finish the school of nursing we’ll have to get the library started.”
Smith has made a dogged effort to keep in touch with the university’s main product: students. He and his wife entertain about a thousand every year at Sunday-afternoon teas but he can’t hope to meet the eleven thousand registered this year at the university proper. He attends football games when he can and was observed one Saturday afternoon stalking up and down outside the stadium of the University of Western Ontario in London because he had come down to the game at the last moment without a ticket. At Students’ Administrative Council buffet suppers he becomes
one of the boys, lustily leads the singsong and organizes games of charades.
In his opening address to new students the first year he was president he remarked fondly: “I hope you won’t think I’m just a fresh old man (he was forty-eight) if I smile at you when we pass each other—particularly the younger co-eds—and I do ask that you smile and at least say hello in return.” During his early years as president, Sidney Smith was lampooned affectionately in the Varsity, the students’ daily newspaper, and dubbed Kidney Myth. In recent years the Varsity either avoids Smith altogether or baits him flagrantly. Despite an awareness of his distaste for the word sex in
the student publication the editors a few weeks ago got out a “What the Hell” issue devoted to satire. On the front page was the text of Smith’s annual report to the board of governors, the part which dealt with the need for remedial English classes to fill in the gap in freshmen’s knowledge of English grammar. For “English” the Varsity inserted “sex,” with extraordinary results. The Students’ Administrative Council, to Smith’s relief, immediately suspended the Varsity.
Except for such monumental jibes, the newspaper rarely mentions Smith and Varsity editors explain that he is now such a stranger to the student body that the
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humor wouldn’t be understood. Smith seldom beams at strange students, even co-eds, on tbe infrequent days he walks the few blocks from home to office.
The wonder is that he has time to beam at anyone. He is in his office late at night nearly every night, Saturdays and Sundays included. He and the registrar, Joe Evans, spend five Saturday afternoons every spring just signing diplomas. In addition he is in demand to open art exhibits and address scholarly audiences, such as the Royal Canadian Institute; it takes him two months of steady work to prepare his annual report to the board of governors; everyday is spent placating, soothing, integrating aggrieved heads of faculties who have space problems, irate heads of federated colleges who feel their rights are abused, professors miffed at some action of a colleague. Smith is a marvellous mediator, sincerely devoted to peace and good relations, and his memory for statistics makes him a perambulating filing cabinet capable of solving a difficult kink in the budget while standing in a garden drinking tea.
His retentive mind shows to its greatest advantage in his total recall of names. He and his wife taught themselves the art when they moved to Winnipeg where they had to meet hundreds of strangers in their first few weeks. Smith became so skilled at this form of flattery that he once stood in a receiving line, shook hands with two hundred people and called most of them by name at the ensuing function.
“I don’t know how I did it,” he muses. “I just had to, that’s all. My biggest trouble was in remembering whether the people had a son or a daughter when I was asking after the children. I used to wish it was permissible to say "How is it getting along?’ ”
Smith’s career has brought him from a rocky farm off Cape Breton to the presidency of the biggest university in the country, greeter of dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II, General Ike Eisenhower and Anthony Eden, and guardian of two hundred and twenty-six buildings worth sixty million dollars.
The fourth child of a farmer, he was slated for the ministry. His schoolteacher mother used to read to him from such highly moral classics as Pilgrim’s Progress.
“1 can recall yet how upset I used to l)e that Christian would never get
out of the Slough of Despond,” Smith recalls. “I used to worry about it, I really would.”
He was ready for college when he was still in short pants, aged fourteen. His mother prevailed upon his father to sell the farm and move to Windsor, N.S., so young Sidney could attend King’s College, Dalhousie University.
Smith worked in a store Saturday nights and on survey crews all summer. In 1915 at the age of eighteen he graduated, enlisted and went overseas as a gunner.
The regiment in which he served was composed of hard-bitten veterans of a decade of British Empire campaigns and they shocked the Methodist boy speechless with tales of life in Hong Kong and Calcutta. Smith loves to tell people that he held his own in the army. “I went in a gunner and I came out a gunner,” he observes, with a grin.
'Ehe life of a minister seemed impossible to him when he got back to Windsor, but he was impressed with the colorful personality of a Windsor jurist, Judge Sangster, and decided to try law. He enrolled in the three-year law course at Dalhousie, along with such distinguished Canadians as James llsley and Angus Macdonald, now premier of Nova Scotia, and received his bachelor of law degree (LL.B.) almost simultaneously with an M.A. from King’s College.
He was a teacher’s dream of a student, diligent, alert, curious, full of zest for the obscure intricacies which are the root of law. Dean I). A. McRae of Dalhousie’s law faculty never forgot his star pupil and when he encountered Smith discouraged after a poor year of practicing he advised him to go to Harvard to take a course there that would fit him for teaching. Smith borrowed the tuition fees and left at. once. When he returned Dean McRae hirer! him as a lecturer and a year later made him an assistant professor. Smith was embarked on his academic career.
Smith, the university president, is often appalled at the deeds of the younger generation, but Smith the assistant professor was not without dash. One afternoon, while cycling down the halls of Dalhousie University, he very nearly ran over his president who is reported to have remarked testily ‘‘I wish that fellow Smith would grow up.”
When Dean McRae left Dalhousie for Toronto’s important law school, Osgoode Hall, he lost no time in bringing his protégé after him. Smith left Osgoode in 1929 to become Dean of the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie
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University. He was then thirty-two,
and under him the enrollment at Dalhousie doubled, in spite of the depression.
Smith once cited his outstanding accomplishment as hard work. “That sounds like a mouthful, but I’m not bragging. It is true. Hard work can do a lot for anyone.”
He had married his first year at Osgoode a beautiful bank secretary, Harriet Rand, known as Halbe, and during his term as dean they had two daughters, Sheila and Moyra. Dean Smith found time to help write two law handbooks. (He had already written one at Osgoode.)
In addition to these responsibilities he managed to hold down eight executive positions on various societies (such as the Conference of Commissioners of Uniformity of Legislation in Canada) and get in some fishing as well.
Dr. E. H. Coleman, present Canadian Ambassador to Brazil, was then secretary of the Canadian Bar Association and he was struck by this young dynamo. His brother, D. C. Coleman, was then chairman of the board of governors of the University of Manitoba and was in dire need of a dynamo, first class. Dr. Coleman suggested Smith.
Smith was thunderstruck when Coleman phoned to say he was being considered for the job. Coleman said he’d send Smith his railway transportation to Vancouver. Dean Smith traveled four thousand miles, sat down at a luncheon table with Coleman, talked twenty minutes and was hired
Smith was to inherit the biggest mess in Canadian university history. A former official of the University of Manitoba had embezzled almost a million dollars, leaving the institution on -the brink of disaster. Canada’s youngest university president began on the right foot with an inspired statement: “I am not taking with me any educational policy designed in Halifax for Manitoba.”
Smith and the Tories
His changes on the campus were textbooks in modern university administration. He prevailed upon the government to provide financing for a faculty of education for the advanced teaching of teachers; the business community of Winnipeg found itself supporting a course leading to a bachelor of commerce degree; the Junior League sponsored courses in social work; and the Manitoba government helped with a school of nursing. Short evening courses in history and public administration were open to the public.
Smith got the government’s grant to the university increased and went after private contributions to build up a new endowment fund for scholarships. He tried to get the board of governors to establish a chair in mining engineering, but this was the one battle he lost.
His success became nationally known and the Conservative Party brought him to Toronto to address important groups to test his appeal. It began to be rumored that the party, then in need of a popular leader, was considering the Maritimer who had dazzled the west. In December 1942 Smith
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was persuaded to enter his name in the nomination convention in Winnipeg to choose the future leader of what was to be the Progressive Conservative Party. Smith made one reservation: If John Bracken, then Premier of Manitoba, decided to run he wanted his name withdrawn.
Five minutes before the deadline for nominations, friends were at Bracken’s home, seven minutes away from the convention, trying to persuade him to stand. He suddenly agreed and was rushed to the meeting through red lights, making it with only forty seconds to spare. Smith, who was waiting for his turn to be introduced from the platform, silently took his seat in the audience.
“I couldn’t jeopardize the university, which was after all a state university underwritten by the government, bv standing against the head of the government,” he explained. There is little doubt he would have been selected if Bracken hadn’t rocketed through the red lights.
The following year Smith helped draft a new policy for the party. Since then he has stayed away from politics with rare exception. Once he made a speech to the graduating class of the Ontario Agricultural College rebuking Mike Pearson for suggesting Canada can’t be expected always to echo United States policy. Smith scolded Pearson for his “adolescence.” Since this was the same criticism voiced by Opposition Leader George Drew on the floor of the House of Commons, the Liberal papers rapped him soundly.
Because Smith would have been such a formidable foe for George Drew’s hope to be leader of the Progressive Conservatives, it is commonly supposed that Drew was instrumental in bringing him to the University of Toronto where he would be in political limbo. This is possible in theory because the board of governors of the university is appointed by the Ontario cabinet in council. At the time of the Smith appointment it was heavily stocked with Progressive Conservatives, and still is.
Smith is aghast at such charges. He points out that he was first appointed principal of University College, an appointment recommended and approved by the then president Cody. “As a matter of fact Drew never knew about it until the appointment had been made,” insists Smith. “Someone thought they had better go and tell him and that was the first he heard of it.”
Smith hasn’t let his politics show for several years, but he is still the most newsworthy university professor in the country. His annual reports to the board of governors crackle with good quotes, the most recent of which is scathing comment on the amount of English grammar within the grasp of university freshmen (sixty-five percent failed a grammar test) and their slipping scholastic standards (thirty to
forty porcent drop out in their first or second years).
In the past he has looked an annual meeting of the Academy of Dentistry in theeyeand told them: “Professional schools turn out skilful technicians hut few leading citizens.’’
Healso suggested a year of “national service training’’ between high school and college to educate students in civil and military life. He was lashed for this by unions who suspected him of put t ing out feelers for compulsory military service.
He once observed that he didn’t believe the hairbrush was an outmoded method of discipline—when the Institute of Child Study on his campus has spent twenty-five years begging parents not to strike their young.
His latest time bomb was a suggestion that high-school teachers weed out students unsuited for university work -the crammers and those incapable of independent thinking—in order to save the university expense. He thought it could be done with “secret reports” and educators and parents joined in a shrieking chorus of dismay.
The Vnatomy of the Rabbit
Smith the educator may not commane universal admiration but Smith the Administrator comes inhumanly close The university’s financing is a gatevay to a padded cell. The Extension courses, which offer adults a range of eighty-eight subjects ranging from Public Speaking to Geriatics, has had as many as fourteen thousand register for evening instruction and has always shown a small profit in spite of the low fees, which average ten dollars.
The University of Toronto Press publishes a few of the textbooks used on the campus, a selection of eight academic journals such as the Canadian Historical Review—none of which earn the Press a penny—and upward of twenty-eight books which might otherwise never leave the manuscript form, such as, A Laboratory Guide to the Anatomy of the Rabbit. The Press, because of its sales to libraries, scholars, scientific societies, is one of the two great money-makers on the campus and last year showed a profit of fortyfive thousand dollars, which was put into the deficits of the School of Hygiene and the Faculty of Medicine.
The other money-maker at the university is the Connaught Laboratories which produce nearly all the penicillin and whooping-cough, diphtheria and tetanus toxoid used in this country. In spite of the howls of professional pharmaceutical houses the
handsome profits of Connaught Laboratories are tax-free and can he plowed hack into the university. This is fortunate for the university because this just about ends the list of profitable enterprises. The rest of the vast empire Sidney Smith rules is run at a dead loss. The average student at the University of Toronto costs his parents a little more than a thousand dollars a year: the provincial government puts in another thousand and the revenue from the university’s investments and other private grants makes up another thousand. Every one of the fifty showy buildings on the campus is a gift.
An axiom of university budgets is that one third of the revenue must come from students’ fees, one third from such university properties as Connaught Laboratories, private grants from individuals and income from university’s investments and the final third from the government. Since the University of Toronto is underwritten by the province of Ontario to an extent this year of better than four million dollars, there is never a possibility that it might fail. Toronto can only wonder how such private universities as McGill in Montreal, which gets a government grant of less than five percent of its budget, can survive.
Some relief arrived a few weeks ago, an indirect gift from the University of Toronto’s chancellor, Governor-General Vincent Massey whose Royal Commission report recommended federal aid to universities. This was the first recommendation enacted. With its eight hundred thousand dollars—the largest of the grants—Varsity was able to add cost-of-living bonuses to all salaries and double its expenditures for current books for the library.
In the core of this glittering nightmare stands Sidney Smith, smiling benignly and balancing the budget on one finger. He spends little time with his charming wife; over a stretch of six weeks one winter he was home only nine evenings. He sees little of his two older daughters, though they are scholarship students at his university, and even less of his seven-year-old daughter Heather, a day pupil at Bishop Strachan School, an exclusive private school. He is provided with a fourteen-room house by the university and he has purchased some fine books for its shelves and some excellent recordings of operas, of which he is fond, for his record player; but he is seldom home. As one of his bright young men once remarked: “President of the university? You can have that one. No one could handle that job and still smile—except Sidney Smith.” if