Built in the expansionary ’60s, the campus of Peterborough, Ont.’s Trent University is a veritable essay in opulence. Here is proof that the ivory tower need sacrifice none of its sanctity when rendered in concrete. Trent, 150 km northeast of Toronto, stands in grandiose isolation on the banks of the Otonabee River, a complex of jutting angles and receding planes folded into the glaciated countryside like some rough-shaped pearl.
Yet when a report last August suggested the Ontario government consider closing one of its universities, reporters asked not for whom the bell tolled. They phoned Trent. This small university has for years topped the provincial government’s rumored hit list. Famous for its chronic deficit—$1.2 million last year—and incapable of operating without special subsidies unique in the province, Trent has long been buffeted by reprimands and dire warnings. But those on campus dismiss the rumors. Says English professor Ian McLachlan: “Everyone
knows that Trent is not going to close down. However, there is a very real danger of losing the things that have made this university worthwhile.”
Most prized and most endangered is the school’s distinctiveness. When the sprawling U.S.-style “multiversity” was all the rage, Trent remained deliberately small, an undergraduate school with a decentralized collegiate structure. It stressed not research but teaching, preferably through intimate tutorials of at most 10 students. In the early days the young scholars tripped happily about the grounds (and the streets of an incredulous Peterborough)
in mandatory green academic gowns. The mythology of “Oxbridge on the Otonabee” took root and flourished.
But since the early ’70s Trent has been systematically strangled by a funding formula that favored large schools with extensive graduate and professional studies programs. As early as 1973, President Tom Nind invited his university to consider a projected $5million deficit and extensive faculty
layoffs. Trent’s collegiate structure never fulfilled its promise, and many of the vaunted tutorials became “seminars.” World-class teachers, such as Spanish professor José Maria Velverde, who had been idealistically attracted to Trent began to be lured away. Those who remained suffered the highest teaching loads and worst salaries in the province.
“You just can’t take a university like Trent and make those kinds of cutbacks without diminishing its spirit and morale,” says Rob Wilkes, a fourth-year philosophy student. “The small classes and close personal attention are tremendously important.” But this year especially, the strain is showing. Grad-
uate programs have been cut and limits placed on some first-year courses; other advertised courses are simply not being offered.
McLachlan, a bearded Marxist who drives a white Porsche and neatly embodies the many paradoxes of this erstwhile high Tory institution, takes a more sanguine view. “It’s quite amazing the way Trent has resisted,” he says. “Trent has managed to maintain its enrolment [2,100]; it has gone on doing new things and doing them better.” Typical are the many interdisciplinary programs—cultural studies and comparative development, for instance—that have filled the role of intellectual melting pots once envisioned for the colleges. But even McLachlan quails at the prospect of further cutbacks. “There’s a point where this strangling can become destructive and we’re very close to that point now.”
Nevertheless, a sense of mis|sion buoys spirits at Trent. The “prevailing belief in the value of ¿the university has so far proved g unassailable by the sharp pencils 5 of cost-cutting bureaucrats. Compounding the guarded optimism ~ are a string of recent academic successes: two Rhodes Scholarships and by far the country’s highest per capita proportion of special federal graduate scholarships. More to the point, last March the provincial government ceased penalizing Trent as a nonconforming miscreant by rewarding it with a surprise $1.4-million grant for clearly “differentiating” its role from that of other Ontario universities.
“Whether grants like that can carry us into the future is a difficult question,” reflects McLachlan. “What happens when the federal government yanks half a billion dollars out of the system? Then no university will be able to survive as other than a shell.”
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