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50 years of transformation: The evolution of Trent’s college system


The Trent collegiate system has transformed over the years since its inception so as to keep pace with the inevitable forces of changing time. In fact, it is experiencing change as we speak right now and will continue to see more transformations in years to come.

The founding principles of colleges as said by the founder of Trent, Thomas Symons, during the Trent University official opening ceremonies was: “Through the colleges, members of the university may be helped to preserve a sense of individual identity … and to find richer personal associations and a greater measure of academic assistance.”

However, just as Trent University has changed since its inception 50 years ago, so too have the colleges. “The residential college model changed after the Trent student population grew, and the role of Trent faculty evolved,” said Associate Vice-President Students, Nona Robinson.

The incoming first-year students now primarily take up residence spaces, but not all students are able to afford to do so. They have extended the college experience to off-campus students to reduce barriers to student life participation, she said.

Similarly, faculty and college heads living in residence dwindled over the decades, and largely ceased during the 1990s.

The vision of the colleges has evolved to reach out more to off-campus first-year and upper-year students, so that colleges again can become social, educational, and support hubs for all members of the Trent community.

Robinson shared with Arthur the changes the colleges are currently undergoing, as well as those we will soon see.

In this respect, Trent is hoping to re-engage faculty in creative ways with the colleges to revive the distinctness of having significant faculty-student interaction throughout the Trent community.

Each college has its own social traditions, in no small part thanks to their cabinets, and some college activities have been focussed around the faculty departments that are housed in them. But Robinson says that colleges have the potential to further develop their unique identities and vision.

The Colleges Planning Committee in 2013 identified that many students chose their colleges based on which residence they wanted to live in and that for off-campus students there may not be a strong sense of college affiliation, she explained.

While Trent recently reinstated asking off-campus students to pick their colleges instead of being randomly assigned, many still don’t, she regrets. So they are hoping that with increased contact and support of off-campus students from the college offices, even before students arrive, that this will change.

Lady Eaton College under construction.
Lady Eaton College under construction.

Currently, the colleges are working with students, faculty, and staff to build their identities and activities so that each college has its own unique appeal. They reasoned that this will help in building a sense of community for students, faculty, and staff beyond the residences and classes, and it’s hoped this will further strengthen each of the colleges.

On the other hand, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Trent University, Dr. Raymond E. March, one of the earliest Trent professors, who had a hand in the restructuring of the colleges during the early Trent days, recounted on how it has changed since.

He began by saying that Lady Eaton and Traill College started off as women’s colleges, while Peter Robinson and Champlain were men’s colleges. Having an all women college offered opportunities for women in student administration that didn’t exist anywhere else.

After that they had college councils, which were a springboard for new courses. It involved the students in the program initiation. One of the first courses that involved the student council was in, which they described as the scientific basis of environmental pollution, the program that turned out to be the first course in the environmental program, which has now become huge, said Dr. March

In terms of senate, the college members were electable; the senate in fact was the upper administration-college heads plus the dean, and three faculty members from each college or staff, as well as three students. That went on for a number of years but it was disastrous.

As the university needed to change more rapidly, that was not a good method to achieve change, he recollected. So they decided to cut down the number of students, it still being one of the largest student representatives in the province on senate. And he feels that it is working a lot better now than it used to.

But the number of faculty in college and college councils is now very low.

“There were attempts in the earlier years to do something unique in various colleges that was to create an identity, but it was frowned upon,” says Dr. March. The reason according to him was that colleges should walk step by step; they should be similar and there should not be any great difference. The university at that time didn’t want, for example, Lady Eaton to become better known as an academic centre than Otonabee College.

“I think that has come about to a small degree but they have not developed their own character. So all the colleges have a very similar culture,” he added.

In the earlier days the colleges tried to be different, for instance Champlain College wanted to have a drinking festival that was called ‘the Baccus’. That was the beginning of it and that was as far as it went, he said.

The recent change that the Trent college system is currently undergoing is, as explained by Dr. March, another aspect of faculty to student ratio.

The university simply doesn’t have the money to allocate an academic person as the head of a college, and even if this was a possibility, it would significantly take away from their time to teach.

So, if one cannot afford to put a professor there then it is expected that the position be filled by someone else.

March said, “It is not because we wanted to downgrade the colleges by putting non-academics there, but they are there because we needed someone to be responsible for the colleges.”

Gzowski College under construction
Gzowski College under construction

Associate Professor Steven Rafferty, the Chemistry department’s undergraduate advisor, said that his only contact with the college system now is occasionally through the senior tutors. If a student has a problem in a chemistry course, he, as the advisor, is contacted by the senior tutor of the college.

He understands that originally it used to be like a residential college system where faculties were associated with a particular college and the masters of the houses were in residence with the students. That, however, was because the faculties were quite young and students relatively old, which is not the case now as the age gap has widened.

Back in the old days one would find a lot of faculty from different departments intermingling through the college system, getting a chance to talk with people from other departments. That doesn’t happen very much these days and that is regrettable, he said. Now, since so much time is spent doing their job there is not a whole lot of time for doing that.

“Besides there is so much physical space where you can actually meet people socially these days,” pointed out Professor Rafferty.

Otonabee College during renovations in the 1990s.
Otonabee College during renovations in the 1990s.

The change in the last few years has been to increasingly describe the uniqueness of each college in terms of the differences between buildings, said Trent’s new Director of Colleges, Barry Townshend.

But they are now trying to put more emphasis on the people, communities, and culture that is unique in each college, which he believes is going back to the roots.​

When he started exploring the opportunity to come to Trent this summer, as an outsider he wanted to know more about each college and what was distinctive about them. One of the first things he found was a description of the buildings.

As important as the buildings may be in how they shape communities – they can lend themselves to bringing people together, or they can work towards keeping sub-groups apart. However, the colleges more than just the buildings, stated Townshend.

Buildings and titles don’t make people proud of us; acts of wisdom, ingenuity and kindness make people proud, he said.

When it comes to change within the colleges, “I hope that we will increasingly tell the stories of what is special and amazing about our college experiences and let the buildings recede into the background a little more,” he said.

And, what remains the same is how intentional they are about creating profound learning experiences that help to make people’s lives and the world around a little bit better, says Townshend.

Meanwhile, the Trent college system is currently going through an active transformation, and looking at ways to build the college community in new ways.

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