Stephen Stohn has done it all. He’s written books. He’s practiced law. He was the executive producer of Degrassi: The Next Generation, for which he was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards. And now he’s the Chancellor of Trent University.
On June 7, at a convocation ceremony, Stohn replaced outgoing Chancellor Don Tapscott, becoming the second alumnus Chancellor in Trent’s history. Stohn first came to Trent back in 1966, studying Philosophy and Economics, and played a pivotal role in the founding of Arthur and Trent Radio. Leina Amatsuji-Berry and I sat down with him to talk about Trent over the decades, the Tom Symons legacy, and the Student Choice Initiative.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nick Taylor: You arrived at Trent just two years after its inception, in 1966. Can you tell us more about what the university was like in those days, and how it has changed over the past five decades?
Stephen Stohn: Well, first of all, there wasn’t a Champlain College when I first arrived. There was supposed to be. We were all boarded, so I lived on Clonsilla avenue and we all wore gowns back in those days. We wore them to classes. We wore them downtown. So, we would ride around on our bikes with our gowns on and the central meeting place was Rubidge Hall.
There was a café there where we would spend a lot of time. There may have been some classes there. The administration offices, that’s where Tom Symons worked. And you come to classes basically at Peter Robinson because Champlain wasn’t open until the third week in January. There was just a huge party at Champlain. It just went on and on and on.
It was very formative days. Everything was new. It was new for the administration. It was new for the students. The buildings were new. This idea that Tom had of a college system was relatively new, and certainly the tutorials with only four or five people in them were all new. The one thing that I remember [about] that first year was back in those days, there was a lot of change going on. Students were protesting and demonstrating and some of them even dying all across North America. I don’t think anybody died in Canada but they did in the United States. There was the Vietnam War. It was the uprising of sexual freedom, the feminist wave. That was all happening and students were protesting the old ways of doing things and wanted to open things up.
Trent had – and I was part of organizing it – a demonstration of our own. And there were several hundred people there, which was probably most of the student body at Trent at the time. We had these big placards that we made up and we marched on Rubidge Hall where Tom Symons’ office was, but our demonstration, unlike all of the others, wasn’t trying to uproot the administration. We heard through background sources – and I believe it is absolutely true – that Tom Symons was going to leave the university and go into politics. He had been offered some position in Ottawa. And so we were protesting his leaving and so our signs and our chants were “No No Please Don’t Go!” So it made the national news, because it’s a man bites dog story. And of course, he decided not to go and so he carried on for many more years.
We all just so looked up to him because he drove the founding principles. We didn’t call it a liberal arts education in those days, but the kind of multidisciplinary thing where you were encouraged to take very disparate classes, and in the college system you were encouraged to be part of the college. It was just a beautiful way of doing things and that was inculcated in me from an early day. Tom Symons came to the dinner and my installation [as Chancellor] and it really meant a lot to me that he was there. And we’ve been getting together more and more frequently recently, and talking about how Trent actually now today is reinvigorating and re-energizing a lot of the ideas and the principles that he started. And any way I can be a part of that, I’m game. Game on!
NT: One tangible shift in the university that has been a major subject of conversation – especially in Arthur – is the shift towards a more corporate model, moving away from Trent’s small, liberal arts, collegial past. How do we balance remaining competitive in what is seemingly the new status quo, without jeopardizing what makes Trent unique?
SS: The college system, and getting back into the important role that the colleges can have, I think is one way. In some ways you can’t turn back the clock. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to have first-year classes with tutorials with five people in them. We can’t do that. But we can create. Back in our day, the faculty lived in the colleges. If you were in Champlain or Peter Robinson, your Don would be one of the professors. They were part of the community, not someone who came in to give a lecture and then went. The more that can happen the better.
And in a tiny way – someone was having a conversation with me as Chancellor, and saying, “Oh, if somebody wants to talk with you or do something, send them onto us and we’ll filter it.” And I said, “No! Have them email me directly.” That’s what you do! You encourage the flow of conversation of connection of community. Part of the college system is having the faculty living and eating with the students and rubbing shoulders with the students all the time. We’d sit down with the professors and play bridge until 4 in the morning – you can imagine the conversations that you would have. A lot of it was inane but it was all part of the socializing and using your brain in different ways.
NT: Informal education!
SS: Exactly, which I would argue is as important as the formal education.
Leina Amatsuji-Berry: That’s a good point. I have made some really good connections with some of my professors, but we have not had that same environment to do that connecting in. That would be really cool.
SS: And this is where, to get political, whether it’s Arthur or Trent Radio, which are two of my favourites clearly, but it doesn’t matter [which levy group]. Those organizations – being part of them is arguably as important, if not more important, than formal education. [They’re] teaching self-confidence, self-awareness, working with teams, failing – I’m a big fan of failing – but if you don’t throw yourself into these situations and get into problems and then make mistakes, how are you going to learn? These extra-curricular organizations do that. So when the provincial government cuts back not only tuition, which puts pressure on the university and makes it more difficult to have smaller classes and things like that, but then also makes the levies optional…. They shouldn’t be optional. That’s a vital part of the university. That’s like saying, “Oh, let’s make tuition optional.” Uhhhh, no.
NT: In your speech at convocation, you were vocal in your opposition to the Ford government’s Student Choice Initiative, noting that “parents should know that these programs should not be thought of as optional, but as core”. First of all, as one of the student groups affected, we thank you for including this issue in your speech. As far as we know, this is the first time anyone from the administration has said anything overtly and publicly against the policy. What role do you think the administration should play in advocating on behalf of students? Do you have any advice for student groups who stand to be affected, and the activists who are working against this legislation?
SS: There’s a whole bunch of things there and I won’t actually address what the administration… I just don’t know enough to comment. But I can talk about the organizations, and to the extent I can help in that.
I think Arthur and Trent Radio are in unique positions because they’re not only deeply affected by it, but being media, there’s an opportunity to help increase awareness of exactly what I was talking about – that these are core, that they’re really not optional. It’s not just Arthur, and to the extent that I can help with fundraising and help increase awareness of how important Arthur is, but we together with Trent Radio can increase awareness of all the other organizations and how important they are. Even if I may or may not be part of the ‘XYZ Fraternity’, I may not want to go, but that’s an important thing because it’s enriching those students lives and they in turn will enrich my life so that all the levy organizations are important. One of the things we can all do – and I guess the administration can do as well – is to increase awareness amongst the student body, and the parents: the people who are helping them pay.
The second thing we can do is fundraising initiatives of any sort which you would be doing in any event but I think certainly, I speak for myself not on behalf of the administration, I am delighted to the extent that I can participate or help be part any of those activities, for Arthur, for Trent Radio, but for all of the organizations. So I don’t know… we could brainstorm a list of things we can do. We can come up with the silliest ideas, the craziest ideas and just do them. We can sit around and have pizza with the Chancellor. We’ll provide the pizza for free but if people want to donate to the levy groups then terrific, so it’s not an obligation. It’s kind of a win-win for me because I get to relate and connect to the students but also to the extent any of them do have any extra cash and want to donate, any bit helps.
LA: And people don’t realize that [the levies] were democratically put into place through the student union and if they wanted to change it they would have to go back through the student union to do that instead of going through this piece of legislation. For example, I had the opportunity to present at the Community Movements Conference this past year. It enriches – if not an entire department – then several departments’ experiences, and brings a lot of good people to the university. I’m sure that’s the case for many of the levy groups at Trent.
NT: We were talking about informal education; I’ve learned how to do journalism, how to put together a conference, how to make radio. These are all things I would not experience in the classroom.
SS: I mean, look at me. It’s basically the same story. I’ve used this foundation to carry on – you know, it happens to be a life in the entertainment world – but it sure helped to know how to write, how to write under pressure, and in a different way from writing an essay. When you start off … “Okay, let’s make a radio station”… how exactly do you do that?
NT: Yeah, the levy organizations are a really great space for creativity. The student groups have always been operating by doing so much with so little. Your experience was, “How do I start a radio station? How do I start a newspaper?” Those are extremely formative challenges and to overcome them requires creativity.
SS: Even now, when there is an organization in place, everything is changing and so you can still ask, “How do I write a newspaper article?” and so you just do it. And you make mistakes.
NT: You get some letters to the editor.
SS: You’re working with other people. So you learn how to encourage people while still at the same time voicing and accepting criticism. And these are all things there’s not a class that teaches you. [They’re] invaluable when you go out into your career, and life after. Whether it’s your work career, or your life career, your social career.
NT: Speaking of careers, you’ve worn many hats over the years. You’ve been a writer, a producer, a lawyer. How does your wealth of experience shape your approach to wearing the Chancellor hat?
SS: It echoes all the way back to the very beginning with Tom Symons’ founding principles. The years coming ahead, I’m worried about. I’m worried about on a number of fronts. There’s going to be great divides in society, and one of the divides certainly is those that are able to go with the flow of the huge changes we can’t even imagine are coming, and those who want to hold onto the past. That’s one of the disparities. We talk about a wealth disparity, but there’s also going to be a technological disparity. Who has access to the artificial intelligence and who doesn’t? All these things are going to be enormous challenges and part of addressing that challenge is having the ability to, and it’s [an] ability that can be taught: it’s not ingrained, to think in different ways at different times. That’s the Trent experience. Even in the formal sense – the multidisciplinary approach, taking this idea of Philosophy and Economics, and I also took an Abnormal Psych course. Of course the extracurricular activities force you to think in different ways. That flexibility and adaptability is important and it’s ingrained in the Trent system.