Trent is a university renowned for its philosophic and pedagogical vitality. It is one that has achieved respect and recognition from its peers by attempting to formulate a unique approach to university education. As all of us at Trent know, the structural foundation of this approach lies within the university’s distinctive residential college system, its emphasis on small group teaching and seminars, its strong connection to place and community, and its focus on interdisciplinarity during an era of increasing educational specialization.
The synthesis and deployment of these ideals has historically been called the “Trent Difference,” admittedly vague terminology that aims to encapsulate the common understanding (although, some have argued, common delusion) that this university’s educational experience is markedly different than that received at other schools.
Conversely, and perhaps on account of this Difference, Trent has never succeeded in becoming a school renowned for its financial health or fiscal sustainability.
In 1972, less than a decade after Trent University’s inauguration, Thomas E. W. Nind, the school’s second appointed president, faced the possibility of a $300,000 annual operating deficit, and was forced to propose a drastic and highly controversial institutional reorganization just to keep the university solvent.
Six years later, during the interim presidency of Marion Fry, a collection of students calling themselves the Group of Seven barricaded themselves in an office on the fourth floor of Bata Library in order to draw attention to the fact that the university was still mired in severe financial crisis.
Fast forward two turbulent decades later to the presidency of Bonnie Patterson and university administration, who, facing stagnant enrolment, agreed to unload Trent’s inaugural residential college for a pittance to try to cut costs and centralize its operations.
These are just a few historical examples of Trent’s inability to cure its financial sickness. Indeed, throughout the most recent decade, this sickness has shown no signs of letting up as the school has undergone several more budget-based crises including the attempted closure of Catherine Parr Traill College in 2007 and the community uprising that surrounded the construction of the Water Street private residence.
What all of this demonstrates is that, after more than forty years of dilution, compromise, cut-backs, and controversy, the time has come for the university community to recognize that the Trent Difference philosophy is not, and has never been, compatible with government funding in the way that it is administered.
The one-size-fits-all funding approach that ties dollars to enrolment growth, coupled with the fact that Trent still receives a differentiation grant being a small, primarily undergraduate, liberal arts university has caused this school to be pulled in two polarized directions.
On one hand, we are told through the differentiation grant that we must maintain our small size, emphasis on liberal arts, and hallmark interdisciplinarity; meanwhile, we are also being subjected to the standard formula has necessitated an aggressive push for enrolment growth, larger class sizes, and the introduction of a host of professional programs.
The absurdity of this situation has brought us to the point where the university is now depriving students of a fundamental aspect of its so-called “Difference” because it can neither accommodate all desiring first year students within the existing residences, nor can it afford to build new ones.
In short, it is time for both the university and the provincial government to either put up or shut up about Trent’s difference. This university’s sustainability is dependent, as it always has been, upon doing things its own way: growing at its own pace, within its own structure, and with an emphasis on preserving its own institutional vision of academic excellence. This is a fact that has been ignored by provincial officials for far too long.
Now this does not mean that the government should be giving Trent a blank cheque. In fact, this doesn’t even have to mean a significant amount of new funding. What this means is that Trent needs a repudiation of the current formula that ties dollars to enrolment. Trent needs a stable, predictable, long-term funding arrangement that works in congruence with its traditional values. What this means is that Trent must finally get the financial freedom to be itself without having to go through an existential crisis every time its enrolment dips.
With the release of the administration’s Strategic Mandate Agreement, made public to the Trent community in mid-December, the administration seems to have finally decided to seriously press the province for this type of fair funding. Going forward, this must become its paramount strategic priority, and we as a university community should unite to support this single objective.
It seems that this is the right time for action: Trent is celebrating the 50th anniversary the same year that the provincial government is seriously considering ways to differentiate its post-secondary institutions.
However, if this does not occur, if the university community and administration is unable to convince the government to support Trent’s philosophy of difference, then perhaps we would be better served by abandoning the idea of the Trent Difference and instead trying to grow into a more comprehensive, traditionally structured school.
This certainly isn’t something that I, or the majority of students, would like to see. It also isn’t something that the administration, as it has emphatically declared in its SMA, is currently considering. However, I raise this notion only to point out that Trent cannot continue to exist, as it is, within a provincial system that seems entirely apathetic about its survival.
This university was created with a specific vision of difference in mind, and if the province still believes in the value of this vision, then it must fund it appropriately. Otherwise, it should make it crystal clear that going forward with the Trent Difference no longer falls within the scope of its post-secondary planning.
What is clear on the eve of the 50th anniversary is that the administration cannot keep cutting, diluting, and compromising the core values of the school, while at the same time claiming that the Trent Difference remains unchanged.
After enduring almost five decades of financial uncertainty, we have been given a real chance to breathe new life into our institutional philosophy. The Trent administration, led by whoever replaces President Steven Franklin, must be prepared to lead this fight and ultimately succeed. The alternative is inconsiderable: another decade on the enrolment treadmill, by which time we may painfully discover that we have run ourselves straight into irrelevancy.