An interview with Trent University President Leo Groarke

The Traill Review is all done. What was it like working with an old friend?

Well, I should just say that I didn’t have much to do with Chris Tindale while he did the Traill Review. I mean, he came and visited me in the beginning, but I try not to get personally involved during the review. The idea is to bring somebody from the outside; I’ve had a lot of luck asking people to do reviews, because I really give them the space to come to the conclusions they want to come to. So I probably had three conversations with him during the review and met with him once. He’s in philosophy, so I saw him in philosophy conferences. I don’t feel that I was really working with him. I feel that he has written a good review, I feel that he was the right kind of person because he’s clearly very sympathetic to Traill, but he’s also pretty objective and understands some of the issues Traill will deal with.

Students voiced their concerns that you two were friends, and Tindale was quick to point out that he had no problem arguing or disagreeing with you.

[Laughs.]  Oh yeah, he definitely has no problem doing that.

I think there are a couple different perspectives. Let me put it this way. One perspective is the professional student services model of how universities should work, and that’s a different model than the collegiate model. I think there was disagreement and there are people on both sides of that, and obviously Profesor Tindale came down on the collegiate side of things. And that’s okay; I welcome that. I think that going forward, this is about trying to create a college in the traditional sense. Which means that it will have a different approach to student services than the rest of the university.

Does Traill stand out as more collegial compared to the other colleges at Trent?

I think in the college system, one of the big differences is that it’s run by an academic, so the principal is a professor. And a lot more of the decisions are made by professors and by the community in the particular college. So you can’t totally extract it from decision-making and the rest of the university, but it will end up being more independent. And then we’ll see what happens with other colleges.

In his review, Tindale wrote ‘I should stress that … the core of an interdisciplinary college is the graduate student body. The core should be retained and even reinforced by moving the Graduate Studies Office and Dean to Traill.’ What do you think, in broad terms, is the future of graduate students at Trent?  

I certainly think that there is an important place for graduate students at Traill [but] I don’t know whether the Graduate Studies Office would move to Traill. You know, the Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies have to be involved in any decision like that. I think one has to be careful; there are a significant number of graduate students that are attached to their labs that are on this campus, but that will work itself out. I don’t know what happens in that regard, but the conclusion isn’t that Traill should become an undergraduate college and not have graduate students. The conclusion is to mix undergraduate and graduate students. That’s the model that we’re going to seek and to develop. I would have thought there would be a special emphasis on students connected to the graduate programs that are already at Traill; cultural studies, public texts, and all that.

I would say more generally that I don’t expect us to follow all of Professor Tindale’s recommendations. Just like he has no problem disagreeing with me, I have no problem disagreeing with him. But the spirit of it, I think, will go on. For example, he’s got some ideas about connection to the downtown and continuing education; I think we’re going to explore all of those. But I wouldn’t expect at the end of the day that a 100% of what he recommended will happen. In fact, I think the biggest decision was to put undergraduates there. That took hundreds of thousands of dollars to do those renovations.

That being said, absolutely, there needs to be graduate student presence at Traill college.


With the 17% enrollment increase, more students are in need of residences. Do you have any reflections on past decisions made at Trent to sell off lands and property? Do you think we would be better off now if that hadn’t happened?

I think one of the things we have to do is not go too far with our enrollment. You know, we’re about 8,000 students, and that may grow to become 10,000 students. Nobody is looking to make us a 20,000 student campus. So we will need to start to think about how many students we do accept; we could increase the admission average and that could cut back on the students that come. We can try to manage that.

I don’t know what to say about past properties. I wasn’t there for that, but maybe having extra students, if this continues and we’re comfortable with it, maybe it will give us the opportunity to do more capital developments. They could be on this campus, they could be on Traill. I think that the Argyle residents are very interesting. You should go and visit because at first I was skeptical, but it’s close to the downtown core and they’re nice residences. Although it would be nice if we could move those students to Trent residences. We’re going to have to explore more options in that regard. I don’t know if that’s more building, or more renting from other people. We will need to sort that out. It’s not just first year students, because when we saw that we were not going to have enough resident spaces for our students, we went and looked at the possibility of renting from private developers. It was very difficult to do because they were all full.

It just wouldn’t have been the case if we hadn’t sold those properties. We’re in this conundrum because we are growing, and maybe one day we will no longer be a small university. In the original model, we were meant to expand our campus and our colleges. The original model for Trent had 11 colleges. So we’re in a transitional phase right now, trying to figure out how to deal with change.

It’s interesting because it does raise questions of what Trent wants to be long term. My guess is that if you went to the [Trent Board of Governors]—and the board is key—my guess is that they would very strongly say they want to keep Trent a small university under 10,000.

I’m curious if you think different, but their idea is that there are some advantages of being small that we would lose if we were 20,000 students.

Well, we don’t want 600-seat lecture halls where we don’t really meet our instructor. We don’t want to be in a classroom watching our instructor on a screen from the next classroom. It is such a disconnect and a lack of quality. We experienced this at a lecture at McMaster, in fact.

I think that when you get really big, graduate students do the teaching. I have talked to students who have gone to McMaster. I can remember one in particular who told me that there were too many students for the room, so they had three rooms. The professor taught in one room, and there were televisions in the other ones. She told me very wittily, ‘I never even stepped into the same room as the professor.’ So I think we all clearly want to avoid that. We want to be small small enough to be interactive, and you can get to know your professors, and there are lots of goings on in the community that way. So we have to watch, I think.


Are we struggling to find a balance as a university?

I think we’re fine at the moment, especially in Durham.

It’s still less than a thousand students. If you took an extra thousand students, you’d still have the smallest campus in Ontario. I think some small increases here, especially to help the budget, is not a bad thing. But I don’t envision huge growth for Trent University. If people feel that they want it to go in that direction, then they need to get involved in that discussion. I don’t think the Board would be interested. We want to be a smaller university known for quality. We want to have some PhD programs and graduate programs. We will have to manage our enrollment, and we’re going to have to think in an open way about what we want to do with our residences.

One of the reasons to do Traill residences this year is that I would rather put students in Trent residences than find some private apartment for them to go to. In a way, going to Traill is not just good for Traill but good for Trent.

Have you seen the new residences at Traill?

You know, I haven’t. I’ve got photos of them but they were just finished recently. It was really crazy. The people from physical resources did a fantastic job and the city was very supportive. There are all sorts of approvals and inspections that have to go on with big changes like this and I would say that the people at the city and our physical resources people did a fantastic job. I was sweating a little bit for a while, we were not sure, but they got it all done.

How many residences are there?

35. So it’s one floor of Wallace Hall.

The Retention Review is very interesting. Particularly regarding what David McMurray said about the identity of the colleges: ‘In building a more integrated learning and personal development ideology, Trent must consider the relationship between its comprehensive institutional identity and the independence of the colleges. Debate over their often conflicting roles continues. The consultant suggests that Trent could maximize the quality of the education it offers and its reputation by recognizing the colleges for their distinct and explicit identities at the same time that it harmonizes and unites them as one. Continued conflict between the two identities will prolong the weaknesses of not forging them together.’ Is Trent making a commitment to the college system?

Yes, there’s no question about that. How does it translate in practice? Academic support or advising. There are a couple of models that universities use and in a lot of places, all of the academic advisors sit in one place. Every student knows that they’re there, and every student knows where to go and they work together. Does one want that model or does one want a model that is focused on the colleges, so that you get to know your college and it’s the college that you go to where you want academic advising or academic skills development? I think that to some extent we’re committed to the latter group.

It’s in the colleges, but in specific cases we just have to work out what works best for students.

I certainly think residences have to be run by one group of the university. Like you can’t have different models for residences in each college. I mean the rooms can be different but one group has to run those. Of course, they need to be run in a way so that the people who take care of Gzowski residences [for example], the dons and other people in there, are very attached to a full-on college.

All units managing the colleges need to be working together.

img_6921We read your response to the Internationalization Review. There’s an advocacy for centralizing the various facets that deal with international students and study abroad programs. We are referring to international academia as well. Can you comment?

When you talk about academic programs, to some extent different departments and different faculties are going to do different things, and you need to give them the space to do those. But when you’re talking about programming, the idea that came from the Internationalization Review is to hire a leader in internationalization, and it would be at the VP level, which is a level above what it’s at now. Jackie Muldoon is running that competition and there will be an advertisement. But the idea is that all the different components of internationalization should be put together by that person.

A lot of international students often go to TIP for resources. Do you have any plans to expand the future of TIP?

I think the first plan is to challenge the way that you think. Which is ‘here’s an opportunity to think about everything that you want to do, to think about whether we could do it in a better way.’ I mean, costs and finances are part of that, and I think that that’s really got to come from the new leader, but I will give you an example: So, we’ve had a lot of talk about TIP camp. It’s been hugely successful, and we’re certainly going to keep it. But we’re thinking of moving it to campus. To do the kinds of things that are done at TIP camp, whether it’s canoeing or whatever else, would work out really well.

You know, some international students come here after a long trip, and what they really want is their room and instead they hop onto a yellow school bus and they get taken up north.  And actually, to some of these people it even causes anxiety. You grow up in Hong Kong or something, and all of a sudden all you see are trees. The idea would be that we want to give them that same bonding experience, you know, they get a chance to meet and bond with other students before school starts, but we want them to get to know this campus. We want international students to know that we have wildlife trails, and if you need to go on a walk and think about things during the year, those trails are here.

Hopefully with the new leadership, we can think about all the things that we do. I certainly think that one of the things we aim to do is increase the number of international students on campus.

Would the students be from all over the world or specific countries?

I think that the hope is for them to come from all over. But for example, we are at about 6.5 % international, and let’s say we aim for at least 10% or 12%. Hopefully they will be from everywhere but we start with China and India. Those are the two places that the bulk of international students come from. We are developing some graduate programs that I think will be of some interest to China. We don’t have a lot of recruitment going on in India at the  moment so that would be a new development; we’ve just started doing things in India. There are a lot of Nigerian students here and I think we need to take that seriously, and we have a lot of Saudi students here. I think other places in Africa as well. My new assistant Ngina is from Kenya. So, we will certainly try and mix it up. I think it will start with China and India.

Any further comments?

A couple comments! One, and I need to be careful, I’ve only been here 3 years, but I’ve seen more energy this Orientation Week by far since I began here. This has been the most energetic and most dynamic week. I wanted to get a little bit of a professorial role, I miss teaching, so I did a session with students. It was myself and six other professors and we had 200 students come to a session on academic skills. Just look at the number of people swimming in the water. I think there are some good things happening; the baseball diamonds are all done and it’s exciting watching the Student Center slowly appear (it should be done by next September). The soccer field is there.

We want to get more development in the Research Park, and a big part of that is to provide employment and research opportunities for students.