Steven Franklin and Arthur talk collegiality, college system, and campus privatization at Trent University, and the shifting landscape of the decade past.

interview conducted by Brea Hutchinson, Meaghan Kelly, Matt Rappolt.

Arthur Newspaper: Thank you for meeting with us. When you’re talking about Trent, when everyone talks about Trent, it’s about the “unique educational experience.” What do you think is unique about Trent?

Steven Franklin: There is a sense of place here that is very unique, it is driven by our environments, our buildings, and our architecture […] I find myself fascinated, because I’m a geographer, someone who understands the difference between place and space. There is an attachment, an environmental sensibility that occurs, and I notice it here. People have experiences here they remember for the rest of their lives. What I try to do, what I understand as my job is to reflect that. To see how that can help us in the future because we’ve got some challenges, things are going to happen that we need to prepare for. So, there is an obligation to build on the strengths and weakness of Trent and to preserve it as a source of strength as we deal with our challenges […]

Arthur: Can you put a name to some of those things that make Trent unique?

Franklin: Well, I do know the college system, with its programming. […] The function it serves may be provided in a different fashion at other universities. I think our college system serves them well and the attachment to them is stronger here than elsewhere. The same thing can happen at the department level. If you have a tight knit department it can bring people together based upon the interdisciplinary focus, such as in Cultural Studies. It can also happen at the disciplinary level. You can find different individuals willing to challenge you and you to challenge them. You find ways to develop that kind of rapport with your faculty and peers, which is also a part of the Trent experience.

Arthur: Do you think that that departmental bond could replace the attachment to the college system?

Franklin: What has happened here is departments are getting stronger and colleges have become weaker. It’s because of the increased number of students; we can’t offer the residence structures that were offered previously, so our residences, like many other universities are mostly for first year students. We need to create more options for students to have community that are in the upper years, and we need to foster that, or we will lose more and more of what the college system really meant for people. […]

What you want is for the right kind of flexibility in a university for students and for faculty to really make the contribution that they’re capable of. That’s going to require diversity, not a one-size fits all solution. It shouldn’t be that just because at one time things worked that way. It should always work that way.

Arthur: The college system is noticeably absent from ‘Elements of Trent University: Visions for Discussion,’ except for one reference on seminar teaching and college life. Colleges are not mentioned through the rest of the document. What role do you see Trent’s college system playing, academically, in the future?

Franklin: This document had literally hundreds of individuals contribute over a year. It was not written by one person who decided to overlook the college system. It was one piece of work that was being developed amongst many to make up the vision of Trent which was endorsed by Senate and the Board of Governors (BOG).

I wouldn’t want to comment on one kind of document. Generally speaking, most of the process I saw I found was quite respectful for the college system, for its past as well as future. One of the things that I have asked people who say the college system had a stronger role in the past is, describe to me what this means for students in the future? Does this mean higher retention rates for Trent University? Because our retentions rates are the same as other universities in the province, most of whom do not have college system. So, if the college system is such a powerful attractant and brings students and makes it students more able to succeed in the university world, you would expect to see some impact on retention rates. I’m asking for that data.

We are asking colleges to understand that if they can make an academic argument it could be in the retention area, but also could be in the recruitment area. Does the college system serve as a recruitment tool? Currently, as you know, the retention rates are low. We have a relatively flat enrolment. The Ontario system has grown by 12% but we have not grown by 1%, since 2005. What is it about our college system that we could be using to make it more effective at increasing the number of students that want to come here?

Maybe our college system is doing all those things but we don’t have any residences beds, so they are going elsewhere, even though the college system was what they wanted. I am struggling with what to do here. I’m not the guy who has all the answers but I have to make decisions about each year’s budget and what I don’t want to do is allocate resources that will not be contributing to the success of the university.

Arthur: You say that you have to make the decisions. How strongly is student opinion weighted in decision making at Trent?

Franklin: Student opinion means everything to me. I’ve always felt very clearly the obligation I have is to know what students think, and understand better what the impacts of the decisions I make might be. We have students on our BOG and Senate and they are very effective. I appoint students every chance I have to search committees.

Arthur: We’re familiar with those searches, but what about student referendums? For example, the student referendum on the private residence, where 76% were opposed to such a development, was an an example of students sending a clear message to the Administration.

Franklin: That occurred before I arrived. You can’t ask me to unravel the previous administration’s decisions. I came here, certain circumstances were in place, I had to move forward.Whether or not that referendum was taken today, perhaps we should take that referendum today, would I be bound by it? No, because the legal agreements were signed long before I arrived. You are holding me to a false sense of responsibility.

Arthur: So, you’re doing this because you’re legally bound, not because it’s a good idea?

Franklin: No, I believe in the private residence. Even if I did believe something should be done, it’s not something I can do much about. It is a BOG decision, that occurred long before I arrived.

Arthur: We recognize that it was not a decision you had made. However, we still have questions about that decision […] It has been seen, from a student prospective, time and time again that students are asked for involvement, with consultation after legal documents have been signed. Which begs the question, is student consultation even considered in important manners?

Franklin: I always start with, what is a collegial system? A collegial system does not mean you get your way, it doesn’t mean you made a point and that won’t be removed at another meeting. It means that we are colleagues, we have and I feel an obligation to assess and to evaluate and make decisions with a stronger foundation of input and prospective. That is the collegial system. […] It doesn’t mean consensus, it doesn’t mean it’s democratic […]

Collegial is different. It means we are going to create opportunities for those discussions to occur and by creating those opportunities, and participating in them, you actually give your “okay,” your permission, if you will.

Arthur: Well, how about a more recent decision. Three-day ISW. Despite student opposition, ISW has been shortened from one week to three days. […] Many students feel that the administration decided a plan and came to students to get it passed, and how does that relate to collegiality? If every student said no, would ISW stay?

Franklin: No, no. Because the collegial system is not driven by the majority voice or anything like that. What it means is we will have a process where that voice can be heard and we will have a decision that voice does not support. That voice needs to be respectful that they were heard, there was some listening. Ultimately other factors came into play and the decision was made that is not one that they wanted.

Arthur: There was overwhelming opposition to the proposed private residence plan with the closure of the downtown colleges. And now ISW programming is being reduced, although student leaders have spoken out against it. With a history of ignoring student input and involvement, how are students and community members suppose to trust that their voices are being actually being heard by the administration?

Franklin: Let’s talk about the private residence as an example. We are in a box because of the previous administration’s decisions. I am not going to dispute whether they were good, bad or ugly. The bottom line is the decisions are there and we need to move forward. What I asked for was a pause in the site planning process; I felt the that some of the comments that were made suggested that the environmental concerns had not been addressed. I am an environmental scientist, I have my own environmental concerns, and I walked around the site to see for myself.

As a result, I did put in place the right kind of process to allow us to understand, so that ultimately if we were to develop that site it would be respectful to that particular wetland and the habitat that would be removed from the construction of the buildings. That has been done, it is a huge victory, and we should all take pride that we all took some time to think about the best way to make this happen. […] It’s already been signed, it’s already going to happen, and we need to make sure that we put in place the site plan that is best for that location. I moved the buildings closer to the road, so that more of the upper slope is preserved, and I asked for the storm water drainage to be redesigned so that it doesn’t make a big impact on the marsh, the small wetland there.

Arthur: You have certainty in your voice. Has the city given approval for the land use?

Franklin: “No, no. All that’s… what I’ve done, is I’ve gotten through my decision making process. It’s the responsibility of others to actually make it happen. I didn’t mean to give you that impression. I’m just talking about the site plan. I didn’t want a site plan submitted that I couldn’t support or that wasn’t respectful to the environment.

[…] I don’t have a problem with the private part of it, that’s a philosophical discussion.[…]

The reality is that this is going to happen because of decisions that stretch back to 2001.[…] We can have some Trent college programming as part of this development, but they have to be willing to pay for it because it is expensive. Students have to be willing to pay the college fees, as you probably know, there are lots of students who are upset and feel fees are too high, from their point of view, they don’t get the benefits. This links back to our college conversation earlier. I feel this is a very important question, I don’t want a large number of students coming here saying “I want the college system if only someone else will pay for it.” The reality is, it has to be something organically generated by the students who live there, and I will be thrilled to see the potential develop.

Arthur: Would it be possible to implement full college programming at the Water St. Residence and make it is own unique college? Is the private residence contradictory to a college environment?

Franklin: I am not sure I can redesign the buildings, and the way that they are managed; they are part of the agreements that were signed that will ultimately be approved. What I am suggesting that once the building is there, we can imagine how to manage the building for the best of students. It cannot be its own college because it does not have any teaching space in those buildings or common rooms. […]

This is Phase One; I thought we could have a Phase Two once we have demonstrated that Phase One was successful. Part of the original plan included commercial space, this new plan doesn’t. I think most people would be thrilled to see more commercial options at Trent instead of going downtown for everything, like grocery stores and pharmacies. Whether we can do this or not depends on the success of Phase One. If students don’t actually go and live there, there will not be a Phase Two.

Arthur: You said it depends on whether it is successful. Well, why build a private residence at all, if you have any doubt about it?

Franklin: I am not the business planner. That is RDC’s responsibility. In some ways, that is the good part of the venture because we lease them land, we don’t lose money if it fails. But, it won’t fail. There’s no way.

Arthur: We feel sometimes that we receive mixed messages from the Administration. Can you clarify – is the facility is for first year students or upper year students?

Franklin: It was definitely positioned for upper year students. We wanted to move all the upper year students off-campus. My thinking was that one of the original concepts of Trent was to put students in much more dynamic situations, where first, second, third and fourth year students were living together. In that building there, we have the potential to move some first year students in with upper years. It is our decision, not RDC, who moves into the building. We could have first year students move in there, I think this would be good especially if we implemented the college annex idea like the one on McDonnell which the students wanted. […]

The idea that students might pay to have some part of a college community in the private residence, I like that, let them have that. Maybe that can’t happen, maybe the students themselves decide that this is something they would rather not have. Maybe Phase One works fairly well for a decade and then Phase Two looks different. I won’t try to anticipate what Phase Two will look like.

Arthur: To clarify, the current plan has no retail space?

Franklin: No, there are no plans for retail, which I think is unfortunate. I’d like to see more options near campus. […]

I just want to talk about private versus public for a moment. I am not philosophically opposed to universities and corporations coming together and doing what is right. […] I’ve done it in my research area…I’ve seen it in my courses, part of working in an academic, pedagogical environment […] I’ve seen it, it happens. There are lots of ways where it can be a relationship that can sometimes require significant management and safeguards.

Arthur: And do you think that philosophical framework should come into research at Trent?

Franklin: It’s already here. Commercialization is a very large part of our research here. There will be more and more patents, license agreements… more and more engagement with the private sector, and with government.

Arthur: You were quoted in the Peterborough Examiner as saying, “while new programs will be added, the university could end up with fewer programs overall through the elimination of some programs and other programs being assimilated into other departments.” You were also quoted as saying that you “don’t want to cite examples because then that gets to be frightening for people,” which sounds a little like you have examples but you don’t want to share them. The University of Guelph lost Women’s Studies, the University of Toronto lost Disability Studies. Our Women’s Studies department is incredibly under-funded. We know some of the new programs being added, such as Kinesiology and Sustainable Agriculture. Can you expand on the elimination of programs?

Franklin: Can I correct though, the impression that you have is not the one I intended.[…] The reason I don’t want to cite examples is because I don’t want to give the impression that I have a secret agenda. […] That’s why I don’t cite examples.

I am not the guy who is going to decide which programs are cut. This will be a collegial process for managing the academic system.

Arthur: In the Trent University Act, it says that Trent will be interdisciplinary, whereas professional programs are not of that nature. Trent’s focus on growth is linked to the development of professional programs, but Concurrent Education, for example, has one of the lowest retention rates in the university. How would more professional programs benefit Trent?

Franklin: Right. But, the criteria for a program benefiting Trent is more than just retention rates. It involves what is good for the community and it may not even benefit Trent but benefit the society that supports us.
In a simple answer… I think that if the interdisciplinary nature is as strong as it is at Trent, that any structure will not overwhelm it. With nursing, over time, this program will develop some unique aspects because it’s at Trent. It will become something very special and unique, and over time it will be seen as a strong addition. In some ways, the nursing program is probably one of the best for students, and to help bring Trent’s financial viability up to scratch. […]

We have to have really strong business plans for any new programs. For kinesiology, it is hard to see the business model working because it is a very expensive program. Maybe what we should have is a health science degree with a kinesiology or a human kinetics stream within it. […] This is a program that could bring students here, and the Senate should make sure that there is a strong business plan.

Arthur: Some students are concerned about the future of their programs, particularly in the Arts – especially if they see the university putting financial resources into a new professional program. Yet there is a cap on hiring non-contract instructors in programs like Women’s Studies, that only have one tenured professor anyway. It’s concerning for students, particularly when reading that programs will be “eliminated.”

With the strong tendency at Trent for the administration to get their way in these discussions, even in the ‘collegial’ system, why should we feel safe that our input is being taken sincerely?

Franklin: Collegiality is a deep, deep subject. We expect better decisions to be made but you cannot guarantee the outcome of the decision, just because you participated. I know the administration has tendency to get its way in collegial environments over student input. […] But, judge me and not the past. I will definitely try the best I can.

Arthur: We have brought up the past, but we’re also concerned about the future. […]We are concerned about continued presence of programs, especially those in the Humanities, due to the trend of the elimination of Arts programs over Sciences.

Franklin: […] I don’t want to give the false impression that there is a list of programs that we will be eliminating and a list that we will be implementing. It will be organic from the process that was set in motion for units to tell the Provost what are the new programs that will be introduced.

Arthur: Is there a timeline for these new developments to be announced?

Franklin: I think this question will come up frequently in the future- someone will raise this at Senate. I don’t think you should be at all surprised that the university is considering adding new programs and cutting other programs. Universities do this all the time. It’s the right thing to do. It is how we do it that is important.