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College identity and their place in Ontario Universities

The image below was printed on the cover of Issue 13 Volume 49 of Arthur on Jan. 13, 2014 titled “Debating the future of the college system.”

Arthur Newspaper had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Robin Lathangue, known for starting the College Scarf Initiative when he was Head of Colleges from 2008 to 2012 at Trent University, to gain insight on what the Colleges were like before the college restructuring took place.

On the College Scarves
The scarves always presented a challenge, such as what the colours should be. Luckily for me I had nothing but the best [individuals]wanting to do that research. We went back and scoured through Trent’s history, and discovered the colours and crests. It was very exciting, we even came out with the College Press and made stamps for stationary.

On the controversy of the Colleges

I think the Colleges have been a source of debate at Trent since their very inception. So it’s almost like the question of Quebec;  you never really want it to be it’s own nation. That would be the end of Canada. There’s something eternal about talking about the colleges, about what they mean and what they could do.

What sort of challenges were you faced with as Head of Colleges?

When I was Head of Colleges, only one person reported to me.

So, looking at the Otonabee College team back then, there might be fifteen people working in that college who are there to serve the members of the college in one form or another, but only one of them reports to me… and I was the College Head.

So I had to ask myself, what kind of authority do I have? What kind of decisions can I make? It finally dawned on me that it was a Matrix Model- you have the college in the centre and all these players outside of them. There’s the College Office, the residential aspect, faculty, Food Services, security, etc. I didn’t control any of those.

Security goes to Risk Management, Food Services goes to Student Services, Residence goes to Housing, Faculty goes to the Dean of Academics. So, who did I have to communicate with to get something done? I had to make friends with all of these people, so my College Office meetings had representatives.

Twenty five years ago, each of the Colleges had their own team to report to them, now they all report out. They are there at the college but they don’t have the same vested interest in the membership of the college and the morale.

How close are students to their College Heads?

I offered curriculum in the OC office. I had a Thursday afternoon reading group. These are relationships you have to cultivate with students, and I wonder what those relationships are like now with current College Heads.

On the position of Head of Colleges

I was told that the position was made redundant, and my contact was not renewed as Head of Colleges.

Then another series of changes took place and they hired someone to be the Director of Colleges. So, in some way the position came back. I wasn’t surprised at all that the colleges became a part of Student Services. The Colleges became centralized in a way.

When I first met my future boss, Gary Boire, he said “I’ve heard two things about you- that your position was originally designed to totally restructure the Colleges and to change them, and you’ve done a terrible job at that.

I’ve also heard that you support the Colleges, and have really helped remind themselves of what they are and what they can do, and you’ve done a great job of that.”

On the restructuring of the Colleges

The original vision was of an academic community versus a residence. The difference was that until recently, College Heads were engaged in the student’s world at a higher level.

College Heads were scholars, and practicing scholars, teachers, and were doing the kind of thing and the same thing that students are doing: writing and research, but they’re doing it at a higher level and are a model of what academic work looks like. So, they were a community that reported politically through the hierarchy to the Vice President Academics.

So, typically, the Heads were academics. They were scholars and professors who were paid part- time; half their salary would come from the college budget and half from the department.

Students could get together at academic events with senior academics who were studying what the [students] study so it  gave [students] the opportunity to think about what it is they were studying. So, it’s that kind of thing.

Now, the colleges report to the AVP Student Services. The colleges are less concerned about the academic community and more with trying to support students any way they can.

The focus is now more centered on mental health, student stress around exam times and  keeping students safe. It’s like being the local parent. So, the colleges are at risk of becoming mere residences again. I think the original vision was to have five colleges all on campus… Actually, the original vision was to have thirteen colleges. Not five. That takes a lot of money and a strong donor base, and it’s Trent’s job as a University to set a goal to develop those colleges.

The Student Voice in the College Restructuring

When I came to Trent, one of the things that surprised me was the degree to which students have decision making and power within the hierarchy.

I’ve never seen the same thing  to the same degree at other institutions.

If you have an interest in participating in the decision making of these structures, I can think of no other University in Canada where you can get more of an opportunity.

You want to encourage students to have a voice and an impact, and now that you are tying in money you deserve a voice.

Where does the money come from to fund these changes and restructure everything? Where in the hierarchy do you go? Well, who is in charge of the College budgets? If it’s the Director of Colleges, who is in charge of the Director of Colleges? How long has that position been in existence?

The identity of Colleges in Ontario as a diminishing concept

Canadian students haven’t been socialized to the idea of colleges. The administration was always reluctant to let me promote the colleges as individuals, because it’s confusing.

For example, if a student goes to a University Fair, and there is   a booth for Trent and you start talking about the colleges, students are like. “I’m here to talk about going to University.”

They don’t understand the residential college movement, because they haven’t been socialized to it. Canada does not have, apart from a handful of Universities, a college system.

Students do not know what a college is or how to behave as a member of that college. They understand houses, but not what an academic community is.

There was never any discouragement on campus, and also the President at that time was Stephen Franklin, so college stuff at that time was A-OK. What marketing in particular had difficulty with was the talk of colleges. When students hear the word “college” they think of Fleming, of Humber and George Brown, because of the Ontario college system.

On Student Services in replacement of Academic leadership

I tend to agree that the changes in the colleges were necessary. It is like the tide changing, it’s inevitable.

Parents are very worried for the kind of student that is showing up. Parents are very worried that they aren’t going to be able to get a job. So, there’s an emphasis on professional schools and transferable skills, not so much the experience.

Students are bringing pathologies and mental health issues, students are bringing lots of prescription drugs with them, they are under a lot of pressure and need counselling, and so over the last ten to  fifteen years you have the professionalization of Student Services and Student Affairs, which is a centralized model.

Apart from all of that, if you’re really committed to the college system, the power of decision making is very de-centralized, and that sounds great from a political point of view.

That did help foster communities but what we were finding was that students were getting one level of service at one college and a different level of service at another college. The concern was that we need to be as consistent as possible about certain services and supports right across the colleges.

On faculty engagement and the Colleges

To the degree that faculty are interested in participating in the colleges, there’s nothing structurally to award them.

I fought really hard, and even had students channel me in various meetings to go into the Faculty Associates meetings and negotiations and look at promotions through the ranks and in the systems.

Is there some way that we can get language in so that they are coming out to college events and supporting college events?

Could they get some credit for that? Can that be part of their award program? I never got very far with that.

If you really wanted to support colleges and services, why wouldn’t you make them a part of service? It never got off the ground. For two years, I tried my best.

There’s just no incentive. How do you incentivise the college life to faculty? It’s very hard.

On the Catharine Parr Traill College review

Doug Evans was Head of Traill when I was Head of Colleges. He used to make the argument that the traffic was high there.

You might call Traill College a graduate student college but on any given day it’s filled with more undergraduates. It’s very popular amongst undergraduates. Why don’t they get compensated for that? There are all kinds of activities going on for undergraduates. I never quite understood  why undergraduates are paying $200 plus, whereas grad students are only paying $15. What can you do with $15?

The physical budget is centralized.

On the new Student Centre

I was always very skeptical about the Student Centre.

I constantly made the argument that there was a lot of student spaces in the colleges. I always thought it was a distraction, and this happened after I left.

I thought it was yet another centralizing of student space. Fine, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to make Trent like other Universities because students come to Trent and say, “Where is the student space?”

The response should be, “Well, we have a pub on campus and some student space here,” but we don’t say that.

On the argument that there is a lack of student space on campus

I always felt that there was a lot of student space but it was never being promoted.

It wasn’t being profiled or supported. I never bought that argument. I went through the Otonabee College Commons. There were lots of space for students to be in there. I never got the logic behind the Student Centre. There’s the commons upstairs. It used to be the Cat’s Ass.

The relationship between students and their Colleges

I tried not to see students as bodies at a college, I tried to see students as scholars, as learners, as part of a community.

The fact of the matter is, students were bringing issues with them that needed the kind of support that colleges were less and less able to provide. There’s a gap there, a vacuum of services and that is why you have the rise of Student Services.

The college system seems to be in crisis, because students are in crisis. I’ve never had training in suicide intervention, I have never had any training on life- saving techniques or emergency response.

These are more and more the kinds of supports, in addition to academic supports, that students need.

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