Colleges as cultural constructions and the changing collegiate university

This is an abbreviated version of the paper given by Dr. Michael Eamon at the Collegiate Way Conference at Durham University, England, 20 November 2014.

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Fifty years ago, the founders of Trent consciously chose the collegiate model for their new university. It was hoped that such a model would provide a well-established vision and ready-made traditions to bolster a fledgling university without a past of its own. Fifty years later, Trent is at a crossroads over its collegiate nature. But, to be perfectly honest, it always has been. There has been constant pressure to adapt and change the more traditional aspects of college life at Trent during its relatively brief existence. Trent is a cultural construction, or more accurately, it is continually under construction as Canadian society changes.

Yet, at what point does a collegiate university, transformed by both internal and external forces, lose its claim to collegiate status? Are college traditions once transformed, irrevocably lost? When I was the principal of Lady Eaton College, I pioneered several modest initiatives to help reinvigorate the college model. More importantly, I started to think philosophically about how to effect meaningful change that balances both tradition and modern realities. That is to say, how to make the right changes based on core principles that both understand the tenets of collegiality and appreciate the distinct cultural influences that surround it.

For Tom Symons, the creation of Trent was a means to reinvigorate the collegiate system in Canada. Indeed, establishing a fully-formed collegiate university has rarely been attempted and was an extremely bold decision in 1960s North America; let alone in Peterborough.

Symons had studied at the University of Toronto and Oxford. He saw and understood the best, and the worst, that the collegiate system had to offer and proposed the model for the new university. In particular, he was concerned with the growth of scientific and professional schools outside of the traditional college system. The sciences, engineering, and medicine, he argued, needed a fostering interdisciplinary community just as much as the humanities.

In contrast, Trent University would be modern in design, youthful in energy, yet anchored in centuries-old collegiate traditions that promoted community, humility and scholarship. Most importantly, it would be interdisciplinary in outlook. And modern and interconnected it was! Ron Thom designed a master plan for a university of at least 12 colleges; a cluster of small academic villages connected by footpaths. This was done at a time when the other modern university structures in Canada were designed as monolithic campuses under one roof. Trent was purposefully designed to be small and intimate, it was unique in its plan as a fully-realized collegiate university.

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Yet, the road was not easy. From the very beginning Tom Symons had to explain the college model to an unfamiliar public and student body. The crush of new students in the early years soon spelled the end of uniquely male and female colleges and the ability for the entire student population to live in college.

These and other changes put great pressure on the university to grow and maintain its collegiate identity. As early as 1971, just seven years after the creation of the university, Paula Hope—president of the Lady Eaton College student cabinet—remarked that the college is now “essentially a residence, not a community… colleges are just becoming a place to live.” (Arthur 1 April 1971, 1.)While a good piece of election propaganda (Hope went on to win another term as student president), there was also an underlying truth in her sentiments. At all levels, Trent was becoming increasingly divided between collegiate and central authority.

Since the early 1970s, the development of Trent has been a negotiation between its collegiate origins and new financial, pedagogical and social realities. Financial issues, in particular, have pushed the centralization of services and administration at the university. The anti-collegial trends that Tom Symons attempted to address in 1964 started to emerge at Trent. The growth of the sciences, the need for separate labs with specialized offices and equipment, as well as the increased importance of the discipline-specific academic department have helped erode the interdisciplinary nature of the colleges.

More recently, the rise of professional schools have further complicated matters. These schools constitute separate enclaves that do not need, or necessarily consider, the value of the collegiate model. An even larger shift in academic culture, influenced by post-modernist and post colonialist thinking, questions the very nature of the collegiate system itself. Increasingly, the college system has been on the defensive against those who see it as an unchanging and inherently flawed dinosaur, embodying an antiquated, elitist legacy of education and representative of an inherently unjust colonial system. In sum, for 50 years, cultural, social and financial pressures from all angles have been an unrelenting force upon the original collegiate structure of the university.

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Today, I hope to offer another voice in the chorus of those who theorize about the nature of the collegiate system, and ask you forgiveness if it is a discordant one. Indeed, I would like to argue that what we do as collegiate universities, what services we offer, or traditions we celebrate are not as important as why we do them.

In the ever-changing, culturally-constructed environment of higher education, our guide must be a core set of values or an underlying collegiate ethos. Furthermore, we should not criticize each other for doing things differently, as long as we have this collegiate compass to keep us centred. I would ask that we do not fall prey to the hyperbole of modernity and change. The challenges facing collegiate universities, whether from the Internet, or student engagement, or new technologies, have deep roots. There have always been trends in academic, social and political culture that seem at odds with the collegiate way. Yet, aside from these pressures, I believe there can be a shared ethos. It is spirit that unites us, justifies our traditions and informs change.

For example, a greater meaning can be infused into simple and commonplace items such as the college scarf.  At Lady Eaton College, I asked upper-year students to pass down scarves to the first-year students in a special ceremony at the beginning of the year. In the ceremony, I explained the embroidered coat-of-arms and offered what I thought was a fitting Latin translation of the official motto of sapientia et humanitas, or wisdom and the grace to use that wisdom for the betterment of others. Thus, I was trying to create a sense that identity was not just a superficial display of pride; but also, an inward set of values -of social justice- that we keep close to our hearts. A college scarf can be a material item practical value, but it can also be much more: a means to build and strengthen the college community by enforcing lifelong values.

For a small university of just over 7000 students, the colleges at Trent University are relatively large. At Lady Eaton College alone there are over 1200 student members, most of whom live out-of-college. All colleges at Trent face the same problem; of engaging the larger student community. At Lady Eaton, I spent a great deal of time wondering how could I possibly engage this large group living out-of-college? Upon reflection, boiling it down to first principles, living in college is done for a combination of practical and philosophical reasons. When one breaks down the living and learning experience into its composite parts one can find elements such as: 1) eating/sleeping; 2) proximity to class; 3) peer interaction; 4) identity building; 5) relaxation; and 6) extracurricular learning, to name a few.

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As I needed the college to stretch to where the students were, where they actually lived, I contacted the proprietor of a coffee shop in the downtown called Black Honey. Lisa Dixon was a successful woman in business who used local and organic ingredients, fair trade coffees and teas. This was the exact kind of meaningful commercial space that I believed should be affiliated with a college. It was also at the heart of the city’s café district, a popular place for students. As most Trent students live downtown, I thought this would be the first step to reengaging them on their own turf.

The college student government and I held office hours down there to promote the university and provide student assistance. All students received a special discount card to make the experience more enticing. In return, I would use Black Honey’s services for catering and pay for paint and other repairs that the space required. The space was painted in college colours, we hung college ephemera on the walls, and Lady Eaton College@Black Honey was born. It was a success. Current students relaxed and studied there, prospective students and the general public found out more about the both college system and the greater university. Building upon this, the next year we signed agreements with Dear Henry, the neighboring stationary shop, and Artspace, an artist-run gallery behind Black Honey. Soon a growing portion of public, downtown space was also considered by students of Lady Eaton their college space, unique, but open to all.

Whether the using college scarves, or creating a virtual college enclave downtown, my methodology was infused with the following ideas, that colleges should be: 1) a physical as well as a virtual space; 2) inclusive, never exclusive (with multivalent identities); 3) combine living and learning in a small environment; 4) interdisciplinary and 5) infused with a spirit of learning, self-betterment and civic improvement. Let me take a moment to further explain these points. When I say a physical as well as a virtual space, I mean that it should exist in bricks and mortar, online and, more importantly, in the minds of students and faculty. In this digital age, it is very easy for students to create their own communities. Thus, a college must not try to manage or replace the social networks of students; but instead encourage their existence within their conceptualization of what a college is. A college must have a physical presence; but it also must transcend it to be a virtual ideal that extends past its physical boundaries. This way, relationships and values forged in college can follow students wherever they go.


Colleges must always be inclusive, never exclusive. A college is not a fraternal order, or a club: it is an academic community; an alternate learning environment that transcends the classroom. All should be welcome; yet appreciative of the diversity of scholarship and other communities or college that form the larger pursuit of knowledge. A college should combine living and learning. One ideal method is having all members physically live in college. Yet, as I have illustrated, I believe there are other ways to achieve the same end. We are all searching for meaning in our lives and I believe that colleges can infuse students and faculty with a positive spirit of learning, but also with a sense of how that learning can lead to action. We are gaining an education, not just to attain a job, but to become better people and through that attainment we can better the lives of others.

Today, I have argued that a holistic approach that takes into account both past and present attitudes is vital in maintaining a collegiate identity. In this approach, it is important to distill college functions down to first principles. A clearer understanding of past challenges—coupled with a clear sense of a core, pedagogical ethos—creates a sensible foundation for change. From such a position, the alteration of old, or creation of new, collegiate traditions can be effectively undertaken.

Traditions are important, but it is equally important to use them as link to our past, a reminder of core values and a springboard to the future. We cannot follow them blindly, nor can we rest on our laurels assuming that the collegiate way is inalienable. As Tom Symons said reflecting upon need for change in 1968: “There ought to be no temptation to complacency and no misconceptions about the university as an institution immune to change. Change and growth are our facts of life; they present us with both our problems and our opportunities.” (Arthur 20 September 1968, 7.)

Now, more than ever, colleges need to understand their core values. It is also important that they share this knowledge and develop a collegiate compass, or an overarching set of best practices that honours the past, informs future change and respects the diverse nature of the collegiate university worldwide.