Over the course of my four years at Trent, one of the complaints that I have heard frequently from students and community members is that this is a university lacking a clear identity.
With other schools across the province, it’s easy to identify their emphases or cultures.
For example, everyone knows that Waterloo is the place to be if you want to specialize in engineering and computer sciences; Guelph is well-known for its emphases on agriculture and the environment; Carleton seems to have become the go-to school for media, applied arts, and (albeit to a lesser extent) the study of Canadian politics and history.
But can we really say that Trent retains a core ideal upon which it builds its identity?
The identity of this school seems to have become so malleable in recent years that it has lost any true resonance.
What is our defining characteristic? Perhaps more than anything else, Trent has actively tried to brand itself as a school specializing in the study of nature and the environment.
On the surface, this seems to be a good fit given the school’s pristine locale and the fact that our environment and sustainability programs command a great deal of respect within academic circles.
However, there are already several other schools that have been much more successful at branding themselves as “green schools” within the public mind; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Trent described as a smaller, more remote University of Guelph.
Somehow I don’t think that is what our marketing department was going for.
Looking back in history, Trent didn’t always have such a difficult time defining itself.
This used be a school renown for its strong culture of student activism. That is, until the administration did its best to stamp out the activists.
Trent also used to be known for its small class sizes; now we have more than a few first year lectures that can’t fit into a single lecture hall.
Trent used to trumpet how its faculty and students could actually get to know one another on a personal basis; we now have classes being cancelled because they don’t have a minimum number of students.
Trent’s calling card used be that it was a bastion of liberal arts study and critical scholarship, that is, until the humanities were slashed to make way for new professional programming.
Sure, Trent still receives an annual “differentiation grant” from the provincial government, but is anyone clear on why we deserve it?
Trent has spent almost two decades chasing dollars and funding units by attempting to remake itself from a small, relatively decentralized, collegiate university into a medium-sized, centralized, comprehensive university.
The result has been that we’ve been left somewhere in that opaque middle-ground: too big and unfocused to properly fulfil our mandate as the former, but too small to be taken seriously as the latter.
While it’s true that some of these changes have come as the result of an absurd government funding model that encourages homogeneity instead of diversity in Ontario’s post-secondary system, much of it has been self-inflicted by administrators who have tried to mould the school to fit their own views on higher education.
With a new president installed, a new funding formula being discussed, and the community engaged by the 50th anniversary, it seems as though now would be an excellent time as any to begin an honest, community-wide conversation about the nature of Trent’s core identity.
It might not be the conversation that the university wants to have, but it’s one that is desperately overdue.