In Professor Tom Symons’ inaugural address at the opening of Trent University in 1964 he declared that “The philosophy of our University is… reflected in the decision that Trent should be a collegiate university.” There is one word in that statement that I think can explain the decline of the colleges at Trent. That word is decision.
You see, Professor Symons and the founders of Trent understood that in order to be a collegiate university, especially in a country in which collegiate universities are the exception rather than the norm, you have to have people in positions of power who are committed to the ideals and values of the college system. In other words, as an institution you have to constantly decide that you want to be a collegiate university.
In this respect, the issue that hampers the colleges at Trent University is that the school has stopped deciding that it is a collegiate university. And while we still have our individual colleges, we have lost the essence of what it means to be truly collegiate.
In a collegiate university the colleges should the defining feature of the school, part of its core identity and its physical, administrative, philosophical, and pedagogical make-up. At Trent, the colleges have become peripheral and, to be frank, largely unnecessary; they are viewed more as an effective marketing gimmick than as a core aspect of the school’s identity.
In a collegiate university, the administration and those in power must be constantly looking at situations through a collegiate lens and acting with the explicit goal of reinforcing and reaffirming the university’s collegiate ideals. This means treating the college system as the philosophic cornerstone of the school and building the the physical and administrative structures around that.
This type of mentality has not been seen at Trent for decades. The administration’s decision to sell off of Peter Robinson College in 2001, its refusal to build specified common rooms into Gzowski College in 2004, its selling off of Traill’s undergraduate residences in 2007, and the ongoing construction of the non-collegiate private residences are all relatively recent examples of how Trent has chosen to spurn its collegiate identity for mediocrity and the easy way out.
Even today, the administration and the TCSA are pushing ahead with plans for a centralized student centre in the heart of Symons Campus, one that many community members have warned further undermine the role of the colleges as essential parts of the student and university community.
Looking forward, if there is a way that Trent can strengthen (or even save) its college system the university as a whole must choose to once again commit itself to becoming a true collegiate institution. This would necessitate taking a hard look at at every facet of the school and making difficult decisions about the kinds of programs, services, and structures that we want to have.
Above all, it would mean confronting the bare fact that we are no longer a collegiate university and that to become one requires a clear institutional choice, one that must be made and then constantly reaffirmed by the actions those in positions of power. This, in my view, is the only way to save Trent’s college system.