When the news broke last spring that the Office of Student Affairs was planning a dramatic overhaul of Trent’s college system, members of the community, undoubtedly recalling the university’s spotty track record for collegiate preservation, reacted with suspicion.
Over the past decade, and perhaps even longer, the college system has been steadily eroded to the point where many have argued that the college experience has become virtually indistinguishable from the conventional residence experience at other universities.
Back when they were planning the university, Trent’s founders were clear about what differentiated the colleges from mere residences.
First, the colleges were to exist as autonomously as possible from the university administration, which would give each individual community the space required to grow in its own unique direction, both structurally and philosophically. In turn, they argued, this would ultimately enrich the broader university and provide a truly distinctive educational experience for college members.
Second, and most important, was the nature of the colleges as academic bodies. Whereas traditional residences are built simply to house students outside of their instruction, Trent’s colleges were conceived as being the nexus of a student’s educational experience.
Every aspect of college life, from its leadership, to its programming, to its composition, to its architecture, is intended to foster academic growth and break down the boundaries of learning.
It is because of these two defining features that, from the university’s founding until this past summer, the college heads have always been members of faculty.
Colleges were intended to provide more than just student services and, therefore, leadership was to comprise of senior academics who could fulfill a mentorship role and provide overarching academic direction for the whole college community.
Although the position of college head has long reported to some aspect of the university administration, there has always been an (albeit dwindling) degree of separation between college and administrative governance. With the recent restructuring this is no longer the case.
The academic leadership of Trent’s four undergraduate colleges is gone, replaced by college heads who specialize primarily in administration and the provision of student services. These heads report directly to the newly created Director of Colleges position, an organ of the Office of Student Affairs charged with maintaining the consistency and quality of college programming across the board.
The rationale for this type of restructuring is, of course, clear and logical. “The idea with any sort of centralization is efficiency,” the new Director of Colleges, Barry Townshend told Arthur this summer. “What little resources we have, we have to spend well so we need to look for efficiencies.”
But while this argument may make perfect sense from an administrative perspective, it completely flies in the face of the very essence of the collegiate model of education.
Are colleges cost effective? No. Are they administratively efficient? Not particularly. Are they structurally consistent? Definitely not.
However, the colleges were never intended to be any of these things; they were created as the core institutional structure at Trent University in spite of their costly, inefficient, inconsistent natures because at their best they provide students with an invaluable and irreplicable educational experience.
Over the summer, Peter Robinson College, one of Trent’s two inaugural colleges, celebrated its 50th anniversary with an alumni reunion bash. Despite the fact that the college officially closed its doors more than a decade ago, over a hundred alumni traveled from across the country to reconnect with old friends, listen to speeches from their old professors, and celebrate PRC on the grounds of Sadleir House.
It was a truly magical day that signified the incredible potential of the colleges as they were envisioned by Trent’s founders back in the early 1960s.
It is no secret that money is scarce here at Trent, as it is at most of Ontario’s small universities. But with a stable student population and negotiations for a new post-secondary funding arrangement at least on the horizon, Trent should be returning to the original values of autonomy and academic spirit that once defined its collegiate vision.
For more than a decade this university has been in danger of having a college system in name only.
The recent changes, I fear, merely bring us one more step closer to that reality.