Learning from the past… planning for the future. In conversation with Dr. Leo Groarke


Dr. Groarke, you’re still relatively new to Trent University, having been here as president for approximately four months, could you introduce yourself to the Trent community and briefly discuss your arrival at Trent?

I will always introduce myself as a philosophy professor. That’s the core of who I am and I would say that I am a philosophy professor who is interested in higher education. Because of that—and because I am a relatively practical person—I got pushed into administration, which I quite enjoy.

I came to Trent because I thought at the time that there was a great fit between who I am as a person and what Trent is as an institution; that has been confirmed to me. Before I came here I thought of Trent as being a high quality smaller institution, and that’s what I have found it to be.

However, I’ve also been impressed by some things that I couldn’t fully appreciate until I got here.

One is that I’ve now spent the summer here and the campus is just spectacular. I’ve been kayaking on the Otonabee and just to walk around the campus is absolutely remarkable.

Also, I knew that Trent is an interdisciplinary place but I didn’t really understand how truly interdisciplinary it is until I was able to be here.

Trent really is the kind of place where a student can major in business and major in chemistry, or do economics combined with philosophy. I think that this is just a part of what students do here.

Finally, I didn’t fully appreciate Trent as a two campus university with both Peterborough and Oshawa. These are different geographical locations that each have different implications for how we should develop them in the future.

What does it mean for Trent University to be reaching its 50th anniversary?

The first thing it means is that this university has been a success.

Remember, when Tom Symons and the other founders were working on this university decades ago there was no guarantee that there would be provincial funding, or that students would come here, or that they would be able to attract faculty. So to have Trent be successful here in Peterborough for fifty years is first and foremost a success story.

However, Trent’s 50th anniversary is also a juncture point between the past and the future. I like to think of things historically so to me it means that while we have been successful in the past, we need to be planning how we’re going to be successful for the next fifty years.

I’m glad you brought this up because I think there has historically been a lot of tension surrounding what Trent is now, what it once was, and what it potentially could be. Could you talk about this in respect to Trent’s identity as a school?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the identity of this school and I really feel that what defines Trent is its interactivity. We are a very dynamic university and it is a place that provides a lot of room for interaction between its members.

If you attend a larger school you might only get to work with people that are in your same narrow field of study; at a smaller university, like Trent, your colleagues are more likely to cross disciplinary boundaries.

Furthermore, this is a university with a social conscience and there is a tremendous amount of interaction between the school and the wider community. One of my favourite examples of this is the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education (TCCBE).

So I think of interaction as being the key to who we are. I think that perhaps we’re better at it because we’re a small institution but I don’t think that the real soul of the place is being small, it’s being interactive.

With all that’s happened over the past 50 years, both the good and the bad, do think that Trent’s core identity as a school has changed?

I would say yes and no. Those core ideals that I just spoke about: interaction and social consciousness, they have remained constant. However, there are some things that have changed through the decades.

For example, Trent is much more of a research university than it originally was and this research has now become a real emphasis for the university.

Another way that Trent has changed is its college system. The colleges are not what they were originally nor are they what they aspired to be. You can debate whether or not the changes that have taken place have been positive or negative, but you can’t say that there haven’t been changes to the colleges.

You mentioned earlier that it is important that Trent uses the 50th celebrations to plan for the future. If interactivity is truly the core identity of Trent, how should we build upon this ideal in the future?

Universities are evolving organisms, they’re not frozen in time and they will always change. I would suggest that we look at one major change that’s happening more broadly: the arrival of the digital age. Trent University was founded before the arrival of the digital age but it is now upon us and it is going to change education, there is no question about it.

Digital education is going to become a key component of higher education in the future and the government is pushing very strongly in that direction. This type of education is key in preparing students for the world that they live and I think that there are some ways in which it allows us to educate students in a better, more profound way.

The question for Trent is: how do you find a place for this new dimension of university. What I would do is think back to the values of interactivity.

For example, online courses are not all the same. There are many kinds of online courses with varying degrees of interactivity and a lot of the important aspects of the interactivity can now be done over the internet.

So I think that Trent, along with every other university, needs to expand in the direction of digital learning and we need to do so in a way that’s in keeping with what our core identity is and that is by stressing interaction, feedback, discussion, and active learning. This is an example of how we can change while still staying the same and I think that’s what we have to do.

What are the most significant challenges currently facing Trent University at this point?

Well, there are some very significant budget challenges. The provincial government has decided that its goal in the next three years is to reduce its operating budget by $12 billion, that’s four billion dollars per year for each of three years.

These cuts are going to have mammoth repercussions on the university system and we need to find a way to deal with them.

We also have serious pension liabilities and we need to resolve these issues because we are now taking money from our operating budget and instead of putting it into areas that help faculty and students we are using it take care of our pension liabilities.

On this front, however, I think that both the administration and Trent University Faculty Association (TUFA) take this problem very seriously and are at the forefront of finding a way to deal with this.

The final financial problem is that we’re soft on enrolment. I don’t want to overstate this issue, it’s not a disaster, but we do have a budget that depends on us getting a certain number of students and we have not historically reached those numbers.

Other challenges for this university are, of course, the arrival of digital education, as well as trying to maintain programming that is relevant both to the needs of the world and to the desires of students.

As you noted, the changes that have occurred in regards to Trent’s college system have been perhaps some of the most consistently controversial over the years. Do you think the college system remains meaningful to Trent in the 21st century? Do you think it is sustainable?

Yes, I think the colleges are still meaningful. However, at the same time they are not what they once were and I think that is just the truth. For one thing, the colleges are much larger than was envisaged. Also, if you look at significant collegiate universities elsewhere, people live in residence for all four years of study.

At one point it was very important for faculty to be fellows of the colleges and to be engaged with students, but this too seems to have drifted apart. At the same time, there has been a growth in academic departments and the faculty have moved in that direction and are not as engaged with the colleges as they once were.

I would still say that the colleges are very important and the new version of the colleges are much larger, but they are playing a key role in the provision of student services and student support. And I hope that they are still a component of the identity of Trent students. Though they are not what they once were, they are still an opportunity for students to identify with all a smaller community of people and have all the positives that come from those types of relationships.

So, I wouldn’t say they’re irrelevant; they are still here and I think they are still functioning well, but are they what they were originally conceived as being? I don’t think so.

Now, I am interested in finding ways to try to preserve or recapture that spirit but I don’t think that it is fiscally possible to recreate colleges that are no longer here.
I hope to have a conversation with people about what more we could do to make the colleges once again the places that alumni remember them being, there’s a long conversation to be had on this.

Another important issue is Trent University’s presence within downtown Peterborough. Can you talk about how Trent is planning to reconnect with the downtown community?

First, I don’t think that we can have a detailed conversation about downtown until the municipal election is over. Whatever the people of Peterborough’s decide, we will embrace it. We will work work with whoever becomes mayor and is on council for the betterment of both Trent University and Peterborough.

However, I am very much open to the question of if there is something interesting we can do downtown. It is very important to not take away some key component from this main campus and put it downtown, because that means that this campus suffers from that development.

But there may be components of what we do that would make more sense in the downtown location. My project would be to see if we could find some of those things and put enough together to create a critical mass to try to do something.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Dr. Groarke.

Thanks, I’m glad you came by.

About Matthew Rappolt 68 Articles
Matthew is a Lady Eaton College alumni, graduating in 2014 with a degree in Canadian Studies and an Emphasis in Law and Policy. Before being elected co-editor of Arthur for Volume 49, he was a campus news reporter keeping an eye on the TCSA, the colleges, and university administration. Outside of Arthur, Matthew enjoys reading, craft beer, sports, and civic pride. His aspiration is to one day open a tiny little brewery in a tiny little town.