groarkeDr. Leo Groarke comes into the job of Trent University’s eighth president with some very impressive credentials.

According to the press release issued by the Trent’s communications department shortly after his Feb. 21 appointment, Dr. Groarke is a well-respected academic specializing in philosophy and has honed his administrative skills at two prominent Ontario institutions: Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Windsor.

Judging by his impressive administrative record, which includes growing Laurier’s Brantford Campus from a mere 40 students to over two thousand, the Trent community has good reason to be optimistic.

Groarke’s work in Brantford seems to be particularly significant because Trent, like Laurier Brantford, is an institution that considers itself an integral part of its local community.
However, what Groarke must keep in mind is that, unlike Brantford, Trent is a not a fledgling school. Trent is an institution with a long history and is now grappling with unique institutional challenges.

At the forefront of these challenges is the fact that the university community is still emotionally fragile from the fallout of a thoroughly devastating decade, a decade which has ingrained within the student body a powerful cynicism about university administration.

This was not always the case. There was a time when the student body possessed a healthy critical respect for the school’s administrators.

An early Arthur article describes a sizeable student rally protesting against the resignation of the university’s founding president Thomas H. B. Symons.

Meanwhile, university historian A.O.C. Cole notes in his book Trent: The Making of a University that even during times of severe financial crisis (which were many) the student body could always count on meaningful dialogue with top administrators who genuinely valued their opinions and expressions.

However, that was then and this is now. Fifteen years ago this bond of reciprocal collegiality was shattered by then-president Bonnie Patterson who instituted a full-fledged institutional retreat from downtown Peterborough.

It was at this time that the university also turned its back on its collegiate identity in moves that sparked unprecedented polarization and hostility between the university administration, students, and faculty.

It was during Patterson’s decidedly destructive tenure, which lasted for 11 gruelling years (1998-2009), that Trent University was taken to court by its own faculty over its plan to shutter the downtown colleges. It was during her tenure that the administration ploughed ahead with a contract to build a privately-owned, non-collegiate residence (now known as the Water Street Residence) amid significant protest from both the Trent and Peterborough communities. And it was during her tenure that Peter Gzowski College was planned and built as a residential college strangely devoid of common rooms or student space.

Although it has been more than a decade since the Trent administration sold off Peter Robinson College and more than five years since Patterson resigned as president, the effects of her tumultuous legacy can still be felt within this university.

The dark clouds of suspicion that hang over the planning of any significant administrative documents and the reactionary hostility that inevitably greets their release are merely the most obvious examples.

This pattern has been seen time and time again: with the university’s Integrated Plan, then with Academic Plan and more recently with the Green Paper and the new Strategic Mandate Agreement.

Perhaps most importantly, there exists a pervasive feeling amongst the student body that the administration does not have Trent’s best interests at heart and that it either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about preserving the foundational aspects that make this university unique.

For this the administration has only itself to blame.

These unfortunate yet entirely justified sentiments are the result of an 11-year period in which the administration brazenly mistreated the Trent community and thought of the students and faculty as political adversaries rather than legitimate and necessary partners.

Over the past five years President Steven Franklin has commendably tried to rebuild the bridges of collegiality and consultation that for so long characterized this university.

As the community has quickly found out, however, there is no easy fix.

During the Patterson era the administration lost the respect and trust of the student body. Just like any broken relationship, the wounds are deep and will take time to heal.

Until then, the Trent administration, soon to be led by Groarke, will have to go out of its way to prove these negative perceptions are no longer justified. It will have to actively demonstrate its commitment to fostering collegiality, consultation and meaningful discussion with the student body.

The community consultation involved in choosing a new food provider was exemplary in this regard and Vice-Presidents Steven Pillar and Gary Boire are now showing leadership by continually meeting with students to discuss aspects of the new Strategic Mandate Agreement.

When he finally begins his tenure here at Trent, Groarke must demonstrate early and often that he values the participation of the student body in administrative decision making and is committed to rebuilding the ties between the two parties.

Trent University is not Laurier Brantford. This school has a wonderfully rich but complicated history that Groarke would be wise to learn. As a scholar of the humanities he should certainly know that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.