Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to sit down for tea and cake with Professor Tom Symons and his wife Christine in their historic home, Marchbanks, in downtown Peterborough. Professor Symons is the founding president of Trent University, serving in that role until 1972. He has also chaired the Association of Commonwealth Universities, is an officer of the Order of Canada, and is the current chair of the Board of Directors for the Ontario Heritage Trust.

In addition to his academic accolades, which are too numerous to name, Professor Symons is a gracious host and a delightful conversationalist and storyteller. Given that 2014 marks Trent University’s 50th anniversary, I wanted to get his perspective on Trent’s past, its current situation, and its future challenges.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Trent has always styled itself as being a unique institution thanks to its college system, small group teaching, and focus on interdisciplinarity. Given that the university is currently conducting a presidential search, do you think that Trent requires a different type of president than other Ontario institutions?

I think each university is its own thing. Each university has its own personality or multiple personalities and they require or elicit different characteristics from their presidential folk and Trent is no different from that.

But what we probably need and benefit from is going to be a little different because of the things you described. Trent is located in an old Ontario town in an extraordinarily beautiful part of Canada with its lakes and rivers that are a huge factor in the life of the university. Also, [Trent’s] wish to be for the most part residential and to try and have as individually directed approach to education is possible – very difficult to do and to keep up, but it’s not merely a financial challenge and in some ways, that is not even as big a challenge as finding the faculty that will care enough to [uphold these values].

There has been a lot of talk from the provincial government recently about “differentiating” Ontario’s post-secondary institutions. What is your perspective on this approach?

Well, I’m not honestly sure about the direction the government is taking. There is a lot of talk about differentiation, [but] I’m not quite sure what it means as it seems to vary depending on who you’re listening to. I think a degree of distinctiveness in approach and values between universities is a natural thing and a good thing. However, the kind of differentiation that I hear people talking about is not something I find wonderfully attractive.

I think you are either a place of post-secondary education or you’re not. And if you’re going to presume to be such a place, you’d better be prepared to do the work broadly and fully and at a high standard. So-called “differentiation” can be a cop out.

A place like Trent, which has been, above all, a place with a sense of community where top value has been placed on participatory education with real interaction between student and student, student and faculty, faculty and faculty, faculty and board, and the whole university with the community – that’s different and has been pretty successful as the University’s way of life. This [approach] gradually became recognized as Trent’s identity and was actually welcomed and appreciated by many leaders at other institutions, by this community, and by the government. I think if we back away from that, we are throwing away our best cards.

symons speech on opening day of universityDo you think Trent still lives up to this distinctive identity?

It’s still doing it to a remarkable extent despite financial challenges. One of the things that has astonished and delighted me is the extent to which the students consciously and unconsciously practice this, still believe in it, and still care about it. Not all do but a huge number do, almost moreso than the faculty and certainly more so than the board of governors.

It’s a marvelous thing. Somehow, the idea of what a community of scholars is has been kept alive within the student body and [life] at the University to a very strong degree. There are very few universities in which the concern for their academic community is so pervasive among the students.

Why do you think this has been the case?

(Laughs) I’m damned if I know! But I tell you, I rejoice that it is so. I think it is something that has just been passed down, year by year, through the student population, and when the administrative folks have lost track of it and when the board of governors has drifted away from it, then the students have kept on it. And I just think it’s great.

You find a supreme expression of it some years ago when the board was insensitive enough [as] to try to sell the town colleges. It did get rid of one but it wasn’t able to get away with getting rid of the other. It was checked by student opinion that was very strongly expressed in many ways. And then the most marvelous thing happened: the students bought back Peter Robinson, Trent’s first college. I ran into a president of another university not long afterwards and he said, “This is the greatest academic story of this decade!”

Now I go [to Sadleir House] every month or two for a function and it gives me enormous pleasure.

You mentioned that, generally speaking, the faculty doesn’t seem to be as concerned as the student population about these issues of community. What can the university do to rekindle this spirit within professors?

Well, I think [it would help] if the University as an institution made it clear that it realizes the importance of this aspect to the experience of the University and [actually] places value on it, encourages it, and recognizes it.

A great deal depends upon the board of governors. We’re very lucky when people agree to serve on the board as it takes a lot of time and there is no remuneration, but it is very important to have members on the board who really know the University and really know the community. This doesn’t mean that all board members should be from Peterborough – they should be from far and wide as well as from Peterborough – but they need to know the town, know the University, and know the faculty and students.

It used to be that every member of the board became an honorary fellow of a Trent college and they were invited to participate in all the activities of that college. After board meetings, they would stay and join in on some function of their particular college that would be planned to coincide with their visit to campus.

Now it’s kind of exciting for a professor to find that they know a flesh and blood board member and, unless they’re a child or a nephew, board members don’t really know the students. I think that at the top, that’s a very unfortunate example and I would hope that in the next phase of the life of the University, the board will become part of the academic community rather than being apart from it. (Laughs) You’ll get me into trouble with that one! But I don’t mind being quoted to that effect. I think it’s very, very important for the board to be part of the community. And they don’t need to worry about losing their distance or their authority – it will be enhanced if they enter into the life of the University.

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The provincial government has made it pretty clear that the post-secondary education system in Ontario is entering a phase of significant change. What do you see as Trent’s main challenges going forward?

Well, first of all, not losing faith in ourselves as an institution and not selling out. Not buying simplistic solutions but, rather, thinking things through carefully. The greatest need is for good conceptual thinking, and particularly for institutions like Trent, that has so many special dimensions to it that need to be recognized, valued, and taken care of.

Also, good academic planning. This does not mean saying “yes, sir” to what neighbouring universities are saying or what the government seems to want. You need to think through what you really believe in and what you think will be best.

It was very worthwhile for Trent to be actively involved in the national affairs of higher education and in the appropriate international affairs. The fact that I was chairman of the 700 universities of the Commonwealth was a wonderful thing because it brought in students, faculty, ideas, and money. At the same time, we were contributing. It’s that kind of thing rather than easy, programatic, neat-sounding solutions that are going to be helpful.

[Finally,] you have to spend a lot of time with government. You have to know government, you have to cultivate it, not kowtow to it but respect it. You’ve got to be able to have their confidence and that takes a lot of time. Similar with our sister institutions, their opinions on what other universities are doing is quite important and what they say about you can influence government and influence the public.

How important is it to involve the wider community in institutional planning?

It’s of supreme importance that the academic community itself be involved and by that, I mean the community of the University. It is no good having planning done just by a bunch of people who for this period of time are in administrative positions; it’s got to involve faculty and it should always involve students since they are the basis and purpose of the whole thing in addition to the scholarly work of the faculty.

All these elements should be constantly and genuinely involved in academic planning.

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Looking forward to the next few years beyond the 50th anniversary celebration, what aspects of Trent are you most looking forward to?

Well, I could tell you some of the things I’d love to see happen. I think it’s way past time for Trent to have one or two new colleges. I think the present colleges do a most useful job and the importance of what they do needs to be more fully understood and appreciated and encouraged by some of the university leadership. I don’t think it is that unmanageable to find the support to build new colleges. What is lacking is the recognition that these are one of the best vehicles possible to move along the concept of a participatory, integrated community of scholars. So, I think that’s very important and I look forward to that.

The university is, for its size, attracting an astonishing amount of support for research and long may that continue. I don’t take that for granted – it’s taken years for Trent to gain that kind of respect – [but] I think the understanding of the fundamental mission of teaching as a purpose of the University is very important. Trent needs to be sure that as it grows and as its research strengthens and broadens, it doesn’t lose sight of the fundamental mission of first-class teaching. Research isn’t consummated until the results are taught.

And I hope we will build our community relationship, too. It needs rebuilding as it’s been neglected for many years. You have to invest in this kind of relationship and we need to do that.