Before you watch this film, you should ask yourself: how much do you really know about the history of your university?
In the 2003 documentary Whose University Is It? filmmakers Mark Wright and James Motluck cast a critical eye on the shifting terrain of Trent University.
The directors chart the history of Trent, from its conceptualization in the late 1950s, and how, by the early 2000s, an increasing neo-liberal agenda shaped the foundations of the university for years to come.
Wright and Motluck, who are both Trent graduates from the 1980s, and who by the early 2000s had worked independently on a number of feature-length documentaries, set to work on the project as alumni concerned with the changes taking place at a university both cared deeply for.
At the outset of Wright and Motluck’s film, Trent University finds itself in the midst of a radical reconstruction of the university’s 40-year legacy as a post-secondary institution that, until then, had been wholly committed to interdisciplinary learning through the liberal arts and sciences, and whose collegial system was considered unique within the broader structure of Canadian universities.
Under the guiding force of the university’s then-president Bonnie Patterson, the balance of the university’s governance becomes increasingly centralized to a small number of university administrators, leaving staff, faculty, and most importantly, students, on the outside looking in.
The founding of Trent University was relatively unique. Trent was envisioned to be broken into two campuses, with Catherine Parr Traill College and Peter Robinson College maintain a connection to downtown Peterborough, while a new campus, built on land donated by General Electric and financed through the deferred pay of the company’s employees, was situated in the city’s north end.
The university, like most publicly funded educational institutions, went through considerable changes, but through every turn seemed to maintain its core values and principles.
At its centre, Trent University had prided itself on considering how every decision, from the building of student facilities, to the introduction of new programs and departments would benefit undergraduate students.
By the early 2000s, after nearly a decade of operating under the Progressive Conservative government’s mandate of a “Common Sense Revolution”- which saw significant reductions to public services, included major funding cuts to post-secondary institutions, and forced the dramatic restructuring of universities across the province – Trent University was confronted with drastic changes that broke with the spirit first envisioned for the institution in the 1960s.
Trent, along with every university in the province, was encouraged to explore partnerships with private corporations in order to make up for significantly reduced operating budgets.
This new funding model, known colloquially as “Triple P’s” (Public-Private Partnerships), was viewed by many critics as a drastic undermining of the intellectual and governmental integrity of university operations.
At the same time, undergraduate students across the province continued to see their tuition and ancillary fees, and as a result, student debt, rise dramatically.
While it may be easy for some to dismiss these problems as issues of a bygone generation, it is staggering to think that student debt and tuition continue to increase more than a decade after Wright and Motluck’s film premiered.
With Trent University in the midst of its 50th anniversary celebrations, it seems an appropriate time to revisit what is perhaps one of the most critically influential times in Trent’s history.
As students, faculty, and staff come and go from the university, the finer details of the institution’s history are lost in the broader rhetoric of nostalgia, and a penchant to remember the “good ol’ days”, while forgetting the struggles that continue to shape the future of what was once “Canada’s Outstanding Small University”.
Join Trent Film Society, in conjunction with OPRIG Peterborough and Artspace for a free screening of Whose University Is It? on Friday, January 30 at 7pm at Artspace (370 Aylmer Street North, between Hunter and Simcoe).