Trent University and the collegiate legacy (part one)


Most readers of Arthur will know that Trent University marks its 50th anniversary this year. However, it may surprise some that our relatively young university has roots that reach back over 900 years.

For centuries, students in the English-speaking world have been members of university colleges: dynamic interdisciplinary communities dedicated to learning and self-betterment.

Some trace the origins of the collegiate university to the English town of Oxford, where evidence of advanced teaching can be found as early as 1096.

A century later, a group of disgruntled students from Oxford travelled to Cambridge and set up another institution of higher education. In the next century, various religious orders, aristocrats and monarchs began to endow separate, self-contained educational communities, or colleges.

At both Oxford and Cambridge, the individual colleges loosely affiliated creating larger universities. Today, Oxford University consists of 38 colleges and Cambridge boasts 31 different colleges. Notably, change, controversy, and contested visions have always been a part of the collegiate tradition in England and around the globe.

When the 32-year old Tom Symons, became the youngest president of a university in Canada, he turned to the collegiate model to shape Trent.

It was a model that he was familiar with, having studied at the University of Toronto and at Oxford. It was also a model that offered a solid foundation of tradition for a brand-new institution with no traditions of its own.

Colleges were known to offer both a flexibility and academic breadth that could effectively bring young, enthusiastic students together with seasoned mentors and professors. Trent University would be modern in design, youthful in energy, yet anchored in centuries-old collegiate traditions that promoted community, humility and scholarship.

Many don’t realize that Trent is unique even amongst collegiate universities. While the colleges at most universities have developed and multiplied over time, Trent was born as a collegiate university. Rubidge Hall, Peter Robinson and Catharine Parr Traill colleges offered Trent’s first residential, higher learning experience.

Within the short space of four years, Champlain and Lady Eaton college opened and master planning architect Ron Thom anticipated that the Nassau Mills campus would eventually contain over 12 colleges for the new university.

In 1964, Trent did not have time to wait. Its founders knew that its time was now, and with three years of planning it had to hit the world stage as fully-realized as possible.

Transferring college traditions wholesale to a new physical and cultural environment can be a tricky business. Some traditions did not take. For example, Trent’s early students were expected to wear gowns (as they did at Oxford and Cambridge) for formal halls, exams and meetings.

While many brought up on the Harry Potter universe today might think this is a tradition worth having, it proved controversial in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, protests from students at Oxford and Cambridge lead to an end to the routine wearing of academic gowns in England. Trent University would also follow suit and our iconic green gowns are now seen almost exclusively at convocation time.

Yet, still other traditions prevail and are a part of the fabric of this university. So much so, that there are many living legacies that we take for granted.

Matriculation is a collegiate tradition that early Trent embraced. Few are familiar with the term today that describes the act of a new student becoming officially accepted into the university community.

While we don’t talk about matriculation anymore, all Trent students are still identified by their year of entry, instead of graduation. This slightly different way of doing things is just another aspect of Trent’s unique nature informed by its collegiate past.

If you have ever wondered why Trent University has two reading breaks you just have to look to our collegiate roots.

British collegiate universities traditionally operate on a school year of three terms: Michaelmas (October to December); Lent (January to March) and Easter (April to June). These terms are named after and generally fall around key times during the Christian calendar.

A school year of three, eight-week terms (named after key Christian events) was not going to fly for the newly-minted, secular Trent University. However, the addition of a fall reading break, it was decided, would neatly break the year up in a fashion similar to that at other collegiate universities.

However, rumours started at other universities soon circulated that the type of people who went to Trent clearly needed an “extra” break. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. There is a great value both for students and professors in having two reading breaks, and for years Trent proudly flaunted its unique schedule.

It appears that the value of this fifty-year old Trent tradition is now more widely appreciated as a fall reading break has become increasingly popular in other Canadian universities.

Trent enjoys a rich heritage in its design, its people, and its pedagogy that should make us all proud. It is a past based on tradition, but also on youthful exuberance and optimism for a better future.

In the next article, we will look at some more lost traditions and continuing legacies that made, and continue to make, this university special.