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Chancellor Stephen Stohn. Photo by Clifford Skarstedt/Peterborough Examiner.

An Interview With Chancellor Stephen Stohn

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
Abbigale Kernya
and
Evan Robins
August 22, 2023
An Interview With Chancellor Stephen Stohn
Chancellor Stephen Stohn. Photo by Clifford Skarstedt/Peterborough Examiner.

On a sunny early August afternoon, the editors of Volume 58 had the pleasure of sitting down with the inimitable Stephen Stohn, Chancellor of Trent University, Executive Producer of Degrassi and numerous other TV series, and (perhaps most famously) the very first editor of Arthur

After a tour of the current Arthur office, Dr. Stohn graciously joined us in Sadleir House’s Library of Justice to talk about his memories of Trent, his term as Chancellor, and his recently being honoured with the Order of Canada.

Dr. Stohn also reflects on the vision he had for Arthur and Trent Radio back in the early days of Trent. The message he shares is one which sees the value in training grounds like university newpapers which encourage experimentation, trying new things that you know nothing about, and being willing to make mistakes along the way. 

Throughout this conversation, Dr. Stohn speaks frankly about how his time at Trent shaped his ability to adapt to new situations and to carve out a unique path for himself within the entertainment industry. The value of the multidisciplinary education model which Trent has always held dear, and which he notes is alive and well to this day, was as invaluable to his sustained success as the formative relationships and role models he found in Trent’s young faculty and the university’s founding President Tom Symons who embodied these principles.

Along the way, he shares his thoughts on the importance of the liberal arts in the age of artificial intelligence, and how local journalism is more important than ever. Despite his characteristic humility, we also get an exclusive glimpse into the discerning fashion sense of the man who made Converse the official shoe of Trent graduates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Additionally, the three editors have been amalgamated into the singular entity of Arthur Newspaper (AN) to more accurately reflect their collective hive mind.  

AN: If memory serves, you’re the first former editor of ours to receive the Order of Canada. You’re setting the bar very high. 

We’re all curious, what did that mean to you? We were shocked that you didn’t have it prior to now.

SS: Well, and my wife had it right from way back in 1995! I mean, to me, it's remarkable that you can be recognized for doing a whole bunch of things that you just love doing, and working with people that are really fantastic people and you love working with. One day they give you an honour and it’s like “Okay, that’s cool!”

As I say, it’s very cool and it's awesome, but it’s not like I wake up in the morning saying “Oh, wow, I’m a better person.” It’s like, “Okay, well I still got to put out the garbage,” so it doesn’t come with any added form of enlightenment.

I wish, more than anything, that three people were alive to have heard that I got the Order of Canada: my two parents—and my mother almost made it in time. 

Of course, you don’t know when you’ve been nominated for the Order of Canada—there’s a nominator and some three referees and it takes about three years as they go through various levels—so it came out of the blue.

But the other was Tom Symons, and as it turns out he was one of the referees, and that made me quite emotional when I heard it. He wasn’t alive when they actually had to go to the referees. When it came time to call on Tom he wasn’t with us anymore. But the fact that he was one of the referees, that meant an awful lot to me, and it would’ve been nice if he were here to have heard it from me. 

AN: How did the pandemic change your responsibilities as Chancellor?

SS: Well, it's interesting, because the Chancellor is an honorary position, and the job is mostly to hand out the degrees—and in the very large universities Chancellors really can’t even do that. I mean, they may sit on stage, they may not even sit on stage and people sort of walk past.

It is a thrill now that the pandemic is over to actually be on stage and to have people coming forward and being able to greet them by name.

I mean, I try and listen for their name. I try—somebody's yelling out what their name is—and I try to have eye contact, and chat, and congratulate them, or make some comment on what great shoes they're wearing or whatever it is.

What I've been able to do, whether it's in the pandemic or not, is try and reach out in other ways and just engage with the community at all levels, with students, faculty, staff.

I believe I am a member of the Board of Governors and of the Senate, just by virtue of my office. But I said, right at the very beginning when I came out and said “I do not intend to attend any meetings”—that I want to go out and engage—that is what I want to do.

So during the pandemic, we had to figure out different ways to do that, and one was the Trent talks series, which was great for me because I got to meet some very cool professors here. I got to—not physically, but you know—meet them, chat with them and learn some stuff.

There were a bunch of workarounds. There were some different college awards, graduation awards that I could attend, you know, put on my robes and at least attend virtually. 

AN: The world has changed greatly in even the past few years. How have you seen Trent change since you first came here?

SS: (laughs) Since way back in ‘66?

AN: Ohh yeah.

SS: I'm going to say something hopeful.

I mean, obviously it's gotten bigger, so let's put that to one side. Things have to be different because it's bigger. But the vision that Tom Symons had—and you can talk about it in many ways—we talked about the multidisciplinary approach. We talked about the college system, which back in the days was really a code word for the faculty and the students interacting more and more as equals, so that professors aren't these Gods up there that you can't touch the hem of, they’re ordinary people. 

Tom [Symons] made sure that was the case, and the college system was such that professors actually lived in the colleges. They were the Dons. And that was very special.

We had very close relationships, so we were learning all the time, and interacting all the time.

I've only been Chancellor for the past four years, but with Leo coming in as President, it took him a little while to sort of figure out what the Trent zeitgeist was, but once he did, he really bought into the Tom Symons vision and has been doing a lot to try and beef up the the role of the colleges—make sure that the multidisciplinary approach continues.

Another side of that is Glennice [Burns] in the international student area. She has been very active in that. It’s a two-way street. I mean people that I didn't even know had gone to Trent say, “Oh yes, I was in Vietnam for a year,” because it was a type of exchange. So it’s become a real meeting place.

It could never be the same as it was back in the early days, but it's trying to get there. For a period of time in the middle years it sort of slipped away from that, and now I'm very pleased to feel that it is coming back. 

I keep talking about, you know, artificial intelligence, I talk about the threats to democracy, and climate change—and obviously Trent is at the forefront of the environmental areas—but a true Liberal Arts education, which is teaching you how to think and how to communicate, is going to be absolutely vital in the coming years.

I know that there's a lot of people—and particularly South of the border—would say, “Oh, those namby pamby, you know, Liberal Arts people.” Well, it's the Liberal Arts that teach us to think in flexible and adaptable ways, and jobs are going to change in five years time. There will be jobs we didn't know existed, and there will be a lot that will be eliminated or changed entirely. 

Really, artificial intelligence is going to fundamentally change how we go about in the world. So how do we survive, and thrive, and excel in a world like that? Well, you need to be able to think adaptively and flexibly and that, I think, is the core of the Liberal Arts education in general, and Trent in particular.

AN: Speaking of your own Trent education, are there any professors you had, or classes you might have taken here of which you have fond recollections?

SS: I can think of two right off the top, and both were very emblematic of the Trent experience.

One was Jim MacAdam. He was a philosophy professor, he taught me my first year. My first year was in philosophy, and our classes were all tutorials—there were five or six people in philosophy.

I remember one class in particular, he was talking about the Allegory of The Cave in Plato, and he used to smoke in class, you know in these rooms—and we all smoked cigarettes. It’s astounding. 

But he's sitting there, at a table that could have been this very table, and he’d be rocking back and forth and talking very slowly. He was talking about the Allegory of The Cave, and he just fell over backwards.

But he never missed a beat! He was over there, lying on the floor, and he was talking about “...and then the form is the idea that” he slowly picked himself up “...and then as you were in The Cave and you do that,” and he sat back down as though nothing had happened. 

And I thought “Oh my God, what have I just witnessed?”

He was wearing a gown as well! We were all wearing gowns.

The other was—and I've told this story before—but Harry Kitchen, he’s around at the university still, he was a young economics professor, and my major was philosophy and economics.

In my third year, I took an advanced statistics course Harry was teaching, and the first class came and there were three students. And Harry closed the door and he said “Okay, what happens here stays in here.” He said “I don’t know anything about statistics, and you don’t know anything either, but we are all going to learn together. So, Stephen, you’re going to teach week one.”

We did it, and it was one of the most successful courses that we had, because if you think about it, having to teach the course is absolutely the best way to learn. So we all, quite justifiably, got A’s in the course, and in my life—you think “What do you do with advanced statistics in law and television production?” 

Well, I’m a baseball fan, and in the music world the charts and everything like that are all algorithms. Even in the news—the difference between correlation and causation, and analyzing what it means to have a 3% greater risk of this and that—it's actually one of the best courses I ever took but it never would have happened if they hadn’t put a rookie professor in charge of teaching something he didn’t know anything about!

AN: We were at the opening of the Traill amphitheater, and you said something which I think struck us about the importance of Traill and of the downtown colleges. With its rejuvenation Traill is becoming a site to go right now, which is really, really, really important. There’s a question in there somewhere...

SS: I’ll answer the question that isn’t in there—it’s a shame that Peter Robinson doesn’t exist. 

I think it is very helpful to have a campus downtown so that you are part of the community. 

It's wonderful having the Symons campus, or as we called it, the Nassau campus back in the day, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But there’s a danger that there’s sort of the university, and the city. I think I was saying that the two really are symbiotic, and what’s good for one is good for the other, and vice versa. 

I’m delighted that Traill is here, and I think as plans go forward it will expand even more, but I think it would be great if there was another location. 

The nice thing about Traill is that it’s small. It’s like the old Trent University—everybody knows Michael Eamon.

AN: (laughing) You can’t not know him.

SS: That’s right! And that is the true Trent experience. 

AN: Right, whenever people have talked about the uniqueness of the college experience, we’ve always understood it in a very present sense through Traill—very small classes, intimate relationships with you professors … that sounded weird but you get the point. 

SS: (laughing) Well I had intimate relationships at Traill back in the day! It was an all-female college. Champlain was all-male and Lady Eaton was all-female.

Somehow, in my third year, I ended up in Lady Eaton! There were a number of us—guys—who had rooms in Lady Eaton. I guess they had more rooms than [Champlain]!

AN: Switching gears a little bit, in your experience with Arthur, and now with the Trent Community, how important is a student newspaper? 

SS: One of the important things that Arthur does is that it’s a training ground. That is vital—to have a whole series of training grounds, just writing about things, doing things you’ve never done before—and you’re going to make mistakes.

We need more of Arthur, and Trent Radio. We were talking a bit before about how important journalism is, and right now journalism at Trent is Arthur, and I guess to some extent Trent Radio as well.

You know, I wanted to call Trent Radio “Radio Free Arthur,” but I was overruled. It got into some committee, and they said, “No, it will be called the Trent University Radio Service”—sort of like the BBC. 

Stephen Stohn posing with an edition of Arthur back in 2019 when he was originally named Chancellor of Trent University. Photo by Nicky Taylor.

AN: There’s still an element of that spirit today, where Trent Radio is more self-serious at times and Arthur can be sort of hodgepodge.

It probably gives some people whiplash to go through very serious news about reports from the Board of Governors and City Hall, into scathing satire.

Something that we want to bring forward when we hire in the fall is embracing that status as a training ground, and saying “You can do what you want. Write something that you’re passionate about,” because that’s going to be the best thing you can produce.

SS: In the television world, a lot of people will come to me and say, you know, “How do I pitch networks, or how do I do this?” and I’ve said this a number of times before, so I’m saying it here.

There are two ways you can go about being a television producer. The first—and it’s the most logical, and it’s the one that most producers do—you go around to the various networks, you meet with them and you say “Well, what are you looking for?”

Perfectly logical, absolutely sensible. 

You’ll go to the CBC and they will say “We’re looking for a show at 7:00 on Sunday. We’ve got Heartland there now,” so you go back and you say “Okay, we’ve got to develop something. It can’t have a girl and a horse, but we’ll do something along those lines”—maybe a talking pig, whatever it is.

And then you go back, it takes you maybe a year to really get it together, and then you pitch it to the CBC. 

Two things have happened. First of all, the person who told you that’s what they wanted is no longer there because everybody moves around, and second, that isn’t really what they wanted anyway. So you’ve worked on this thing about a talking pig that you’re not passionate about, meanwhile you’ve gone around to 30 other networks, large and small, so you’ve been working on a whole bunch of different projects.

That’s one way to do it, and there is magic in numbers. Maybe someone will want one of the things you pitch. 

Or, you come up with an idea that you are absolutely passionate about. Say “I need to tell this story. It’s a trans border story, but it’s a code for being transgender. It’s set in a town right on the border, and right through the middle of the town is the border between Canada and the United States”—whatever it is.

You go around, and people turn it down, but either, one - somebody picks it up, in which case that’s wonderful, or two - nobody picks it up, but you’ve been working on something you love.

I’m in the second camp.

I think I sidestepped your question, which is the importance of a campus newspaper. 

You probably followed this story down in the United States, just a couple of weeks ago, where the President of Stanford University had to resign because the campus newspaper discovered that a paper that he had written contained manipulated data. Everybody was very careful to say that he hadn't made it up, but clearly there were some serious problems with what he had done.

That’s one of the things newspapers do, and of course Trent is hyper-local, and Trent Radio is hyper-local, which presents the opportunity to feed back into the community which is even more important these days.

I mean anybody can get CNN, but how do you find out what's going on in Peterborough or at Trent? You look to the radio and the newspaper. 

They’re changing, but the local aspects are vital. 

AN: When starting Arthur, what was your hope for Arthur within the Trent Community, and how can we, or future editors, continue to uphold this hope in the age of misinformation?

SS: Remember, we knew nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

We’re on this machine, hand cranking it out. We gradually learned about writing and inverted pyramid style. 

In my dream, Arthur would rival the Peterborough Examiner. There would be different sections, and there’d be humour and there’d be crosswords, and there’d be the news, and it would be devoured by an eager public every week.

I think it’s good to be aspirational in that respect.

As for the second part of your question, I wish I had an easy answer. We have talked about a journalism program, or something where Arthur can help propel a more journalistic approach in the university. But I mean, creating a school where none exists—I don’t even know where to start!

I mean, I would just ask some people and say “don’t you think this is a good idea?” but I think it would be great to get you spearheading that as well. 

AN: What do you hope your legacy at Trent, at Arthur, and beyond will look like moving forward? 

SS: Legacy is such a charged word. 

Tom Symons was a mentor of mine. I mean, I mention Tom in practically every speech I do, and to me he ideals for Trent—obviously they have to change in a changing world—but the core thoughts that he had, and the way he conducted himself were, to me, just remarkable.

If people were to say, “there was Tom Symons in the beginning, and then there was this guy who came along, who was sort of like, you know, he did some of those same things that Tom did, and he sort of carried on in those same thoughts about the university and helped to propel it forward,” I would think “Oh my God.”

That would be flattering.

Left-right: Stephen Stohn, Margaret Glossop, Tom Symons, Dalton Jacobs, and two other unidentified students on The Great Walk on January 27th, 1968. Photo courtesy of Trent University archives.

AN: What’s the secret to the Stephen Stohn fashion sense?

SS: Oh my God. That is such a weird question.

I am the least fashion conscious person. I shop like once a year, I go into the store and they say “do you like that?” I go “No I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t, okay, I’ll take that.”

AN: We’re going to write down “discerning.” 

SS: The other thing that Linda never lets me forget—I was executive producer on some show, Savoir Faire. You wouldn’t know it. It was about how to put on dinner parties, and how to throw parties, and working in the kitchen, and Linda would look at me and say “You don’t know anything about any of that.”

And I’d say “Oh yes I do, I’m the executive producer.”

AN: What I’m hearing is “fake it till you make it?”

SS: I’m fond of that.

AN: Any final thoughts or questions for us?

SS: It's a joy to be here. The fact that it's still called Arthur 58 years later is amazing. 

AN: We love telling people the story of how it came to be, truly. On the inside of every one of our current editions we explain how we got the name. 

SS: Yes, because still there are people who don’t know! They may read that or whatever, but they always assume it’s “The Arthur.”

I’m becoming a kinder and gentler person, I guess. I stopped correcting people when they say “The Arthur,” I tell myself “Well, some people just don’t know.” It’s a full time job. 

AN: We’ve begun to buy into it where in saying “Arthur” so much in reference to the masthead it’s almost as if Arthur is becoming a real person. [Evan] made a slip-up on the radio where she referred to Arthur as “she.”

SS: That would be interesting—thinking of Arthur as a “she.” That’s wonderful.

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