Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
Arthur News School of Fish
Leo Groarke addresses the the Trent University graduands of 2024 at a June 10th convocation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Trent University

Goodbye, Dr. Groarke

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
June 13, 2024
Goodbye, Dr. Groarke
Leo Groarke addresses the the Trent University graduands of 2024 at a June 10th convocation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Trent University

On June 10th, 2024, President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Leo Groarke, delivered the penultimate address in his present role at Trent University to a crowd of several hundred graduating students and family members at the Monday afternoon convocation ceremony on the Bata podium.

“I will tell you that this week, as I participate in my last convocations as Presisdent, I have reflected on my own experiences at convocations at Trent and elsewhere,” Groarke said in his introduction. 

Groarke’s speech reflected on the dozens of convocation ceremonies in which he has participated—a number which will total 100 after the two convocation ceremonies he is officiating at Trent Durham.

Or rather, he admitted, 99 as a university administrator as one of the ceremonies Groarke had initially counted was the convocation at The University of Western Ontario when he received his Ph.D. 

The outgoing President went on to say that he does not intend to “insinuate [himself]” into another graduation so as to make the total an even 100, instead intending to “take it as an omen and look for a way to see the positivity in it.”

“What occurred to me,” he continued. “Is ‘99’ was Wayne Gretzky’s number when he played for the Edmonton Oilers, and this happens to be a year when the Oilers are once again fighting for the Stanley Cup.”

No one tell Leo how that series is going, eh?

Funnily enough, I was there to witness the speech first-hand—I just so happened to be graduating that day.

Local emo woman earns Bachelor’s degree against all conceivable odds. Photo: Trent University.

As I sat there, listening to Groarke compare himself to the Great One, and hearing many others sing his praises, I admit to tendering a spark of resentment in the black recesses of my jealous heart.

As a graduate, it had been drummed into me from the moment of my arrival at the Trent Student Centre that day, that this day was to be about me. Well—me and a couple hundred other people, that is.

Still, the idea that this guy who makes over $300,000 a year, who paddldes the Otonabee while I’m in classes I’ve paid thousands of dollars to attend, and who laughs inexplicably throughout Board of Governor’s meetings has the audacity to congratulate himself on his accomplishment of *checks notes* retiring in front of a crowd who’ve worked their collective assess off to graduate under the duress of a global viral pandemic and one of the worst cost of living crises in historical memory seems a little bit…hollow.

Morevoer, as a journalist, listening to Trent’s Vice President Communications & Enrolment, Marilyn Burns, list the many “accomplishments” attributed to Leo in an eight-minute introduction to Groarke’s five-minute speech, piqued my professional curiosity.

In even a cursory mental inventory of Groarke’s purported achievements in comparison to the stories I and my colleagues have written about them, I’m tempted to say that the claims of Leo Groarke’s success have been greatly exaggerated.

It would, however, be too simple and presumptuous to simply dismiss Groarke’s legacy outright. Rather, as I’ve done before, I shall take it upon myself to engage with the claims of Groarke’s grandeur on their own terms—treating Marilyn Burns as a gospel which itself begs the question: “Hey, did that guy really do the thing that everyone is saying he did?”

After all, few people seem as confident in Groarke’s singular and monolithic accomplishments as Marilyn Burns (perhaps it’s because it’s largely her job to be). “Over the past decade, Leo has transformed Trent in ways too countless to list here,” Burns declared in her remarks, before going on to list a number of the ways in question.

VP Communications and Enrolment, Marilyn Burns, introduces President Leo Groarke at the June 10th Convocation. Photo: Trent University

“Under his leadership, Trent’s reputation has grown enormously, nationally and internationally,” she continued. “Academic programs have expanded, and enrollment has grown exponentially, supported by state-of-the-art new facilities, residences, and buildings to accommodate the many students all over the world who choose Trent now, here in Peterborough, and at our Oshawa campus in the Durham region.”

Though the university has expanded or built several facilities since Groarke’s induction as President—not least of which being the multi-million dollar student centre—the university has not constructed any new residential colleges, in spite of a 2019 promise to build a new 400-bed residence on Symons campus, construction for which was supposed to begin in 2021.

The 2019 plan included a promise of an additional 150 residence beds apiece at both Traill College and Durham campus, which will go unfulfilled in the new plan for the proposed 700-bed Gidigaa Migizi College.

Granted, Trent’s Durham campus has greatly expanded in the course of Groarke’s presidency, including the addition of residence space, though considering the separation of Durham from Symons campus (the two are a two-hour GO Bus ride apart) it hardly feels that more housing at Durham is meaningfully more housing at Trent as a whole.

Nor, indeed, does housing at Durham do much to alleviate the housing crisis in Peterborough, which has worsened in the course of Groarke’s presidency—arguably with Trent at least partially to blame.

As the number of students attending Trent in Peterborough has ballooned, so too has the need for housing for them, making Trent’s first-year residence guarantee harder to meet and increasing housing precarity among off-campus students.

In Groarke’s time, Trent did eke out several more residence spots by converting Graduate student offices in Traill’s Wallis Hall into undergraduate residence apartments, though the fourteen apartments created represented less an attempt to pre-empt forecasted enrolment years down the line than a scramble to deal with an immediate influx of students the university had brought in.

Trent also acquired the Water Street residence buildings which would become the Gzowski, Champlain, and LEC annexes around the time of Groarke’s taking office, though in the years since the university has not actually built any new residential buildings in Peterborough—the annex buildings were acquired from a private company which built them on land the university owns. 

Claims about the great strides taken to expand housing were not alone amongst Burns’ repertoire, however. “During his time at Trent,” she continued; “Leo was always looking ahead, carefully planting many seeds he knows would take root and bear fruit well into the future; a burgeoning research park, and a senior’s village, even a long-term care home on Trent lands are on the horizon thanks to him.”

This is the point at which anyone paying careful attention would have seen me breakout in laughter.

Despite the amount of work reportedly being done to make the site “shovel-ready,” Cleantech Commons as it presently stands is—charitably—nothing. At best it’s an empty field. At worst it’s a multi-million dollar dirt patch.

Quite frankly I’m astounded this is the kind of thing for which Groarke would wish to be memorialized, or that anyone at Trent would wish to memorialize him for.

A research and innovation park located at Trent had been the subject of discussion as far back as 2013, with plans put in place since at least 2015. The project has been in the works for pretty much as long as Groarke has been in office. In some ways, it—and the accompanying Trent Lands Plan—could be said to be the defining capital project of his tenure.

The Arthur editors at Cleantech Commons in December of 2023. Photo: David King

And yet if Cleantech Commons exists it does so largely ineffably.

So too, in fact, are the senior’s village and long-term care home towards which Burns gestured; they are things Trent has said will exist—albeit at some point in the indeterminate future—though at present they are just that, promises.

Barring an absolutist approach to linguistic prescriptivism which would hold that saying Cleantech Commons exists is basically the same as actually building the thing, one needs to take Trent at their word that these “seeds” are indeed going to “bear fruit.” 

While I don’t know much about farming, I am led to believe that ten-odd years is slightly longer than the ideal length to recoup your harvest.

This is me trying to be charitable here, too. 

I could easily have made fun of the moment when Marilyn Burns accidentally called Leo “Trent,” or the fact that she trotted out the fact that he is an identical triplet and loves to kayak—both of which are basically the only thing anyone at this school seemingly knows or cares to learn about Groarke.

Kayaking jokes are the SNL-level cheap shots that underscore the extremely funny jokes to be made about the University's insistence that an empty field is an R&D park. Photos: Aimee Anctil/TCSA, memes_of_trentu.

I could equally make fun of Groarke for devoting the bulk of his speech to talking about how he has historically had to “instruct and advise other convocation speakers on their remarks,” and then seemingly failing to heed his own advice.

Despite enumerating his two primary recommendations as being “be brief,” and “address the graduands,” Groarke’s speech lasted considerably longer than Chancellor Stephen Stohn’s, and also mostly talked about himself until the very end, until a baffling digression in which he seemed to suggest that the real benefit of being a Trent graduate was that you could work as one of the presidential secretaries (even if your degree was in biology). 

These are all easy fodder, though in my mind they’re less significant than pointing out that the bulk of Groarke’s tenure has felt like a drawn-out case of “The President’s New Clothes.”

While the fact that Trent’s enrolment has drastically increased is indisputable, the rest of it, any material accomplishment to which Groarke, of any member of Trent Communications could point, seems to be largely smoke and mirrors.

No amount of insistence can make infrastructure which does not exist materialized out of thin air. No amount of declarations of Trent’s prudence when it comes to enrolment can contradict the fact of a self-evident and years-long housing crisis fed by a burgeoning student population in Peterborough. No amount of convocations he’s facilitated will ever make Leo Groarke into Wayne Gretzky—He’s eight years older than him, for a start.

While the ten years of Leo Groarke’s tenure have come and gone, the issues which defined it (and will continue to define Trent) remain the same—housing, infrastructure, enrolment.

All these continue to be a point of contention between the university and the City. They sow divisions between administration, faculty, and students, and present two conflicting images of Trent University: what it is in actuality, and what it imagines itself to be.

The question I’m left to ask, then, is not even whether Groarke leaves the university better than he found it. I wonder if he left it meaningfully different at all.

While a superficial renewal in interest in the college system and the marginal redevelopments to Traill can be partially attributed to Leo, he is by no means the sole architect of them. Moreover the “return” to the College system is hardly innovation, so much as appeals to a fondly-remembered (if, perhaps, imagined) past.

When I think of the time I’ve spent at Trent during Groarke’s tenure, I don’t think of him as some benevolent admiral steering the fleet that is Trent boldly into the future. I think of him as the guy that writes emails and publicly says things which only occasionally come back to haunt him. 

Though his time with us is at an end, Leo’s legacy will no doubt continue to be felt, in one way or another. Goodbye Dr. Groarke, how thoroughly we knew ye.

Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
Arthur News School of Fish
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Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
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