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Political cartoon from Arthur volume 16, issue 6.

I Don't Give A Damn About Our Reputation

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
September 2, 2021
I Don't Give A Damn About Our Reputation
Political cartoon from Arthur volume 16, issue 6.

Since its establishment in 1964, Trent University has worked to establish a certain rosy image of itself as a caring, small-town, learning-focused institution, a reputation which has brought year upon year of successive students to its doors. However, the longer I stay at Trent, the more the cracks this reputation begins to show, and the more the university must contend with the duelling narratives of what people think Trent is, and what Trent wants to be. If you’re reading this in Arthur’s Issue 0, it’s doubtless one of the reasons on this list probably influenced your decision to come here. Trent is by no means a “bad school” and that’s not what I’m trying to set out to prove, but rather, I believe that every student deserves to know the truth about the institution they represent, even when that truth isn’t pretty. What you’ll find here is a counter narrative to Trent’s glowing reputation, examining claim-by-claim the assumptions people make about this school. After all, you came to Trent for a reason; wouldn’t you like to know if that reason is even true?

Claim the First: “Trent is a small, student-focused university”

Ask any alum why they chose Trent, or anyone even passingly familiar with the university what it has to offer, and this is likely to be their response. Compared to other universities in Ontario, Trent sports a modest population of around 12000 students, even less than Fleming College, and around half the population of most comparable universities. This is a point of pride for the administration, and the marketing surrounding Trent depicts it as a small-town, communitarian, and overall caring, learning-focused environment. Certainly, Trent fits this bill more so than the larger, prestigious universities which see tens of thousands enrol every year, however Trent is perhaps less student-oriented than they would like to admit. The past several decades have seen a period of increased corporatization of Trent as an institution, a move which marks Trent’s shift in focus from providing a unique post-secondary learning environment into making themselves a profitable, business-focused institution. Trent increasingly makes partnerships with for-profit companies, such as their recent venture with Cleantech Commons, and routinely makes decisions informed primarily by profit rather than the impact on the student body. This has also coincided with systemic changes in Trent’s governance. No longer does the faculty-led Senate hold as much power to steer the university’s direction, but rather a Board of Governors comprised mostly of wealthy business people has been given greater influence over the future of Trent University. These changes and their impacts are well documented in the Arthur series “Growing Pains,” as well as the 2003 documentary Whose University Is It? both of which point to Trent prioritizing profits over the needs of students and faculty. Unfortunately, many are all too eager to believe in the marketing of Trent as a student-focused institution, even as their own corporate aspirations seem to say otherwise.

Claim the Second: “Trent cares about international and out-of-province students more than other universities”

Similarly, many people assume that because Trent boasts a strong percentage of International students, that it must be a kinder option than schools like the University of Toronto or Queen’s University, who are practically assured international students enrolling despite high tuition, based purely on their reputation. Trent’s low domestic tuition has also long been appealing for students both in and outside of Ontario. However, this year, Trent has demonstrated that they are not above similarly treating international students as a means to raise their bottom line. In March, the Board of Governors voted to raise tuition by 8% for incoming international students, and 5% for returning ones, putting students on the line for more money than they would have previously budgeted for the 2021/22 school year. Only a few months later the BoG voted unanimously to raise out-of-province tuition by 3%, marking the first time that domestic students will be charged differently based on their province. Neither of these decisions were particularly well advertised, and I’d be willing to bet a large number of students have yet to be made aware of them, but whether or not they know it yet, students will surely feel the effects of these decisions down the line. All this sends a clear message from the administration, that students outside of Ontario are money-making opportunities, an attitude which reflects the corporate interests of the current Board of Governors, and which serves to further create separation within the student body. 

Claim the Third: “Trent is the premier institution for Indigenous Studies and Indigenous students”

Another central claim of Trent’s marketing is that they provide a unique focus of Indigenous knowledge and education. Certainly, compared to other universities, Trent’s mandatory Indigenous credit and the creation of the First People’s House of Learning (FPHL) go a long way to incorporate traditional Indigenous teachings into the curriculum. There is, however, criticism to be had about Trent’s treatment of Indigenous students, faculty, and programs as a whole. Some are glaringly obvious, such as the fact that two colleges (Champlain and Catherine Parr Traill) take their names from noted colonisers despite the university’s supposedly reconciliatory practices. Some are less obvious, especially to a settler demographic, but which stick out to the Indigenous students Trent claims it caters to. Cheyenne Wood has documented a number of these issues in their article “A Case for Louis Riel College,” which include Trent using the construction of FPHL as a guise to bring in more fundraising (further explored in Who’s University is It?), the use of books by white author Joseph Boyden in INDG 1001H classes, as well as a failure on the university’s part to protect Indigenous students when using Bata Library’s Cedar Room. The sentiment among Indigenous students seems to be simply that Trent is not the best option, but rather, the only one, something which might warrant a more critical examination, rather than being celebrated.

Claim the Fourth: “Trent has a diverse and inclusive student population and goes a long way to protect its BIPOC students” 

On a few separate occasions this past year, both Trent and the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) have been criticized for their handling of systemic and cultural racism, and have faced calls from students to change the ways they do business in order to better protect the BIPOC student population. 

In August of 2020 the TCSA conducted a review of then-VP Health and Wellness Allan Fabrykant, after he replied to a post commemorating Michael Brown, who was extrajudicially murdered by Missouri State Police, with a link to a Department of Justice Press Release. This event mobilized students against Fabrykant and the TCSA, and many expressed their disappointment with the handling of the incident, citing a non-apology from Fabrykant and the TCSA’s failure to act decisively on the matter. To many, this marred the reputation of Trent’s Student Association, and reaffirmed the importance of anti-racism to the position of VP Health and Wellness. Of the more than 125 students that attended the review of Fabrykant’s conduct, the vast majority echoed the sentiment that he was unfit for office, and that his comments had deeply hurt the BIPOC community at Trent. 

Recently Domenica Othwolo, Vice President of the The Association of Black Students (TABS), published an open letter in Arthur to campus security, concerning the lack of minority representation in the university’s security. In the letter, Domenica describes clear instances of racial discrimination by Trent Security and Trent Housing staff, a worrying trend that many BIPOC students can corroborate. These issues extend off-campus, where students have to deal with the likes of police, community members, and landlords, interactions which often unfairly malign BIPOC students. As Irene Suvillaga points out in a March 2021 article, racist sentiments amongst landlords can prevent international students from having equal access to housing, a factor which greatly affects one’s university experience from second year onward. Trent may not have faced the same level of controversy in recent years as larger institutions such as uOttawa or the University of Toronto, but it deserves scrutiny nonetheless. Institutions like the university and the TCSA have a duty to properly serve the students they represent; no student should be made to feel targeted or harassed in accessing education, healthcare or housing. 

Claim the Fifth: “Trent has a lot of LGBT students, and is a safe space for queer and trans people”

This assertion is a particularly difficult one to refute, as it’s not practically measurable, nor is it one that Trent itself promotes. Rather it’s a word-of-mouth stereotype I’ve seen floating around, particularly amongst those who went to high school in Ontario., This is the idea that as a liberal arts university, Trent somehow offers a higher concentration of LGBT students, or an environment that is more accepting and catered to them. There’s no real research on this, but based on personal experience I would say that the claim is overblown. Sure, Trent houses a number of arts and humanities programs, and it’s to nobody’s surprise that you might find a good number of queer Gender Studies majors. However, the material conditions queer students face are often very hit-or-miss. There are certainly homophobic or transphobic interactions between students, profs, or TAs of which I’ve heard (if not directly experienced). Housing continues to be a unique nightmare for trans students, with bathroom accessibility being a hurdle not only on campus, but also in colleges under a shared-bathroom model (with Otonabee’s stall layout being particularly bad) which puts trans students in particularly uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations. While the creation of three gender-neutral bathrooms on campus is a good start, a bathroom does not a safe space make. Both Trent and the TCSA have thus far failed to go above and beyond in ensuring the comfort and safety of trans students, both when it comes to the educational environment, and to making campus sufficiently “liveable”. 

In Conclusion

My aim with this is not to dissuade anyone from choosing Trent, nor is it to make you regret your decision if you did. Rather, I’d love this to act as a starting point that allows you to learn, and maybe jump off and do some of your own research. Your institution doesn’t define your time in university, and even if you don’t agree with the practices of your school you can still find great people, professors, and TAs that will make your time here that much better. That’s not to say none of this needs to be addressed (it most certainly does), but it’d be naïve to think that any school is free of issues, especially ones as endemic to our economy and culture as these. I hope maybe with this I can inspire the next generation of student activists; help effect great change in a school I’d like to see hope for. Who knows, maybe you could be the next big Arthur writer? In any case if you’ve read this far I’d like to thank you for doing so, and to wish you all the best in your time at Trent. May it always be the best it can.

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