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Trent University's longstanding crest imagined as a banner in the style of the houses of a certain work of fiction... Graphic: Evan Robins

The Dream of a Dead College Part 2: Astrology for Dummies

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
October 19, 2023

The Dream of a Dead College is a project which aims to chronicle—over the course of Volume 58 of Arthur—the history of the college system, the culture of Peter Robinson College itself, the controversy surrounding its sale and closure, the legacy it left and attempts to repatriate the college by the student body thereafter.

The Dream of a Dead College Part 2: Astrology for Dummies
Trent University's longstanding crest imagined as a banner in the style of the houses of a certain work of fiction... Graphic: Evan Robins

Trent University, as most already know, was founded in 1964 by a citizen’s committee seeking to create a university which would serve the Trent Valley and the working-class community of Peterborough, ON. The University’s development and construction was financed in part by workers at Peterborough’s General Electric factory, who saw it as an institutional investment in their children’s academic futures. Trent was part of a cohort of post-war “Centennial” universities which emerged throughout the fifties and sixties, responding to economic transition and population growth. The onus to create and expand public post-secondary institutions was borne of a political belief in the necessity of higher education—especially in the liberal arts—as a means to create a more equitable society and, in doing so, incentivize economic productivity.

It was based on these principles that Trent was conceived, and her first President, Thomas H. B. Symons was chosen. Symons had been a Dean at the University of Toronto, itself the largest, and one of the most prestigious universities in Canada both then and today. With his Presidency, Symons brought a vision for Trent as an academically focused institution informed by his time at UofT. Trent’s Governance mirrored the bicameral system adopted by the University of Toronto in 1907, consisting of a faculty Senate and a Board of Governors mediated and led by the President.

Perhaps more significantly, Trent borrowed something from UofT’s vision of a residential academic life which makes it unique among Canadian post-secondary institutions to this day—the college system.

Trent University is what is, generally speaking, known as a “collegiate.” Within the holistic administrative structure of the university, every student is distinguished by affiliation to one of Trent’s constituent colleges. These colleges comprise a residential portion—dorm rooms, common areas, and cafeterias, in which students live, work, eat, sleep, have sex, smoke pot, and so on—classrooms, lecture halls, seminar rooms, faculty offices, and a college office which offers administrative and academic support.

The system is often colloquially referred to as an “Oxbridge” system, a portmanteau borrowed from an amalgamation of the United Kingdom’s two oldest universities—Oxford and Cambridge, respectively—who each comprise a number of constituent residential colleges. However, unlike UofT, Oxford, and the like, whose various colleges were once sovereign institutions later absorbed by the university proper, Trent’s being founded under the mandate of a collegiate model marked it not only as distinct from the institutions on whose traditions it drew, but equally as somewhat of a novelty in North America.

The collegiate university model is a relatively common one in the United Kingdom, and Europe beyond, though is rarely seen in North America. The college system is thus—perhaps understandably—here often conflated with, and best understood, by students as reminiscent of a certain popular text which itself draws inspiration from the Oxbridge collegiate system and takes place at a boarding school with an altogether more fantastical twist.

Much though I loathe invoking played-out reference to a certain pop-cultural export set at a magical school divided into constituent factional houses in reference to the Trent collegiate system, one can very well think of it as something akin to the titular house system in Intelligent Systems’ 2019 video game Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

I’m sure many were here expecting me to instead put forward a certain British children’s book series, though I assure you for purposes of illustration, Three Houses is far better than said series or any of its tie-in films or video games. Further, unlike the author of the series previously alluded to, the developers of Fire Emblem are not—to my knowledge— outright TERFs. As a matter of fact, Limstella from 2003’s Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade has been argued to be one of the first explicitly non-binary characters in a video game.

Three Houses follows students at the Garreg Mach Monastery Officer’s Academy who are sorted into three houses (who could’ve guessed?) according to their respective nationalities. Much like the characters of IntSys’ smash-hit, Trent University students of old would live, learn, and dine alongside their college peers under a shared roof, wearing a shared uniform (or, in Trent’s case, scarves) and bearing a shared crest representative of their respective faction.

You have to hand it to IntelligentSystems’ designers—they so fully realized a believable collegiate boarding school in Three Houses that it’s hard not to see these as Trent University colleges in some other universe. Regrettably, the Ashen Wolves College was sold by Garreg Mach in Imperial Year 1160 due to “budgetary restructuring.”

In the early days of Trent University, professors would also bear a collegiate affiliation and teach students of their respective college, much the same as player character Byleth Eisner is assigned to teach an Officer’s Academy house of their choice at the beginning of Three Houses’ first act, “White Clouds.” Just as Garreg Mach students can switch houses pending the approval of the professor into whose class they wish to change, students at Trent University remain to this day able to switch colleges (as many times as they so desire) as easily as filling out a MyTrent form, which—unlike students’ house choice in the aforementioned video game—will not, in all likelihood, determine the allegiance for which they fight in a future continent-consuming war!

Trent was founded with two colleges: Catharine Parr Traill—which still stands today—for women, and Peter Robinson, for men—which does not. The inaugural colleges were both opened downtown in spaces acquired by or donated to the university pending completion of its permanent campus north of downtown Peterborough. In the intervening years since, the university acquired six more colleges. Champlain college, another all-men’s residence, was opened in 1966, followed by a complementary women’s residence, Lady Eaton College, in 1968. The sprawling Otonabee college was founded in 1972—the first college on the university’s East bank—and joined by Peter Gzowski College housed in the Enwayaang building in 2003, the same year as the closure of PRC. The oft-forgotten Julian Blackburn College served primarily part-time students until its 2011 closure, a shell of itself immortalized in the form of current-day Blackburn Hall.

Make no mistake, these colleges were, in many ways, nations unto themselves. While today we might quantify college identity by the cuteness of their mascots, frequency of their syphilis outbreaks, respective Living Learning Communities, or perceived number of LGBTQ+ students living therein, back in the day the aphorisms we still throw around held even more water than they do today. Campus politics were a big deal at the height of Trent’s mid–late century heyday.

In this way, much like the inept worldbuilding of a certain British children’s series with a wholly undeserved level of success, observers of the Trent University college system have taken to extrapolating innate facets of persons’ identity from their arbitrary affiliation with a certain college. You know, like astrology.

For instance, despite its present reputation as a haven for queer students, Lady Eaton College—alongside the perhaps considerably less surprising Champlain—was once thought to be part of a conservative West Bank vanguard defined in its opposition to Otonabee’s hippy intellectualism. The downtown colleges were another matter entirely. Traill has always been considered serene in comparison to its more vocal peers, though Peter Robinson College … PRC was a beast of its own.

From its inception right up until its closure, Peter Robinson College embodied founding Trent President Tom Symon’s vision of a domestic college—a space both academic, social, and residential—emblemized in the Oxbridge collegiate system from which Trent drew inspiration. Two of Trent’s most reputable programs—Indigenous and Cultural Studies respectively—were based out of the college for the duration of its tenure.

Beyond its scholarly virtues, PRC embodied the frenetic cultural energy of Peterborough at the time. Being as it was, proximal to the city’s downtown core, PRC had a reputation for being a cultural beacon of the university. Artists, musicians, dropouts and layabouts flocked to the college in droves. Its O-week leaders were dubbed “Amigos,” and “Amigas.” It stuck out from the other colleges, channelling an unfettered and deeply sincere artistic reference.

It was the hotbed for a lot of drugs.

Prior to the era of campus food monopoly heralded by Aramark’s acquisition of Trent’s exclusive catering contract—which they retained for 15 consecutive years—each of the university’s colleges possessed a dining hall/bar/social gathering and eating space which their students called home. Two of these—Champlain’s Symons campus bar The Ceilie, and The Trend in Traill College’s Wallis Hall—remain in operation and semi-frequent use today. Otonabee’s Cat’s Ass Pub, and Lady Eaton’s Crawpaddies, not so. Trent once boasted a catch-all campus pub called “The Commoner,” which sat on the East Bank of the Otonabee river near Nasau Millls and Pioneer Road, where the Rowing club sits today.

Out of all these, however, Peter Robinson College’s Jolly Hangman Pub bears perhaps the most notoriety. The Hangman was a dive in every sense of the word—a ramshackle structure eight feet high at most, constructed of white washed plywood and timber. It might have appeared reminiscent of a Tudor thatched cottage, if not for its roof being completely flat, and its exterior walls being peppered with cork boards pinned with posters for upcoming shows. Both the Hangman and the PR Dining Hall—now Sadleir House’s John K. Muir Memorial Dining Hall (affectionately known today as “The John”)—played host in those days to innumerable up-and-coming bands. 

I’m taken to understand that some of them were even good.

Both served as forums in the most traditional sense—spaces to eat, drink, get hammered, exchange ideas (sometimes drunkenly, other times not) and generally stoke the camaraderie the colleges of the time curated. From where we stand today, it’s likely hard to reckon such an account with our own experiences of Trent.

While every Trent student still bears a collegiate affiliation to this day, it would be hard to pretend this meaningfully steers one’s university experience beyond being a place to live in first year. Even the fact that residential colleges being relegated largely to the domain of first years is a testament to the withering of college culture—it’s understandable if upperclassmen don’t exactly feel connected to the institution when they live downtown, can eat of any of the meaningfully indistinguishable food production lines on campus, and generally have no reason to think of themselves as college students.

It’s as though a part of that system, and the spirit which resided therein, died with the sale of PRC.

Colleges don’t just die, however. Colleges can’t die, not in a strict, literal sense of the word. Rather Peter Robinson College was gutted and its hollowed-out body sold. People decided to kill it.

That decision was not, however, taken in isolation.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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How to customize formatting for each rich text

"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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