produces books ranging from fiction, poetry and memoirs to social history, science and pop culture.
The result, a readable coffee table book, rather prosaically titled Trent
University: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence. While it may not meet the ex-
acting standards of serious scholars, it bears the stamp of an experienced
journalist with a historical bent. Yes, it’s celebratory but Mr. Jenish was at
least able to address rocky periods. “In its relatively brief history,” he writes,
“Trent has had more than its share of faculty revolts, strikes, petitions to
the board and calls (sometimes heeded) for the removal of the president,
not to mention student uprisings, protests, demonstrations and occupa-
tions of executive offices.”
“I think it was a real advantage that the book wasn’t written by an
insider, an academic,” says Colin Taylor, a professor of geography who
served as dean of arts and science from 1997 to 2006 and helped create
a school of education at Trent. “D’Arcy brought a dispassionate, objective
eye to the history. While it’s fair and balanced, he didn’t shy away from
controversial aspects. It is a warts-and-all history.”
University presidents may be among the most eager readers of histories.
As incoming president of Dalhousie in 1995, Tom Traves, a newcomer to
Nova Scotia, remembers reading P. B. Waite’s The Lives of Dalhousie. In the
first volume, Dr. Traves discovered the ways in which religion profoundly
shaped the formation of Nova Scotia’s universities. Despite rivalries amongst
religious-based universities carrying over into the publicly financed secu-
lar age, he learned that collaboration transcended individuals and issues,
a useful insight that helped him understand the politics and mores of the
province’s higher education politics.
Dr. Waite also provided him with the manuscript for volume two,
because the book was more than a year away from being published. In
it, “[he] reviewed the challenges of building a modern university as enrol-
ments grew, institutions gained, and sometimes lost, public financial sup-
port, and developed their modern organizational forms,” says Dr. Traves.
“As a new president, I was fascinated by the tensions that my predecessors
faced and I certainly learned from the strategies they pursued with both
happy and unhappy results.”
University fortunes, like their histories, wax and wane. The current
era, it could be argued – marked by financial constraints, high expecta-
tions and constant change – is not an easy time for Canadian universities.
Whether written by eminent scholars, young academics or outsiders, it’s a
period when histories that place universities in a broad socio-economic
and cultural context can help the postsecondary sector understand itself.
And individual university histories will be there to help future scholars
who may take on even more comprehensive projects.
David Turpin, president-elect of the University of Alberta and past
president of the University of Victoria, commissioned a history for the
50th anniversary of UVic (Reaching Outward and Upward: The University of
Victoria, 1963-2013). Written by a leading scholar, the late Ian MacPher-
son, it was a hybrid, like so many are today: a coffee table book that pro-
vided what Dr. Turpin describes as “a good, but not in-depth, historical
outline of the institution.”
But Dr. Turpin believes another kind of history would be even more
valuable. “There are so many factors at play today, so many challenges,” he
says, “and it’s important to understand where you came from as well as
where you’re going. So there is a need for a really scholarly overview that
looks at all Canadian universities, the entire sector. Every history that’s been
written will serve an important role if someone eventually takes that on.”
“I was fascinated by the tensions that my
predecessors faced and I certainly learned from
the strategies they pursued with both happy
and unhappy results.”