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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2000

Trent Case Goes to Court

An action brought by Trent faculty members against Trent University's Board of Governors goes to court on Sept. 18 in Toronto. The faculty members are asking the court to quash a board decision to consolidate the university on its suburban campus and close its downtown colleges. The board decision was taken in Nov. 1999, just three days after Trent's senate had voted against any sale or closure of its colleges.

The hearing for the judicial review will be before three Ontario Divisional Court judges. CAUT legal staff are helping with the case, in collaboration with the Toronto law firm Torys, with John Laskin as Senior Counsel.

"Our case is based on the fact that the Trent University Act gives the senate exclusive authority over the educational policy of the university, " Laskin said. "Closing the downtown colleges will have a profound impact on that policy."

The consolidation plan is part of a capital development strategy approved at Trent president Bonnie Patterson's urging. Patterson cited the pressure of a deadline for applying for Ontario Superbuild funds.

The strategy proposed a sweeping physical centralization that would drastically alter Trent's college-based set up. In addition to selling off the downtown colleges (Trent's oldest, and a base for the humanities and the arts), and relocating their departments and staff at the main Symons campus, the plan called for expanded science facilities, the creation of "smart" teaching space, and commercially managed student residences to handle predicted enrolment growth. The plan was developed by a special task force and presented to the university community only weeks before the board was required to approve any application for Superbuild funds.

Prior to the board vote, Patterson had asked for the senate's endorsement. The senate passed a motion against including in Trent's Superbuild application any plan based on "either a change of location or a net reduction of facilities at any downtown or Symons campus college." The motion underlined the "integral" importance of the college system to Trent's mission and cited senate's statutory authority under the Trent Act to determine educational policy.

The university has been badly divided as a result of the Patterson plan. "There are serious disagreements in the university about the president's plan, including about the financial implications," said Trent faculty member Graham Cogley. Cogley, a physical geographer based on the Symons campus, is part of a wider faculty group supporting the application for judicial review, filed at the beginning of this year.

And while the Patterson plan has support among many sectors of the faculty, there is equally strong op-
position. Some are anxious to preserve the educational role of the colleges, others are worried about the academic implications for the future of the humanities and performing arts. The haste with which the plan was developed has left some concerned that the financial implications have not been properly thought through. Others are outraged the president would choose to disregard the will of the senate on a matter of such importance to the future of the university.

"The issues have not been properly debated and alternatives have not been properly examined," Cogley said. "There is a lot of concern about the way the president and board have proceeded."

There have been several public meetings and student protests. In January, a town-gown coalition including alumni and downtown merchants brought the issue to City Hall. Many alumni are particularly bitter about the way their interests have been disregarded and have stopped contributing to the current fund-raising campaign.

According to Andrew Wernick, one of the faculty applicants in the case, there were several efforts to find a compromise, or a better way of proceeding, both before and after the November board meeting, but these were turned down.

A letter was sent to the Ontario government asking that the consolidation aspect of the Superbuild application be separated off, pending further consideration.

"We only started the legal action when it became clear that there was no hope of meaningful dialogue," Wernick said. "We always hoped the president would change course and opt for an open planning process with proper senate involvement. We still do."

At its June 2000 executive meeting, CAUT voted to provide legal assistance for the application for judicial review. "The Trent board's action in disregarding senate on such an important matter sets a bad precedent for all Canadian universities," said CAUT president Tom Booth.

"Internal issues of academic direction and educational philosophy are for Trent to work out. But universities are not business corporations or dictatorships and the norms and procedures of academic governance must be followed," he said. "Several universities face a similar situation, where a president tries to use executive or board authority to push through a planning scheme with real implications for academic direction. It's a disastrous trend and needs to be stopped."

President Patterson, whose background is in business studies and "change management" and who is a former head of Council of Ontario Universities, began her term at Trent two years ago.