Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University
Hugh Johnston. Toronto & Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005; 382 pp; ISBN: 978-1-553-65140-6, hardcover $45 ca.
Hugh Johnston, a historian at Simon Fraser University, has broken the taboo on writing a history of SFU’s origins in the 1960s. The title of the commissioned book plagues the reader from beginning to end. What is the meaning of “radical?” Can nostalgia for the under-reflected idea of radical explain what the radical on the “campus” means? Johnston claims, “if its mission and culture have since taken on new forms, the university’s present personality is still an outgrowth of the original.”
This way of reading “present personality” against the grain of its origins should be tested against how the university’s conflicting ideals turned a risky adventure into a social movement magnetized by the culture of the 60s. The taboo having been lifted on writing about SFU’s bewitched past, uncomfortable questions still exist about the speed and scale of change that have outstripped the ability of historians to clarify how a legacy of being “radical” can be explained or applied to what really exists today in the expanding mass-education university.
The provincial government appointed the imperious Gordon Shrum in 1963 to open SFU by 1965. The planners kept the vow, explored, consulted, built and celebrated, but soon the questions of university government and the principles of academic freedom, already prickly at the time, became a quagmire that eventually wrecked the honeymoon of an ideal beginning for a utopic, modern university.
As quickly as SFU was formed, it quickly grew out of anyone’s control. Does all of this help us understand the always-present dangerous indifference to a comprehensive culture of knowledge built on a foundation of “a place of liberty?”1 Needed is a genuinely self-reflexive analysis of the university that explains how a populist university became labeled with the epithet “radical” and how and why future generations should accept using the term. Anything less counterfeits the past as a monolithic event.
The core of Radical Campus consists of archival records, taped recollections and compilations of memos, minutes and correspondences with some fragments of interviews. It is a valiant effort taken to the mid-70s — but where does it go? The story ends without winners, many losers, tragically destroyed careers, a deposed president, grotesquely theatrical power struggles and two CAUT censures. We arrive in 2005 at a university that may be no different from any other university in Canada.
Johnston’s concluding chapter, “Shrum’s University after Forty Years,” gingerly points to a future obscured by a history with so many details that the whole picture of chancellor Shrum’s university may be as foggy as the mountain. The details do not illuminate a “place of liberty,” but do tell us how the teaching vocation was seen at the time. Businessmen claiming to be enlightened, capitalist modernists, social democrats, corporate philistines, utopian visionaries and young, internationally-educated academics joined with first-time university goers inside an architectural monument that internalized conflicting expectations and externalized anxieties about the emergent mass education.
Johnston does not mince words about “messy, rushed and improvised” policies creating problems. But more revealing conversations with those who experienced the history would have brought us closer to understanding how the breeding grounds illuminate today’s transformation into a massive corporate structure.
Just what historical method might have been the most suitable for a history that resurrects the past as “radical” is not easy to see. My own experiences as a founding faculty member suggests one should avoid the word at all costs. Rather, one should talk more precisely of educational issues, intellectual controversies, or the misunderstandings about the word itself. It seems to mean innovative. But the innovations were hardly original.
Radical also means “populist” or participatory, but the call for democratic governance made things worse. Intercollegiate athletics were different, but surely not radical. Failures of negotiation carried governance to the brink; neither faculty associations nor senates were radical. Dismissals were radical.
The dismissal hearings of eight political science, sociology and anthropology faculty (PSA) and the aftermath dominate the core of the book — 216 pages, well over half of its 338 pages. Six of 11 chapters lead us from “Berkeley North” through the firing of five teaching assistants who joined a high school protest (they were later reinstated), to the arrest of 114 students at a sit-in, lengthy assemblies and rallies, inner politics of the SDS-style Students for a Democratic University (SDU), and finally the trusteeship of the PSA department and dismissal hearings and censures.2
Eventually the thralldom of faculty power, perhaps the most “radical” moment, ended the appointment of the vulnerable first president, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan. The nonviolent sit-in ended with “unprecedented” police occupation. This “defined” the presidency of Kenneth Strand (the words are Johnston’s). The many competing groups stimulated by the instant beginnings point to more surreal than radical formation of either pedagogy or disciplines.
Johnston points to the openness that attracted many to the readiness to create new interdisciplinary subjects. The excitement was high about democratization of almost everything, including gas stations and elevators, although soon “rival conceptions” of what a university might mean settled into a pattern of Weberian bureaucracies as solutions for any notion of participatory democracy, which swept in and out.
In spite of civic-spirited hope, the emerging social movements of the times bulldozed right through the tissue-thin administrative walls. The lack of policies and procedures showed the cracks in the academic architecture. Leaking policy boundaries helped create the betrayals, disappointments and contradictions familiar to those who lived through its vanguard enthusiasms.3
Radical Campus proposes that radical origins are pathways to what we have now. Johnston writes: “SFU’s early years coincided with great change in higher education and that was especially obvious for people creating a new university. SFU had no tradition when it opened but quickly established one, and if its mission and culture have since taken new forms, the university’s present personality is still an outgrown of the original.” (p. 3)
This was a culture-in-the-making: selling universities to the public, hasty conclusions of insecure administrative organizations, and a soon weary and divided faculty trying to calm the fears of public reaction and possible provincial intervention. Any larger ethnographic picture of this culture goes missing. It is more a mélange. The reader who was not there will surely have trouble keeping it all straight.
Two CAUT censures clearly point to the systemic problems of a confused administration and a vacillating faculty association. Today, “Shrum’s idea of a spare, bottom-weighted structure has long gone.” Arthur Erickson’s utopic, modern Greek vision of aging Parthenon concrete has been displaced by growth and expansion. Bureaucratic management irritates new and old faculty. Worth questioning is whether this history evaluates the decisions of specific individuals or simply reveals the naïve personalism of its founders.
The interdisciplinary curriculum is easily overrated as new, and the disputed trimester system was not more radical than at many other universities. The versatile and resourceful R.J. Baker, the first planner, was doubtful about the trimester system. Even the prized architecture is not as radical as often featured. Its geometrical, disorienting impersonality, its lack of intimate spaces atop 370-meter Burnaby Mountain becomes a citadel remote from the congested suburbs below. Never a sociable communal space, the design presaged a monument suitable for the symbol of advanced power the founders intended. Vistas did not pacify a university nor make a university radical or original.
Johnston taught at SFU for 36 years and hopes to describe an institutional history with “reasonable detachment” without his having been “… at the centre of the action in any events.” My own 40-year experience of the university would like a more critical sociological analysis of what happened. Reparation of the past is nascent dangerous work. The Popkin tribunal — on which I spent eight months as one of only several university faculty members who participated directly in an academic freedom tribunal — concluded the existing power struggles contributed to the conditions that created the “strike.”4
The university administration later used a legal decision to banish two other tribunals. Underlying the draconian dismissals was the board of governor’s ignorance of university practices in Canada and the United States.5The dismissals worsened existing problems of university governance. The dissenting faculty were by their own self-definition democratic populists. The term “radical,” understood in terms of the SDS liberal-oriented Port Huron Statement (1962), is hardly more radical than Aristotle, J.S. Mill or John Dewey.6 There are no interviews with the dismissed PSA faculty.
Tom Bottomore, a distinguished sociologist and the first head of the PSA department trenchantly reminded the board of governors that the university was not a business and academics were not employees of a government administration.7 Bottomore criticized the “amateurish” hierarchy of the university for “having inadequate information on costs, teaching hours, methods and procedures.” Hierarchy is a “confession of failure,” he wrote, and leads to dealing “bureaucratically with problems which arise from a crisis of confidence and an uncertainty about our goals.”8
The aftermath of the PSA affair brought to a head the struggle over the legitimacy of the two CAUT censures. Pauline Jewett, SFU’s third president and the first female president of a Canadian university, had a miserable experience. She was not allowed to backtrack to defend the censure and, under extreme pressure from vice-presidents, had to abandon the compromise she hoped would work. The PSA faculty who had been dismissed — some reinstated, then to be non-renewed, or had resigned — would not accept her proposal.
President Strand’s legacy prevailed. The administration building is named after him. Many faculty did not even vote to approve bringing in police to evacuate the administration building. “The public,” Johnston writes, always “wanted a crackdown against campus agitators.” Legitimacy was the issue of the day, the decade, the future. In 1990 Shrum saw the future as golden. He talked of a happy ending.
Johnston’s conclusion is muted on how the radical legacy fits the current strategic policies. There is a brutal irony in how “radical” and “strategy” coincide and lack specificity. The careful reader will note, apart from the divisive crises in many departments’ internecine battles, that academic freedom issues were never far away. Incompetence existed on all sides, the Popkin committee concluded, that produced “provocation.”
Baker, the original academic planner and first head of English emerged earlier as a kind of Sisyphean radical — a man with a mission to plan and negotiate the ordeal of a new university. As poorly as the originators understood the CAUT position on academic freedom, it would have been worse had Baker not persisted in his view that academic freedom procedures were necessary in a new university. No one could have predicted that the early disagreements would produce a “strike.”
What might one think about these legacies and the march toward systems and specialization? Lives were damaged, reputations ruined, careers ended, building renamed, legitimacy restored. Universities are now high-achieving knowledge industries seeking the golden calves of “excellence,” “curiosity-driven research,” “citizen learners,” “accountability” or “national agendas.” An official story? A melancholy tale of ruins or a cautionary political epic? Today’s most controversial issues? Mandatory retirement. Plagiarism. Internet learning. Shortfalls. Disemployed, highly-educated sessionals. Litigations can loom.
Reading Radical Campus I wondered silently: when will Gogol’s Inspector General arrive and reveal the social-historical contexts that influenced what the current university has become?
Jerry Zaslove is a professor emeritus in English and humanities and the founding director emeritus of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University.
1. In 1964 George Whalley edited A Place of Liberty: Essays on the Government of Canadian Universities, an important collection of essays on academic freedom and the role of university governance in Canada whose underlying philosophical message is civic republican values. The pioneer founders of Simon Fraser University did not seem to heed this important book.
2. There were two CAUT censures. One in May 1968 over the president’s and board’s handling of tenure policies and the second in the fall of 1971 over the dismissals. The second one lasted six years. CAUT’s tenure policy was adopted under President Strand, but by biting the bullet he ignored the censures. Johnston’s story shows that various faculty association executives were confused rather than judicious about such policies.
3. See my “The ‘Lost Utopia’ of Academic Freedom — Intellectuals and the Ethos of the ‘Deinstitutionalized’ University,” in Pursuing Academic Freedom: “Free and Fearless”?, Len M. Findlay & Paul M. Bidwell, eds., Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd., 2001.
4. I was also on a university tenure committee that heard evidence for non-renewal of several political science, sociology and anthropology faculty members as well as serving briefly on a committee that presided over the fate of the five fired teaching assistants.
5. “Arbitration at SFU: The Popkin Case,” CAUT Bulletin, winter 1971. Also see “The Wheeldon Dismissal Hearing Report,” CAUT Bulletin, autumn 1971.
6. See Mordecai Briemberg, “Radical Campus — or Haunted House on the Hill?”, Canadian Dimension Magazine, March/ April 2006, http://canadiandimension.com/ articles/2006/02/26/384/.
7. Vancouver Sun, June 26, 1967.
8. “Simon Fraser University — Problems of Organization,” Thomas Burton Bottomore Papers, LSE Library Archives, mss typescript, 9pp, dated 1968, pp. 6 & 8. Gary Genosko of Lakehead University kindly provided me with materials from the Bottomore papers.