The U of C: protesting the future

By Jon Roe

In 1974, the university boasted over 11,000 students and had recently established the faculties of medicine (1970) and environmental design (1971). The faculty of law was established in 1975. The increasing number of varied faculties realized a dream of ’60s principal Malcolm Taylor.

“The first planning group that attended the meetings of the university by principal Taylor in 1961 really laid out a very important theme, and that was interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies,” says Dr. Anthony Rasporich, author of Make No Small Plans, a book on U of C history. “At that time, you had a very small faculty, probably 75 to 100. They all had to talk to one another in informal and formal gatherings. There was a maximum utilization of staff in an attempt to use their expertise across fields. So cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary [approaches] were emphasized in the first planning of the campus and the direction it would take.”

With the establishment of the University College structure at the U of C in the 1970s, the seeds were laid for a completely multidisciplinary faculty. The University College system was a way for students to take classes across faculties. It was established as a formal multidisciplinary faculty until 1981, when it was renamed general studies.

“In 1981 the faculty was created as a proper faculty as a teaching institution, having our own faculty members and our own programs,” says current communications and culture professor Dr. Christine Sutherland. “Now at that time, we were the only interdisciplinary faculty. That time it was not fashionable to be interdisciplinary, it was very much in the disciplinary era. Now of course, everybody is, or professes to be, interdisciplinary. It’s become harder and harder to define what interdisciplinary is.”

At the time, there were few cross-disciplinary programs across Canadian campuses.

“My sense is throughout the academic world it was not very common to look at interdisciplinary in a positive way,” says Sutherland. “People tended to say you were dilettante, not really specializing in anything, you were just skating over thin ice all over the place. It is a challenge. Interdisciplinary is a great challenge because one is always having to get into new areas and new ground.”

With the new faculty, there was an opportunity for professors to work together like never before. Sutherland remembers the first year of general studies 300 as being excellent ground for the cross-fertilization of ideas.

“Bob Weyant was really experimenting [with general studies 300],” says Sutherland. “[He brought] in this interdisciplinary core course, which is still the heart of the faculty. He was a historian of psychology, and he knew the kind of interdisciplinary he wanted to provide to the students, he couldn’t provide by himself.”

At the time general studies 300 was a series of guest lecturers brought in from various faculties.

“I lectured on English literature, elements of Shakespeare,” says Sutherland. “[Weyant brought] colleagues from all over. We had a mathematician, we had people from music, we had people from history, we had people from the sciences and they all gave guest lectures. But the really fascinating thing was we all went to all the lectures. We didn’t just guest lecture and not appear again. What we had was a tremendous cross-fertilization of ideas because of course all the faculty members would argue with each other. There were always more faculty members than students, I think there was 16 students that year. I look back and think it must’ve been a very daunting experience for the students, but it was marvelous. It was so stimulating.”

The theme of multidisciplinary studies still flows through the university to this day, notes Rasporich.

“If we look at the most recent discussions of this issue and the presidency of [current] president [Harvey] Weingarten and [former provost Ron] Bond, you’ll see the same emphasis on cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary research and teaching,” he says. “That’s one important theme and a thread that runs through the entire history of the university on the current campus. There’s always a healthy tension between disciplinary studies in depth within a particular field–the attempt to create liaisons with other fields to discuss new themes as they occur, as knowledge expands. It’s a healthy tension that you see at work during this entire period.”

Protest and growing pains

Naturally, the U of C wouldn’t be a university without some old fashioned student protest. Students have always protested tuition, but rarely has it affected more than those who live on and around campus.

“Student protest never goes away, the student protests on Crowchild Trail, which shut down traffic in 1987, for example,” says Rasporich.

Students marched from outside of MacEwan Hall to the intersection of Crowchild and 24th Ave. to protest a three per cent cut in the provincial operating grants for universities. Five thousand students blocked the intersection for 15 minutes before moving to 32nd Ave. and blocking that intersection as well. When the students returned to campus, they were greeted at the arch by Dr. George Fritz, then president of the University of Calgary Faculty Association. Fritz called the students “the grassroots” and added, “That’s where all the bullshit is spread.”

The ’80s were the pinnacle of student protest. In the last 20 years, U of C student protest has yet to reach the level of the 5,000-strong crowd which stopped traffic on Crowchild Trail. In 1989, another feat yet to be topped occurred. A car was hung from the arch by engineers, calling for free parking. The car was removed. Parking still costs money on campus.

Despite this outpouring of spirit, as the university has grown the strength of the community has suffered.

“There’s a diffusion of campus life, too, that comes with size,” says Dr. Maurice Yacowar, who founded the Gauntlet and retired from the English department last year. “[I went to] a class reunion here 15 years ago, of the students of my year. I came in from Vancouver for the reunion and there were about 150 of us at that meeting. Everybody knew everybody else. There was one guy I hadn’t seen since Frosh Week, and we recognized each other immediately. It was wonderful. It was a really good time catching up with these people and it occurred to me that the students who are at the university now will not have that experience. They may come back to their class reunion, but because the classes are so much bigger, they won’t have that network of even casual connection that we had because the place was so small.”

“It was a relatively small university when I first came,” says Sutherland. “We’re around two or three times as big. I think it’s much harder now to achieve a sense of community. I think before you could move around different faculties and recognize people. I still recognize some of the old people, but there’s been such a huge increase in numbers of faculty, students. The people that suffer the most from it are the students. I think it’s something that has to be addressed.”

Typically attributed to student apathy, the expanding size of the community has also contributed to the contraction of student spirit. Ultimately, Yacowar argues student apathy has less to do with students not caring and more to do with less issues for students to fight for.

“That’s the difference in the times, because it’s not just at this university that you find that difference,” says Yacowar, who also taught at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver. “You find it in universities all over the place. There’s a stirring of protest movement in the States against the war in Iraq, but it’s nothing like, nor is it likely to become, as much as the campaigns against the Vietnam war. I think students are more engaged in university government now than they were in my student days and even in my early teaching days when I was at Brock. Students didn’t have seats on major university committees the way they do now. For all the appearance of political apathy, the students have much more influence in the governing now than they had then. And that’s a good thing because students are the most important members of the university community.”

Though the students are more involved with the power structures at the U of C, students still feel the harshest ramifications of a lack of funding. Students are packed into large, impersonal classes across campus, and a research-driven focus has drawn some of the best professors away from doing what students want them to do: teach.

“[The focus] is changing,” says Sutherland. “There’s much, much more emphasis on research than there was before. It has a lot do with money. It’s money making. One of the problems is that some of our brightest scholars, and sometimes or best teachers, have so much buy-out time to do research that it makes it hard to be available to students. It’s not their fault, it’s the pressure of the institution which puts so much emphasis on research. It’s certainly much, much greater than it was than when I first started here. It’s increased enormously in the past five or six years.”

Sutherland has taught her entire university career at the U of C and though she enjoys research, she feels she is most effective in the classroom.

“I started as a part-time sessional instructor engaged in teaching remedial courses in writing, so my contract had nothing to do with research,” says Sutherland. “I got a research contract after about seven years in 1983, and that was as a instructor. [When I became a] professor in 1986, research [became] enormously important. I have been able to do quite a bit of it, I thoroughly enjoy it, but I still think I’m much more important as a teacher than as a researcher. I touch far more lives, I have more impact, generally.”

In the end, both Yacowar and Sutherland have enjoyed their time at the U of C, and have gained valuable experience. Yacowar notes his years as a student at the University of Alberta, Calgary Branch afforded him opportunities he wouldn’t have had at any other institution.

“The fact that I could, at the age of 18, edit the student newspaper, was a terrific bonus for me being at the U of C,” says Yacowar. “I had had enough newspaper experience by then I could with confidence take on the job. But I probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity anywhere else. Then to be able to move from the nation-wide disrepute of my editorship to being president of the Students’ Union and having the chance to redeem myself, at least locally, that was an opportunity that I wouldn’t have been able to have anywhere else.”

As the campus lumbers onward into the digital era, Yacowar feels the confidence he gained at the U of C helped propel him to the career he enjoyed as a life-long scholar whose career bookended the remarkable growth of a Calgary institution. Yacowar closed his career in the forest he watched grow from the acorn carried from the Calgary Normal School to the UAC.

“I survived my Poppy Day editorial, I survived my firing from the newspaper,” says Yacowar. “I could survive anything. I don’t think I ever was a confident person in those days. That confidence, I think, carried me the rest of my career. There’s a big difference between the degree I took away from here and the degree you guys are taking away. My degree was basically worthless because the place had no reputation. It didn’t hold me back.”

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