Radical Campus

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by Hugh Johnston
Photograpy by Albert Normandin

Writing the Book about SFU

Someone recently asked what I enjoyed most about doing a history of SFU, and I found it difficult to answer. I wasn’t prepared to choose any one part of the process. It had all been engaging – the interviews, the hunt for material, the wider reading, the pondering, and the writing. How do I explain it? First of all, the experience took me back to the beginnings of my career and led me to investigate things I did not fully understand at the time. In fact, I began to say to myself that I was doing research I ought to have done 37 years ago, before deciding to come to SFU. Then I would have had a better grasp of what happened around me.

But I have valued this project mainly because I’ve come to believe with certainty that SFU has an important story to tell. At a social event recently, a former member of the Harvard business faculty asked, “Does SFU have a history?” It was a fair question considering Harvard’s institutional life of nearly 400 years and SFU’s 40. But if you think that history “teaches by example,” then SFU has many original examples for a contemporary university audience.

SFU came into existence when it was revolutionary to think that a new university could be an academic leader. Up to that point, new universities or colleges had developed under the trusteeship or guardianship of older ones. New universities were followers that developed within established parameters. But SFU had its start when governments were beginning to look to new universities for innovation - because they were free of the weight of established practice. And SFU had an unfettered start that was unprecedented in Canada. The spirit with which SFU began was deliberately one of doing things differently; and that was a spirit that became an integral part of the university’s personality.

When I arrived in the summer of 1968, SFU abounded with stories of the happenings of the first three years. It seemed like everyone had an analysis of what was going on. The oral history – or mythology – about the place was rich, and while some of our collective memory has gone, much has been retained, at least until recently. The careers of nearly 200 faculty members and a great many members of our administrative staff have spanned most of SFU’s existence. With them and with our alumni has resided a great library of anecdote and explanation – too large in fact for me to fully exploit in the time I have had.

I had my introduction to the SFU story when I was interviewed in London for a position in history. My interviewer was Warren E. Williams, a charter member of the history department who was in London doing research in the British Museum. This was my only interview and when Williams decided I passed muster, the department and university accepted his recommendation and I got the job. (That was the way hiring was conducted in those early years.) During the interview, which lasted several hours in a pub near the British Museum, Williams made SFU seem like an exciting place. Then he did something that I’ve never heard in any other interview. He warned me against accepting the job and said the place was highly politicized and in a mess. I didn’t think it could be as bad as he was saying and disregarded his advice.

After I made my decision, my parents in Ontario began sending newspaper clippings about the amazing turmoil going on at the university I had chosen. SFU’s summer of revolt occurred between my hiring and my arrival in Vancouver. That was the summer when Martin Loney, SFU’s nationally famous student radical, commanded mass meetings in the mall; when department after department overturned its appointed head and adopted democratic decision-making under the leadership of an elected chair; and when SFU had four presidents in quick succession, beginning with Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, the founding president chosen by Chancellor Gordon Shrum, and ending with Ken Strand, the choice of faculty and some students.

In revisiting this history after the intervention of nearly four decades, I’ve come to understand that SFU was actually created twice. The first creation, between 1963 (when the original planning began) and 1968 (when faculty and students rose in revolt) belonged to Gordon Shrum. The second, between 1968 and 1974, was under the leadership of Ken Strand. The legacy of the first was energy and promise, and of the second, democratic structures and stability. Wrapped up in this story were countless debates about what a university is and how it should be run. And complicating it all was the association of strong personalities with particular positions.

"Making students take subjects in which they were not interested dragged everyone down."

I found a few outstanding treasures in my effort to recover this history. The story can be pieced together from interviews, memos, minutes, reports, correspondence, photographs and clippings, and back files of the Peak, a vast store of material organized and maintained by the staff of the SFU Archives. But a few items add immeasurably to the picture. One of these is an extensive series of interviews with Gordon Shrum conducted by the oral historian and broadcaster Peter Stursberg when Shrum was 87. A second is McTaggart-Cowan’s autobiographical notes finally dictated in retirement after much pressure from his family. And then there are the 40 pages of rich recollections that SFU’s first academic planner, Ron Baker, dictated back in 1970. And finally, there is the diary kept by SFU’s first administrative vice-president, George Suart, during some of the most dramatic confrontations of SFU’s early years.

The record has been kept, but our history is fading. I did a quick survey of my seminar class at the end of this summer and confirmed what I expected – that the SFU oral tradition has not come down to them. With a few exceptions, they knew nothing about the earlier life of the institution they attend. What this means for me is that there are two quite different audiences for a history. One has a host of memories and preconceptions and the other has none. What I am about to learn is whether one can speak to both. There is good reason to believe it possible.

We owe the recovery of the Freedom Square to a recent undergraduate in anthropology, Amanda Camley. The Freedom Square plaque had been missing for 30 years, until Amanda took up its cause and generated the publicity that led to its reinstallation. She had learned about the Freedom Square while completing an undergraduate research project. When she began asking other students, they knew very little about the past of their own university, but when she told them what she knew, she found them very interested. She has an ability to convey her own enthusiasm to others; but she also had something vital to talk about. And that has been my feeling while trying to tell the SFU story.

Excerpts from the book Radical Campus
© 2005 by Hugh Johnston, published by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. Reprinted by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Creating a student paper

The bound and now brittle pages of the Simon Fraser University campus paper, the Peak, offer a fascinating introduction to the 1960s. The story is not simply in the content; it is there in the changing voice of the paper. It was an independent paper, like most student papers at Canadian universities and at the more prestigious American ones. But this was not something to take for granted. About a decade and a half earlier at the University of Washington, the editor of the student paper had been dismissed because the paper’s faculty advisor objected to a series of articles on a politically contentious subject. Most universities did think at one time that a student paper needed a faculty advisor, but that was never the case at SFU.

Doing things differently at SFU

An interview with Ron Baker in the spring of 1965 became the text for a small promotional pamphlet used to recruit SFU’s first students. The interviewer was the Vancouver Sun’s education writer, John Arnett. SFU was going to be different, Baker told Arnett, first of all because it was not going to insist on the standard core of compulsory subjects. Students would not be required to take English or a foreign language or a science. If they took any of these it would be by choice. Second, SFU was going to achieve both quality and efficiency by combining large lectures with small tutorials and seminars (an idea that Shrum had had from the beginning). Third, SFU would take the emphasis off exams: some courses might have final exams but in others the grades would be based on term work. Fourth, SFU would admit students who did not meet the normal requirements: bright students who had not yet finished high school and mature students who did not have the standard entrance qualifications, but who could be judged good prospects by other measures. Finally, SFU was going to have a radically new system of teacher training.

In the planning of the SFU curriculum, Baker had been opposed to English, foreign language, and science requirements. Here he differed with Shrum, and their arguments lasted for weeks before Baker prevailed. Shrum said he had been embarrassed when accompanied on foreign trade missions by Canadians who could not speak a foreign language, and he was appalled by the written English of university graduates. (Shrum was a grammarian who would compulsively circle errors in incoming letters, including those from his president [Patrick] McTaggart-Cowan.) Baker’s telling reply was that these problems existed despite the compulsory English and foreign languages that all Canadian university students took. There had to be a better way. Making students take subjects in which they were not interested dragged everyone down.

What people remember

For faculty, staff and students, the 1960s at Simon Fraser University were like the emotional roller coaster of a summer field school. With a field school, one can generally predict the storyline for a group of fifteen or twenty young people thrown together for a month and a half in a foreign environment: the gathering of strangers; the expectations, excitement and discoveries, the new friendships and the bonding of the whole group; and then the difficulties, disagreements, fallings-out, ruptures and tears; and finally, when it is over, the surprising nostalgia. The difference at SFU was that this was a five-year drama rather than six weeks. A professor from Oregon had a glimpse of what had happened at SFU when he spent a few days on Burnaby Mountain in March 1972. This was the anthropologist Alfred G. Smith, who had been invited to the university to review a communication studies proposal. He was immediately and singularly struck by the level of involvement that almost everyone felt in the history of “this young and tender institution.” During his very first morning on campus he was told the SFU saga so many times by so many people that by noon he was sure that “solely from hearsay” he could recite the names of all the SFU presidents in chronological order. All this telling him made him wonder if the history had yet been fully absorbed or resolved.