It's always sad when a great university loses its way. And sad, and very strange, when the cause of the trouble is a few acres of grass.
That's what has happened this year at the University of Toronto, Canada's largest and, in many surveys, its best university. What has happened is that an insensitive, cynical administration has allowed itself to become captive to a special interest group, has backed itself into a corner, and is now in the process of estranging its students, its alumni, environmentalists, and its reputation as a respecter of its own heritage. And all over a few acres of grass.
The proposal to pave and then artificially turf the U of T's historic back campus to build field hockey pitches for the Pan Am games in 2015 is creating a godawful mess. A year or so ago, the university's Governing Council, acting on the advice of its administration – which was acting on the advise of elite athletes And physical educators such as Bruce Kidd – voted in favour of "astroturfing" it's back campus as a venue for the field hockey tournament at the Pan Am games and for international competitions thereafter. The idea was to access Pan Am money to cover half the cost.
No one at the time gave any thought to testing the feelings of anyone other than a few student athletes (there are in fact only 25 field hockey players currently at the institution) fronting for the ambitions of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, whose most effective lobbyist is Mr. Kidd, its former dean and now Warden of Hart House.
In an astonishing disregard of its supposed commitment to openness, the Governing Council used in-camera proceedings at every step of the way, never disclosing its actions until a contract had been signed to proceed with the paving. The administration's argument that it had to act in secret session to satisfy the Province of Ontario was both laughably bogus and a convenient cover for giving false information to governors behind closed doors. But far more disturbing is the realization that none of the 50 members of Governing Council – not a single one – had the courage or the knowledge of the issue to object. A widely held view on campus that the Governing Council is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the administration has been proven in spades.
It should not have surprised anyone with a 6-year-old's understanding of the history and traditions of Canada's national university that the proposal to desecrate a major portion of its campus – to close off a university common and destroy green space in the heart of Toronto – would have generated a serious backlash from the day it was made public.
A loose coalition of faculty, students and graduates calling itself Keep Back Campus Green, sponsored a petition that now has more than 5,000 signatures. President David Naylor has been deluged with critical comment from his own faculty and heads of colleges; from distinguished graduates; from donors; students; and outsiders. When the administration refused to listen to any of its critics, KBCG went political and is now trying to have Toronto City Council designate the back campus as a heritage space, which might block the bulldozers.
The university's administration and befuddled governors have not been able to build any support for their proposals, have been driven into wildly contradictory statements about their project, and are a now admitting a major concern about the costs of cancelling the contracts they secretly negotiated. With the backing of mayor Ford and his ilk, and arguing desperately against people who believe in heritage, the U of T may well carry the day this week at City Council.
The destruction of the back campus would then begin on July 1.
On that date the U of T's problems with its stakeholders will only begin. Anger on and off campus will mount exponentially when fences go up, grass is replaced by asphalt, and a great historic common for all the people of Toronto is turned over to a few field hockey players. The problem of the back campus will haunt and hinder the University of Toronto for many years to come. Eventually, millions of dollars will be spent to return it to grass and open space.
In 50 years of close involvement with the affairs of the University where I taught and served as a governor, I have never seen a worse example of maladministration, misgovernance and disregard for fundamental values of respect for heritage and the environment than we are currently seeing at a university some of us still love and cherish.
And all over a few acres of grass.
Historian and author Michael Bliss holds the rank of University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto.