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Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University

By Hugh Johnston

Review By James Pitsula

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 109-11

When Simon Fraser University (SFU) opened in the fall of 1965, the registrar locked himself in his office and refused to answer the phone. A group of department heads, who later entered the office, found boxes of applications that had not been looked at and bundles of cheques, some a month old, that had not been cashed. On the third day, of classes, Letty Wilson, dean of women, arrived on campus to teach her course in psychology. By the end of the day she had been appointed acting registrar. She found that there was no accurate record either of the students who were registered or of the classes in which they were enrolled. Her solution was to have students fill out forms for the final exams and, on this pretence, to re-register them, thereby establishing that SFU had 2,528 students.  

Such were the travails of an “instant campus.” The story begins early in 1963 with a phone call from Premier W.A.C. Bennett to Gordon Shrum, co-chair of BC Hydro. The government had decided to build a new university: “We want you to be chancellor. Select a site, and build it and get it going. I want it open in September 1965” (8). For the first six months, Shrum operated on his own, without benefit of a president, board of governors, advisory committee, or staff. As author Hugh Johnston comments, “The freedom that Shrum enjoyed at SFU was without precedent in Canadian higher education” (12). 

A First World War veteran who fought at Vimy Ridge and former head of Physics and dean of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Shrum embraced the challenge. He personally selected the Burnaby Mountain location and organized an architectural competition to find a design worthy of the site’s “unsurpassed grandeur” (41). The winning entry, submitted by Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, placed the spine of the campus along the ridge that dominates the summit. The result was stunning. While comprising many buildings, it appeared as one structure, “a delicate crown inseparable from the top of the mountain” (53). 

Shrum also selected the first president, who took office in January 1964. Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, one of Shrum’s former students at UBC, found it difficult to shake off the mentor/protégé relationship. Worse yet, the new president had spent thirty-six years in the Canadian meteorological service and had no direct experience of university administration. At meetings of the board of governors, he placed his chair slightly back from the table and passed files to Shrum, functioning more as deputy than chief executive officer.

Shrum had some well-defined ideas about education. University teaching should combine large lectures with small tutorials and seminars. Academic leadership should come from department heads, not deans or senior administrators. SFU should emphasize undergraduate teaching over research. Education students spent too much time on methods classes and educational psychology and not enough on the academic subjects they were expected to teach. These scattered ideas did not add up to an educational philosophy. As Johnston remarks, “Looking back, it is difficult to find a coherent vision in Shrum’s choices” (74). But is this true? Doesn’t every educator have an educational philosophy of some kind, however dimly perceived or poorly expressed? Perhaps Johnston needed to dig deeper to uncover the inner logic of Shrum’s foundational beliefs. 

More ideas came from Ron Baker, who was plucked from the Department of English at UBC to serve as SFU’s academic planner. Baker favoured an elective system, freeing students of the obligation to take a standard core of compulsory subjects, such as English, a foreign language, or a science. Shrum protested but Baker’s view prevailed. In addition, Baker promised to take the emphasis off final exams and promoted a flexible admissions policy, allowing mature students who did not meet formal entrance requirements to take university classes. Finally, Shrum, Baker, and McTaggart-Cowan agreed that the new university should buck the trend of increased specialization and fragmentation of knowledge. They wanted interdisciplinary approaches and large, inclusive departments. (Ironically, the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies eventually broke apart, spawning a number of new departments: Criminology, the School of Contemporary Arts, Communication Studies, Kinesiology, and Computing Science.) 

One looks in vain for a conceptual framework that knits these ideas together in a coherent educational program. Nobody at the top – not the chancellor, president, board, or department heads – ever produced a document articulating the goals of the new university. In any case, the people at the bottom had ideas of their own. The Students for a Democratic University (SDU) and radical faculty members worked for the democratization of the university, by which they meant the transfer of power from the board of governors to the students and faculty. These pressures brought down McTaggart-Cowan in May 1968, effectively ending Shrum’s reign and paving the way for the presidency of Ken Strand. Students occupied the administration offices in November 1968, and the Politics, Sociology, and Anthropology (PSA) department went on strike in the fall of 1969. The strike led to the dismissal of eight faculty members and brought the university under Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censure. Strand brought in the police to end the occupation and refused to reinstate the fired professors. In doing so, Johnston argues, he won the support of the majority of faculty and students, who had no appetite for revolution. 

The author tells the story in an easy, comfortable writing style; the pages flip by quickly. No single, strong narrative dominates the text; instead, Johnston frequently cites the opinions of students, faculty members, and administrators, either as they appear in archival documents or in subsequently recorded reminiscences. The spirit of the book is democratic. Many people have their say, and the author does not impose a single, overriding interpretation on the material. At various points in the text, where one would normally expect a summary or assessment, Johnston defers to someone else’s opinion, leaving the reader to wonder where he stands on the issue. 

The treatment of the student movement is more descriptive than analytical. Work still needs to be done to arrive at a theoretical understanding of what happened to youth in the sixties, not only at SFU but also at other universities. It was a baffling period that contained both constructive and destructive elements, and Johnston has given us a vivid portrait of a university that was at the centre of it all.