Campus Life-forms

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December 17, 2012 by John Douglas Belshaw

Engineering student rituals enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Sociology doctoral dissertations. (Source: U of T Faculty of Applied Sci & Engineering)

Engineering student rituals enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Sociology doctoral dissertations. (Source: U of T Faculty of Applied Sci & Engineering)

I recently attended (as a fly on the wall, I suppose) a summit of leaders of new universities. These are the individuals into whose hands have been placed the reins for institutions that have emerged (some rather quickly) in the last decade.  Some of these uni’s are so new the paint on the gateway sign is still gooey.

I’m going to comment on one tangential thing I heard from several quarters: student life.

There are a handful of defining features of a university (and of many a community college as well).  Library [check]. Registrar [yep]. Ranks of professors, both permanent and adjunct [check, check]. Something resembling a senate [yes, as you say, “resembling” for now and getting better daily]. There are a lot of things a university can get by without but these are the essentials. And in most places on-campus residences also make the cut.

Pretty much everything else is gravy. Campus pubs, varsity teams, a student union building, fitness facilities, a Starbuck’s, an observatory … these are among the many nice-to-haves.  What surprises me is how essential these things appear to institutional branding and a sense of completeness.

The sort of hoopla that attends the release of new uniforms and crests for varsity teams utterly eclipses the announcement of new academic programming. I’m talking about Canadian institutions now, not football-crazed American colleges. A few years back McGill University announced a cut in their athletics budget of less than $150k: it got coverage in Maclean’s. Chop $150k – roughly the equivalent of a full-time salary with benefits – from an academic program and listen to the silence.

One of the casualties at McGill was cheerleading, which is so cheap they don't even use safety nets. (Source: McGillReporter)

One of the casualties at McGill was cheerleading, which is so cheap they don’t even use safety nets. (Source: McGillReporter)

This is not to cry the blues about how our society values one over the other.  Rather it is to point out how “student life” and “campus life” have come to be understood.  It is a paradigm, and one that does not appear to have shifted much.

When people talk about “campus life,” they tend to mean the things that happen outside of the classroom. They are referencing the social glue that turns a university or college into something more than a learning factory. Why athletics programs that focus on producing an elite squad of players should perform this function is something that never seems to be questioned.  Along with a student union building and a campus pub, team sports are integral to the idea of post-secondary education.

When it comes time to define the mission of a new, post-millennial university like Mount Royal or Fraser Valley or Vancouver Island, to what extent should we expect them to be held hostage to these older understandings?

What if the New Model University is a virtual one?  What would a student union building look like at Udacity?  When and where are the try-outs for the edX soccer squads?  Does the Athabasca University pub serve craft beers?

Maclean’s sports writer Justin McElroy wrote, in the aftermath of the McGill trimmings of 2010, “In Canada, athletic programs are still quite frugal, provide opportunities for amateur athletes to continue their passion while getting an education, and if it spurs a little bit of school pride, that’s a bonus. Modest? Yes. Something in need of drastic rethinking? Not really.” And if those are things that define the product of a McGill or U of Alberta, fine. And it’s chump-change anyhow: UBC – Vancouver’s revenues in 2011/13 exceed half a billion dollars, of which it is said $4m will be spent on athletics (though very likely that does not include operating costs for capital).

But new universities and colleges might legitimately recast the question of “campus life” in an age where more of their demographic is studying at a distance, attends part-time, resides off-campus and closer to their workplaces, and is sourced internationally. What would be the argument against doing so?

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