The following is an abridged version of the address given by Professor Donald Ainslie upon his installation as University College Principal on December 1, 2011. The ceremony took place in UC’s East Hall and was attended by over 200 College alumni, students, faculty, and friends.
Navigating the hallways of UC is always something of a challenge, but I hope that some of you reached the East Hall today using the stairs in the centre of the east wing of the building. You’ll find there a wooden staircase with a carved beast atop the newel. I call him a ‘beast’ because, with the head of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the tail of a lizard, no one is quite sure what the carving represents. The stairs are often called the ‘dragon staircase’ though dragons normally have wings and are not usually thought to be composite animals. A pamphlet produced by one of my eminent predecessors as Principal, Peter Richardson, says that it’s a griffin, and UC calls its sports teams “the Gryphons.” But, while mythological griffins have, like our beast, the head of an eagle and body of a lion, our beast’s reptilian hindquarters mean that it’s no griffin. I think it is probably best described as a chimera—originally a mythological three-headed fire-breathing creature, part goat, part snake, and part lion, but now used broadly to describe any composite animal, be it in contemporary genetics or in poetry or prose.
I dwell on our chimera because, not only is he a physical symbol of our college, he also embodies its spirit, and he does it in at least three ways.
First, the fact that we cannot seem to agree on what exactly our beast is speaks to the tradition of open inquiry that is at the heart of University College and is thereby at the heart of U of T. For, after an intense period of political struggle in mid-nineteenth-century Toronto over the place of religion in higher education, UC was founded as a nonsectarian College. In this wonderful building, generations of students have had the opportunity to pursue ideas, not needing to worry if those ideas might offend the powers that be, whether religious, ideological, or financial. It was this opportunity for free thought that attracted my grandfather, Donald Stuart Ainslie, to UC in the fall of 1911, 100 years before I started my principalship. It is this spirit of open inquiry that has continued to attract the waves of students to UC from an ever-diversifying Toronto, be they Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, or atheist. Our chimera – our griffin, our dragon – welcomes any student who wants to be challenged to think creatively, learn expansively, and grow as a person.
Second, this beast also speaks to our perseverance and constant reinvention. For he was not a resident of the building when it first opened its doors in 1859. Rather he joined us when the College was brought back to life after the devastating fire on Valentine’s Day, 1890. The students, faculty, and staff, along with Toronto’s leading citizens, wanted not simply to rebuild the College but to add to its already significant aesthetic merits. I’m not sure that our chimera was intended to be fire-breathing like his ancient Greek predecessor, but he does embody our recovery from the fire and the spirit of community support that has sustained UC for over a century and a half.
Other parts of the building have also been repurposed over our long history: the bedrooms of the cloisters wing are now offices for faculty who teach their students in our historic classrooms and who engage in groundbreaking research in disciplines ranging from English, History, and Art, to Mathematics and Anthropology. The College kitchen has been partly incorporated into Bissell House, formerly the College steward’s rooms and now the Principal’s residence, where my partner, Mike, and I moved in only a few weeks ago. The original dining room is now the Junior Common Room, inscribed with the names of executives from the Literary and Athletic Society – “the Lit” – and the other organizations that eventually merged with it: the Women’s Undergraduate Association and the Women’s Literary Society. You’ll see there, in gold, the names of Ontario Premiers, Howard Ferguson, Bill Davis, and Bob Rae; Supreme Court Justices, Rosalie Abella, Lyman Duff, and Bora Laskin, and many others, some of whom are here today. These College leaders took what they learned in these halls, and shared it with the larger society, embodying the culture of leadership that has come to define UC.
The walls of the JCR remind us that, though the building itself seems unchanging in its Romanesque Revival splendour, the constant flux of students, staff, and faculty means that the College is never static. Just this year, we have launched a new suite of special courses for first-year students, UC One: Engaging Toronto, that takes its inspiration from the student leaders whose names are printed on our walls. Students in UC One enrol in a small seminar that approaches the theme of civic engagement from an interdisciplinary perspective grounded in one of the four programs that the College sponsors: Drama, Canadian Studies, Health Studies, or Sexual Diversity Studies. UC One helps student acquire the skills they’ll need to succeed in whatever academic field they ultimately choose to specialize in at the same time as it equips them with the tools that will allow them to apply what they learn at U of T to the world around them.
My third reflection inspired by our beast concerns the metaphorical use of ‘chimera’: something that is a mere fantasy, something that doesn’t or couldn’t exist. Our beast, in contrast, is irrefutably real. His hide has been worn smooth by tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff who have given him a rub as they climbed the stairs or walked down the east hallway. The accumulated impact of all of these people is what makes UC the place it is today: the students in residence, those commuting from their family home or sharing an apartment downtown with friends from the College; the staff who devote countless hours to ensuring that the students have the best education that we can provide, both inside and outside of the classroom; and the faculty, who have joined this College because they want to learn from those in different disciplines and to connect with students in a robust and engaged intellectual community.
In my ‘other life’, I am a philosophy professor. My research focuses on British and European Enlightenment thought. It seems apt, then, to end my comments today by invoking the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in a letter to the great encyclopédiste d’Alembert, encouraged us “not [to] seek for the chimera of perfection but [instead for] the best possible according to the nature of man and the constitution of Society”. I take our own UC chimera as a personal reminder to work as hard as I can to help make this College into the best it can be. As Rousseau reminds us, we must start with what we are given when trying to improve an institution. University College’s great history and the legacy bequeathed to us by our alumni and friends over the past 158 years have put us in excellent stead already. We shouldn’t be so naive as to aim for perfection, but our potential remains boundless. I look forward to working with you all—faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and especially students—to fulfill this potential over the next five years.