Lessons Learned

Author: 
Donald Ainslie, Principal, University College
Magazine Section: 
Keynote

In early January, the University announced that I have been appointed to a second term as Principal of University College. I am deeply honoured at the opportunity to lead the UC community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni for another three years.

Together, we accomplished so much during my first term: creating and starting to implement a plan to revitalize our main UC building; launching the College’s Boundless fundraising campaign; renewing the University of Toronto Art Centre through a federation with the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House that brings it under the umbrella of the new Art Museum at U of T; and building our academic programs, including the implementation of UC One for first-year students, the return of the Cognitive Science program, the creation of the Richard Charles Lee Chair in Chinese Canadian Studies, and the establishment of new relationships with the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, and the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. We’ve clearly been busy!

All of this activity has not been without challenges, but it has also taught me a few things that I’d like to share with you.  Here are a few of those lessons, some serious, some less so.

Small changes can have a big impact. For example, UC faculty were telling me that they were looking for opportunities to interact with students outside of the classroom; UC students were telling me that they often didn’t have a personal conversation with a professor until they were in small seminars or labs in their final years of study. Thus we initiated our faculty-student dinner series. Once a month, I host 20-odd students and half a dozen faculty at a dinner at Bissell House, where everyone shares a meal and some informal chat.  These have become exceedingly popular and now have long waiting lists. Follow-up surveys with students show how much they value the chance to get to know professors personally.

Big changes require the whole team. The UC Revitalization plan will transform our beloved UC building to ensure that it is central to the experience of the next generations of students. We have now hired consultants to craft the final plans—Kohn Shnier Architects in partnership with ERA Architects, the lead heritage firm in Canada. Assuming we meet our fundraising target for the year, we plan to start construction this coming fall. But getting to this point has required a collaborative effort from alumni, students, faculty, and staff, both to offer their financial support for our plans, and to ensure that the plan will achieve its goal of a twenty-first-century student experience in a nineteenth-century building. We all look forward to the fall 2017 opening of the first two phases of the Revitalization—the new library and Clark Family Reading Room in East and West Halls, and a state-of-the-art conference centre in the Croft Chapter House.

The founding College is the historical College. The UC community is rightly proud of our role as the first college in what was at that time a newly non-sectarian University of Toronto. As Principal, I soon learned that the deep historical roots of the College meant that I needed to be able to tell its story effectively. So now I know much more than your typical philosophy professor about the reform movement of the 1840s, the Fenian raids of 1866 (the subject of this issue’s feature story), and the early days of confederation. As we gear up for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017, we are ready to celebrate UC’s role in helping our country come into being.

Living with a ghost is not so bad.  Every UC student knows the story of Ivan Reznikoff, the stonemason who, while helping to build the College, was murdered by his coworker, Paul Diabolos, over their mutual interest in a local young woman. By disposing of Reznikoff’s body in the foundations of the building, Diabolos ensured that his ghost would remain to haunt the College. So when my partner and I moved into Bissell House in 2011, we were slightly apprehensive about the possibility of an unwanted, spectral roommate. And indeed there have been some surprises in our time living here, though more rodential than ghostly.

The owls! One of the great pleasures of living at UC has been the opportunity to really get to know our main building. Dating from the mid-1850s, it is one of the city’s oldest and a national historic site. It is also an architectural masterpiece with a multitude of whimsical carvings covering it inside and out.  Many of the creatures decorating the College are mythical, but I soon learned that there are in addition a preponderance of owls to be found hidden in the capitals of columns, the lintel pieces of doors, and our stained glass windows. As a symbol of wisdom, the surfeit of owls in the building seems apt. I have uncovered well over two dozen thus far.

The best way to celebrate your birthday. Having been born in early September, my birthday lands on Labour Day every so often. And Labour Day happens to be when UC Orientation typically kicks off, with a boisterous gathering in the UC quad where the frosh groups learn their cheers and embrace the UC spirit. I have the privilege of addressing the assembled students and in 2011, my first year as UC Principal, it was my birthday. Being serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by a crowd of students over 1000 strong was a tremendous way to start the year! I’m looking forward to this coming September when my birthday will again land on Labour Day.

Of course, learning never stops at UC and the upcoming years will no doubt contain more challenges and some surprises. I will continue to value every lesson the College teaches me.