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Sod-turning ceremony in 1904 for Convocation Hall marked one of the first and finest achievements of the UTAA.
Photo courtesy of U of T Archives

A Commanding Force

Alumni wanted an organization to keep them in touch with their alma mater, and the wife of the president recognized that there is strength in numbers. The time was right to establish the University of Toronto Alumni Association

The creation of the alumni association is a rather odd story. In January 1900, President James Loudon – who was not one of the university’s more renowned presidents – received a visit from a close confidant of Premier William Ross’s Liberal government. The confidant said that the government was planning to remove Loudon to make way for a man like Seth Low of Columbia or Principal George Grant of Queen’s.

Naturally upset, Loudon immediately wrote to Chancellor Edward Blake in England, complaining about the “spirit of secrecy” and “conspiracy” that characterized this affair. But the timing was all wrong for Blake to come to Loudon’s aid: Blake had just sent the university an irrevocable letter of resignation, effective immediately.

“The counsel I failed to get from Mr. Edward Blake,” Loudon wrote in his unpublished memoirs, “I received from my wife [Julia], who on [Blake’s] resignation being received, advised me forthwith to appeal to the graduates and form an Alumni Association.” Taking the advice of his wife, he managed to save his job, but of more lasting importance to the university he established the alumni association, now a century old. Its founding is described by university historian Stewart Wallace in his 1927 book, A History of the University of Toronto, as “the greatest constructive feat” of Loudon’s administration.

The turn of the 19th century was a time of hope mixed with despair. The first issue of The Varsity in the 20th century referred to a “revived spirit in university life” and predicted brighter days in store. Financially, matters could not have been much worse. For four years, the average total university income had been about $125,000 a year, of which the government contributed only $7,000. In contrast, American public universities, as Loudon (and most future presidents) pointed out, were much more generously funded. The University of Michigan, with state financial support, spent about $500,000 annually.

Loudon’s (and Mrs Loudon’s) plan to unite the university’s 10,000 alumni was timely. After all, it was the graduates who had saved the university in the 1860s from the designs of the denominational colleges that wanted a share in the endowment. Perhaps alumni could turn things around again.

Of course, other important forces were at work to help create the organization. Toronto graduates living in Ottawa, where many worked for the federal government, had formed a strong local group in 1894 and wanted a wider association of graduates, similar to the University of Michigan Alumni Association. An organizational meeting was planned for the Easter break in April 1900, at a time when the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, which included a large number of Toronto alumni, was meeting in Toronto.

More than 200 people met on a rainy April evening in the chemistry lecture hall, the largest meeting place on campus. Loudon was elected honorary president of the organization and Dean R. A. Reeve its president. Reeve was a good choice, being the dean of medicine, a graduate of University College, and – of importance to Victoria College – a Methodist. Moreover, he had an interest in putting pressure on the government for a new medical building. The secretary of the association was John McLennan, a physicist, who was effective and full of contagious enthusiasm – and who wanted a physics building. A number of women were elected to the council, including Gertrude Lawler, a graduate of University College and the head of English at Harbord Collegiate.

In the beginning, the association cast a wide net, including graduates and undergrads as well as those who had attended for only a term. Members were organized on the basis of local branches. By the end of the first year of operation there were 17. In the summer of 1903, Loudon and McLennan travelled west to meet alumni and were surprised at how many Toronto graduates they found. In Edmonton, for example, where they expected perhaps half a dozen, they met with 35. McLennan also used the occasion to promote graduate studies wherever he went, hoping that westerners would come to Toronto rather than go to the United States.

By June 1904, there were 33 branches, 23 of them in Ontario. In its first year, the association instituted the annual gathering of alumni at the June graduation exercises. Four hundred alumni attended a banquet in the gymnasium the night before graduation. There was a garden party on the front campus after the graduation and a moonlight boat cruise on Lake Ontario in the evening. No doubt, sitting through convocation in the examination hall of the old engineering building helped persuade alumni that a proper convocation hall was required to replace the one destroyed in the University College fire of 1890.

The first real test of the new organization’s strength came in early 1901, when the association lent its support to the university’s plea for more government funding for science and engineering. What was needed, the university had been arguing, was general support and a new building. Loudon complained that the government was starving Toronto, the state university, while generously supporting Queen’s, a denominational university, with funds for a science and engineering school. One of the reasons for a demand for engineers was the opening up of Northern Ontario. The Globe predicted that “the wealth in the forest, in mineral deposits, in the wasted energy of great waterfalls … is certain to be developed as the world’s demands and discoveries of science make such development remunerative.”

The alumni association made an appointment to see Premier Ross to back the university’s case for support. The meeting was attended by 300 graduates from 18 Ontario counties and took place on March 13, 1901 – one week after a group of 200 engineering students had helped pave the way by personally delivering a persuasive petition to the government outlining why funds were required.

Premier Ross listened but made no promises. He was worried about the political consequences of giving too much support to what many considered an elite group. “I think that the University question is the most dangerous one we have taken up this session,” he wrote to a cabinet colleague in 1901. “Although our followers will stand by us, I am quite uneasy as to the effect upon the country.”

Ross was also being pushed by the leader of the Conservatives, James Whitney, who, the evening before the alumni meeting, had given a major address in the legislature. In it he promised that his Conservatives would give greater financial support to the university, and he suggested an annual payment to U of T from provincial succession duties. If the province does not do something, he predicted, “our young men will go elsewhere for higher education.”

The meeting with Premier Ross was followed by swift action. Exactly a week afterwards, the government introduced a bill that went a considerable way towards meeting the university’s requests. The government would pay all of the annual salaries and other costs of the science departments. The university would also get a new building – the present mining building on the north side of College Street – at a cost of about $200,000, which would more than double the space available for engineering.

The association had further success in promoting construction of the present Convocation Hall. The initial plan was to raise $25,000 from the alumni to build a hall in memory of those who had fallen in the Fenian raids and the Boer War, but plans kept expanding. Eventually the government agreed to contribute another $50,000 if the alumni could raise a similar amount. The sum was raised and the cornerstone of the present Convocation Hall was laid in June 1904. Modelled on the Sorbonne theatre in Paris, the building seats 2,000 people.

Another building owes its existence to the alumni association – the physics building, known today as the Sandford Fleming Building and home to engineering students. Early in 1904, members of the association had sought another interview with the premier, but Ross was reluctant to meet them. Eventually, he met with 300 alumni, backed up by a student petition with 1,400 signatures. The delegation reminded Ross that “the next election might turn on the treatment accorded to the University and its alumni.” A little more than six months later, in the midst of an election campaign, the government announced that it would pay for the new physics building at a cost of $180,000. Perhaps the government thought this grant would help their chances of re-election. But fresh political winds were blowing.

In January 1905, after more than 30 years of Liberal rule in Ontario, the Conservatives, winning 69 seats to the Liberals’ 29, formed the new government. Whitney, now the premier of Ontario, carried through with his pledge to help the university financially and increase its ndependence. Clearly the new association of alumni had proved its worth in its first five years.

University Professor Emeritus of Law Martin Friedland is author of The University of Toronto: A History (U of T Press) published in the spring of 2002, the 175th anniversary of the founding of the University of Toronto. The article above is taken from his work-in-progress.

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