The group of students that launched The Varsity 125 years ago this fall were nothing if not ambitious. Their aim, outlined in the inaugural edition published Oct. 7, 1880, was that “the University of Toronto shall possess the best university paper in [North] America.” The modest booklet that once sold for five cents each Saturday has now grown into Canada’s largest student newspaper, with a twice-weekly circulation of more than 20,000 and an online edition that has about 12,000 visits per week.
Last year more than 300 U of T students contributed to The Varsity “for no money and not much glory,” says current editor-in-chief Graham F. Scott. “Our volunteers do most of the day-to-day thankless work of going out and pounding the pavement for stories that are important but not glamorous, and there are a lot of those at universities.”
One thread has persisted throughout The Varsity‘s history – spirited criticism of the university’s administration. This censure of U of T sometimes landed editors in trouble. While the paper began as an independent venture, by the late 19th century it was owned by the university-sanctioned students’ council – which often suspended editors. The entire newspaper was axed temporarily in 1952, when editors published U of T president Sidney Smith’s speech on remedial English instruction, substituting “sex” for “English” throughout the text. The Varsity regained its autonomy in 1980 by forming a non-profit corporation financed partly through an annual student levy.
The Varsity has always been a barometer of wider social change. There was a female co-editor-in-chief in 1955, but it was not until 1979 that a woman held the top position on her own. In 1969, The Varsity published a four-line ad that marked the launch of Canada’s first gay and lesbian campus group. The late 1960s and early 1970s were activist years, with editors leading sit-ins and petitions against the administration. The 1980s saw fewer confrontations between The Varsity and university governance – perhaps reflecting the more conservative ethos of the “me generation.” In the late 1990s, the paper frequently censured U of T for accepting corporate donations, alleging that academic freedom was at stake.
Scott says Varsity staff members are now expanding coverage but are choosier about the political issues they address. Like all of his predecessors, he and his staff are passionate enough that they will stay up all night, sacrifice their social lives and even delay graduation to get it on the stands each Monday and Thursday. “There’s a real feeling of heritage,” he says. “Of being part of an institution that has done great things and continues to do great things.”
Meet the (Past) Press
The university’s unofficial school of journalism has seen many of its staff go on to illustrious careers.
William Lyon Mackenzie King (BA 1895 UC, LLB 1896, MA 1897)
Varsity assistant editor, 1893-1895
Former prime minister of Canada
Peter Gzowski (DLitt Hon. 1995)
CBC Radio host and author
Michael Ignatieff (BA 1969 TRIN, DLitt Sac Hon. 1999)
Varsity review editor, 1968-1969
Scholar, author and the Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy at U of T
Linda McQuaig (BA 1974 UC)
Varsity co-editor, 1971-1972
Investigative journalist who penned It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet
Mark Kingwell (BA 1985 St. Mike’s)
Varsity editor, 1983-1984
U of T philosophy professor. His latest book is Nothing for Granted: Tales of War, Philosophy, and Why the Right Was Mostly Wrong
Isabel Vincent (BA 1990 UC)
Varsity editor, 1988-1989
National Post reporter and author of Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas
Varsity editor, 1992-1993
Author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies