University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
The October 10 debate in in 1968
Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives and Robert Lansdale Photography

Year of the Activist

A debate 40 years ago marked the start of a greater say for students at U of T


On October 10, 1968, hundreds of students, staff and faculty gathered in front of Hart House under sunny skies to see Steven Langdon, president of the Students’ Administrative Council, take on University of Toronto president Claude Bissell in a debate over the role of the university in Canadian life.

Langdon argued that the university and its students should adopt a more activist stance, setting out to correct society’s injustices. Bissell countered that the university must protect its political neutrality to avoid skewing academic hiring and curriculum on the basis of ideology.

The event kicked off a year of intense activism at U of T. Inspired by the student movement in Canada and abroad, Langdon wanted to ensure that students would be represented fairly in a new model of university governance that Bissell had proposed. For much of the year, Langdon lobbied for a greater student voice in university decisions.

Langdon, a former MP who lives in Ottawa, says the historic debate marked the beginning of a shift in the U of T Zeitgeist. “It turned out to be the start of a positive engagement between students and the administration. This was pretty rare among the conflicts occurring in universities at the time.”

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