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Photo of John Fraser.
Photo by Jessica Darmanin

Farewell to the Master

Outgoing Massey College master John Fraser decodes the unusual traditions and unique contributions of U of T’s only graduate college

For those who don’t really know Massey College, how would you describe it? Some people think it’s a residence with an attitude problem. We’re better than that, honestly! We do something that very few universities can do, which is to bring people from different fields in graduate studies together to commune with each other. It’s been called “All Souls of Canada” – that’s part of the mystique of the place.

And the role of “master”? It’s an unusual title. I close windows, turn off lights, and make sure the bar is open on time. Slightly more seriously, a senior fellow here once said you have to run very fast to stay the same. I run very fast to keep Massey going – to keep it connected to the town, to serve the university and, most of all, to serve the needs of the students. Robertson Davies, the first master, told me that if you let the college fall back into the woodwork of the university, it’s lost. It’s not that the university doesn’t care for Massey; the university cares for it a lot. But the university is very big. And the redeeming feature of Massey is that it’s very small.

Are there parallels between your previous career as a journalist and what you do at Massey? I was a generalist in journalism. I was a dance critic who got sent to China to cover politics at a pivotal moment. And when I came back, I got to edit what i thought was the best magazine in the country — Saturday Night, a general interest magazine. In that sense, I was attuned to the idea of a sorting house, a place that brought people and together and brought ideas together.

Has the role of master changed in 19 years? The essential things are the same. My job is to make a memorable home for young scholars, ensure that they have access to leading figures of the day and that they understand the interconnectedness of all things – academically and in life itself.

What’s unique about this place for you? There’s something very special about living on the job. When the furnace breaks down you suffer along with the students. You also have a more intense relationship with them.

Massey has a strong sense of tradition…The gowns, the high tables, the snuff — this is theatre to a great extent. Davies’ theory was that the crust of civilization was very thin and that if you had some traditions, even if they were instantly made, they would resonate. And as long as they weren’t taken too seriously – belittled or venerated – they would neutralize superficial differences, such as clothing, and allow you to get to more interesting areas for discussions. The snuff is considered a great joke and great fun.

Have the traditions changed? Are selfies permitted during a high table? There’s a basic rule of courtesy that you don’t use a cell phone in the common room or the dining room. A lot has changed, mostly to conform to current mores. When I arrived, people were in a terrible pique about cohabitation. It was the easiest thing in the world to solve. These are serious graduate students, and if they want someone staying with them, well, this is their home. The only thing is, I said, if it’s more than two nights, I want money. And I want to know who the guests are, for security’s sake.

Massey College hosts journalism fellows every year. Any sense of where newspapers and magazines are headed? No. All I know is for sure — and it was clear five years ago — that the paper product is on notice. But my feeling is that it might still have another 15 to 20 years. And God knows what will replace it. But there’s always going to be a need for accurate information, so the skills of a good journalist will always be needed. What I don’t know – and I don’t think anyone does – is all the forms it’s going to take.

What’s been the most enjoyable aspect for you of being master? Pretending that I’m 27 years old and a graduate student. Making this place work — and living here. It’s not monk-like, but it is a vocation. You don’t walk away from it at the end of the day.

And what’s been the most challenging? I’ll give you an example. The most dangerous time around here is at the end of the academic year. With people moving in and out, all sorts of people get in past the porter. One year, a guy stole a student’s laptop with her doctorate thesis on it. It sent thunderclouds all over this place! Two days later, a few of the male junior fellows saw the guy and made a citizens’ arrest. The police came but they never found the woman’s laptop. The lucky thing was that she had printed out a large chunk of it for a friend to read — in her anxiety and despair she’d forgotten she’d done this. But for a week it was pretty bleak around here.

What are you planning to do next? I’m thinking of busking – banjo and harmonica together.

Seriously. My wife and I are going to go away for a year. We want to explore Africa, and I hope to write again. I’m hanging loose.

A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of U of T Magazine. That version includes the phrase “Old Souls of Canada,” which has been corrected here to “All Souls,” a reference to the college at Oxford.

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