University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Cast of Presidents

From dramatic to subtle, 13 men have given us their interpretation of the leading role at U of T

The University of Toronto began life as a hook in the mind of the unbending immigrant Scot John Strachan, an Anglican priest and a titanic figure in the history of Upper Canada. He was succeeded by a string of leaders – Robert Birgeneau, the 14th president, takes office on July 1 – who have taken the university through a never-ending tale of highly charged politics, religious controversy, administrative reform, academic and scholarly accomplishment, and inspired leadership.

Act One
As archdeacon of York, and later bishop of Toronto, John Strachan held a position of great influence and used it to argue forcefully that the colony required a college to further the work of the semi-established Church of England and thereby provide a basis for civil society. In 1827, he obtained a charter from the Crown, founding King’s College which would be supported by public funds and headed by him as president. And that’s when the trouble started. The Methodists objected; so, too, the Presbyterians and the Baptists. Why should the Anglicans be favoured, they fumed. The government decided in 1849 that what Upper Canada required was a provincial university free of sectarian exclusivity – the competing denominations could fight it out amongst themselves, but not necessarily at public expense. Strachan knew what was coming and in 1848 he resigned in protest and found solace in the founding of the University of Trinity College.

Act Two

John McCaul succeeded Strachan as head of King’s College, which would be renamed the University of Toronto in 1850. Born in Dublin, the classics scholar and Church of Ireland clergyman left his homeland in 1839 to take the principalship of the boys’ school, Upper Canada College, where he became a friend and ally of Strachan. But in 1843 when King’s College finally admitted its first students, McCaul resigned from UCC and nailed his colours to the mast of the new institution by becoming its vice-president and, in 1848, president. By turns described as quite a magnificent fellow and a martinet, McCaul was a lynch pin in the university’s transition from the Anglican confessional period of Strachan to the balmy uplands, as its advocates maintained, of non-denominationalism.

Act Three

Sir Daniel Wilson is a towering figure in the history of both U of T and of Canadian intellectual life in the high Victorian years. He came to Canada from Edinburgh in 1853 to take the recently advertised chair of history and English literature at University College. In 1880 he became president of UC and nine years later added the presidency of U of T to his portfolio. (There was no president of the University of Toronto between 1853 and 1889. After a reorganization in 1853, University College was U of T – this was where the teaching took place – and UC’s president exercised considerable authority within the university, although ultimate executive power lay with the chancellor, who headed the university.)

The province of Canada and the bustling city of Toronto both intrigued and amused Wilson. The relative lack of social hierarchy he found especially notable: “It is quite the settled custom here,” he wrote home not long after arriving, “for the gentlemen to do the marketing. It excites no surprise to see a clergyman with a basket on his arm, pricing the butter and eggs for breakfast! …. This is the continent for the ladies, they have it all their own way.”

A polymath of the best Victorian type, Wilson was responsible for the introduction of the word “prehistoric” to the English language, was a gifted watercolourist and wrote prolifically. Best of all, as far as U of T’s senate was concerned, he was committed to non-denominational education and upheld firmly the principle of intellectual freedom. As he put it in 1877 when rejecting an offer to be head of an Anglican college in London, Ont.: “One of the grand blessings of the Reformation was the emancipation of the human mind from ecclesiastical authority …. Truth has everything to gain from the most absolute freedom of enquiry.”

Act Four
Strachan, McCaul and Wilson were the formative presidential trinity in U of T’s history. They were followed by the mathematician and classicist, James Loudon, president from 1892 to 1906. He presided over the institution during the fin de siècle when that great hallmark of modern higher education, the PhD degree, was established at U of T. As well, he saw the university consolidate its federation model with the notable inclusion of Trinity College – Strachan’s legacy – under its umbrella in 1904.

Act Five

Maurice Hutton served as acting president from 1906 to 1907. Then a president in the mould of the early titans was appointed: Robert Alexander Falconer. Sir Robert, as he became in 1917, presided over U of T for a quarter century until 1932 and generally is considered its greatest president: Our institution’s version of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, remarks historian Michael Bliss. In the received clerical tradition, Falconer came to U of T from the principalship of Pine Hill Presbyterian College in Halifax. He had an eclectic academic background which included London and Edinburgh universities, as well as various German institutions. He was just 40 years of age at the time of his appointment, physically vigorous and beholden to no one on campus. He oversaw the rapid expansion of U of T’s facilities: Varsity Stadium in 1911, Hart House in 1919, Simcoe Hall in 1924 and University (today’s Varsity) Arena in 1926. During the war years, he resisted stoutly calls for the dismissal of German-born professors from the faculty. Owing to their presence, U of T was accused in the press of being pro-German and pacifist in the heated atmosphere of the times, but Falconer did his best to ignore what was baseless propaganda.

Act Six
Falconer was succeeded by the gentle Henry John Cody, an Anglican canon in the style of Strachan and highly active politically, serving as Ontario’s minister of education in 1918-19 in the William Hearst Conservative government. Cody, who was at the helm from 1932 to 1945, was a paragon of Upper Canadian moral rectitude whose presidency brought something of a God-and-King personal style to the office. Coming in the enormous shadow cast by Falconer, it was difficult for Cody to place his own stamp on U of T. After a dozen years in office he agreed with the Board of Governors that there should be a smooth transition to a new president, and it is a measure of the affection in which he was held that the board appointed him chancellor in 1945.

Act Seven
Cody’s successor was the exuberant, Gaelic-speaking law professor Sidney Smith (1897-1959). Precocious, homespun and a man of immense energy, Smith presided over U of T for 12 prosperous, postwar years until 1957. He remained a Cape Bretoner at heart, though, repeating often the story of a summertime encounter with an old friend of the family in Port Hood: “What are you doing now?” Smith was asked. “Well, I am president of a university – of the University of Toronto,” he replied, whereupon the wizened old friend looked at Smith’s well-built, almost six-foot frame and remarked: “That’s not much of a job for a big man like you.” Ultimately, Smith agreed. Always politically engaged, he departed from U of T in 1957 in order to become secretary of state for external affairs in the new Diefenbaker Conservative government. However, his new role was short-lived, as he died unexpectedly in 1959.

Smith was a strong supporter of the liberal arts, as demonstrated by his essay in the university’s annual report for 1949 that quoted a survey of the humanities: “The humanities are not the sole custodians of a liberalizing or humanizing education. It is the spirit in which they are studied, and the fact that they lend themselves to such study, that makes them especially helpful in humanizing the imagination.” Appropriately, U of T’s new arts and social sciences building was named for Smith.

Smith was succeeded by an acting president, the marvellously named Moffatt St. Andrew Woodside. Though Woodside’s interregnum was brief there was much activity on campus, including the installation in 1957 of the SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor that marked an industrial spinoff of the Cold War for U of T.

Act Eight
Then in 1958 the English professor and president of Carleton University, Claude Bissell, was persuaded to leave Ottawa and return to his Alma Mater as president. Bissell would preside over U of T during the yeasty 1960s. Campus radicalism, revamped curricula, hippie culture, an expansion in student numbers; Bissell witnessed it all and was highly effective in navigating U of T through what was an explosive period in the history of universities everywhere. Most significantly from the standpoint of U of T’s administration, the Board of Governors was done away with and replaced by Governing Council. This new governing body incorporated for the first time in the university’s history direct student representation.

Act Nine
Starting in 1972, U of T saw a series of shorter presidencies.John Sword (acting president 1971- 72) was followed by John Evans from 1972 to 1978. Former captain of the football Blues as an undergraduate, and a health scientist, Evans came from McMaster University in Hamilton, where he had been dean of medicine. His presidency was marked by the implementation of the new University of Toronto Act, inherited from the Bissell period, and by the implications of the 1972 report of the Wright Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario. In responding to the latter, Evans foreshadowed U of T’s fiscal and philosophical challenges of the 1980s and ’90s by itemizing “accountability” (to the public) and “participation” (of the university in civil society) as two of the hallmarks of public higher education in the years to come.

Act Ten
James Ham, president from 1978 to 1983, was an outstanding electrical engineer, who belied the stereotype of the hard scientist by being a great believer in the humanizing effects of the liberal arts. In response to the increased push for vocational education that was beginning to animate some students’ thinking of what best constituted a university education in the less-than-radical late 1970s and early ’80s, he stated unequivocally: “A liberal arts education helps foster a vital sensitivity to people and ideas.” This attitude informed his presidency, which ended with a well-earned retirement in 1983.

Act Eleven
David Strangway became the accidental president when his status as acting president following Ham’s retirement was upgraded upon the surprise death of Donald Forster in August of 1983. Forster, appointed as Ham’s successor, died of a heart attack before his official installation, leaving Strangway to take on the job. But Strangway was not long for the upper reaches of U of T officialdom. In 1984 he departed for the University of British Columbia, heeding the call that Lotus Land makes to many Canadians.

Act Twelve
The naming of George Connell as president in 1984 marked a homecoming for the biochemist and U of T graduate, who spent his entire teaching and administrative career at U of T before assuming the presidency of the University of Western Ontario in 1977. For Connell, funding became the dominant issue of his presidential tenure, as government cutbacks to higher education became a grim reality during his six-year term. Under his leadership U of T launched the Breakthrough fund-raising campaign, the progenitor of the highly successful and current campaign that started in 1997.

Act Thirteen
Connell did not seek another term, making way in 1990 for the advent of law professor J. Robert S. Prichard, who chose Falconer as his role model (see article Decade of the Dynamo). Prichard and his administration took fund-raising to new levels in Canada, and he implemented the strategy that would sharpen U of T’s edge as one of the world’s leading research institutions.

Act Fourteen
The appointment of Robert Birgeneau, an alumnus of St. Michael’s College and dean of the School of Science at MIT, signals the increasingly serious international aspirations of the University of Toronto. When the appointment was announced in November 1999, Prichard called his successor a scholar and academic leader of the highest international standing. “There could be no better choice to lead U of T into the next century,” Prichard noted. “This is brain gain at its best – one of Canada’s great minds is returning to guide a great university. It is wonderful news for the university, the province and the nation.”

Birgeneau observed in an interview in March with the campus newspaper The Bulletin that U of T houses an “incredibly rich intellectual environment.” He plans to continue his own research in solid-state physics and hopes to see the university “move in the same stratosphere as the universities of Oxford, Tokyo and Berkeley.” It will take a great deal of work, he said, “but it is possible.”

Under Birgeneau’s leadership, old traditions and new expectations will continue to compete for attention; we know that only a big man can do the job – until one day, a woman, too, is given the leading role and will play her part in the history of the University of Toronto.

Brad Faught (PhD 1996) teaches history at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

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  1. 4 Responses to “ The Cast of Presidents ”

  2. Scott Anderson says:

    During the early 1960s, when I worked in the Sigmund Samuel Library, a young Australian woman was hired in the periodicals department. One lunch hour while she was in charge of the desk, a fellow came to charge out a periodical. She asked to see his card. "What card am I supposed to have?" he asked. She explained that it would be a student or a faculty card. "I am Claude Bissell, the president," was his response. "Oh yeah, everybody could say that," she said. "Can you prove it?" Obviously he did, because he left the reading room with the desired periodical. Then he went straight to the chief librarian's office to put in a good word for the efficient young librarian. And at the library we all loved him for it.

    Ottilia Koel
    Hamden, Connecticut

  3. Scott Anderson says:

    Brad Faught wrote ithat I did not seek another term as president "owing primarily to health concerns." This is not correct. I was in robust health in 1990, and remain so today.

    I accepted a term of six years in 1984, knowing that I would not continue beyond 1990. Including my years at the University of Western Ontario, I served as a university president for 13 years. Almost anyone who has held such an office would agree 13 years is enough.

    When I first took office at U of T, I did not, of course, know that Robert Prichard would succeed me. When his appointment was approved in October 1989, this removed any lingering doubt about the wisdom of my departure. Jack Batten's appraisal of Prichard's achievements in the article "Decade of the Dynamo" explains why I held that view in 1989, and still hold it today.

    George Connell
    BA 1951 Trinity, PhD 1955, DSc 1993
    President Emeritus

  4. Scott Anderson says:

    Many of us who graduated from U of T did not know of the contributions of our past presidents, and this important article should remedy this unfortunate ignorance.

    Peter V. Nguyen
    BSc 1987 Victoria, MSc 1988, PbD 1993
    Edmonton, Alberta

  5. Scott Anderson says:

    My interest in the summer issue heightened when I read of "the installation in 1957 of the SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor." Actually, SLOWPOKE (an acronym for Safe Low Power Critical Experiment) was installed in 1971. In 1969, I became project engineer for SLOWPOKE's installation, working with Professor Robert E. Jervis. It is sad to relate that despite its bright future, U of T's SLOWPOKE will soon be decommissioned. There is also the sorry saga of cloned Chinese SLOWPOKEs in Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria, reported in the Dec. 18, 1999 issue of the Toronto Star. C'est dommage.

    G. James Thomson
    BASc 1948
    Oakville, Ontario