If they had 10 million dollars

“I’d create a couple permanent forest fire behaviour field research sites in Canada’s boreal forest and start several experimental burning programs. Add wildfire monitoring equipment (infrared cameras, etc.), helicopter time and about a decades worth of grad students and post-docs and I think forest fire science would be in great shape.”

Mike Wotton, Faculty of Forestry

“This would be like winning the robot lottery! My group would use the funds to aggressively develop and implement more intelligent robotic helpers to assist people in the areas of elderly/hospital care, emergency-response, exploration and security. These robots can help improve our quality of life and assist with dangerous and/or stressful tasks in ways never imagined before.”

Goldie Nejat, Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering

“I would use it to establish a network of atmospheric observatories across Canada. These would be equipped with state-of-the art equipment for studying the issues of air quality, climate change, and ozone depletion. I would start with a major expansion of the capabilities of the University of Toronto Atmospheric Observatory.”

Kimberly Strong, Department of Physics

“To extend my research on the diversity and evolutionary history of tapeworms that parasitize sharks and rays, I would purchase equipment (e.g., microscopes, DNA sequencer), conduct surveys to reveal marine diversity and tapeworm life cycles, and endow undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research at the Royal Ontario Museum.”

Claire Healy, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

“The big dream: Use it as seed funding to attract donors to build a new building for the excellent researchers we have in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, who are currently spread across two buildings, including the dated (and dilapidated) Ramsay Wright Building.”

Malcolm Campbell, Department of Cell & Systems Biology

“That’s easy! I would use it for a clinical trial. My dream is to see if low glycemic index foods would prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease—that would probably cost more like $30 to $40 million but $10 million would be a good start!”

Tom Wolever, Department of Nutritional Sciences

Designer’s statement: Wasted Space—Hart House Circle

There are too many spaces on campus that aren’t used to their full potential. Sadly, these types of spaces are found all over campus. Arbitrarily placed benches sit unoccupied while other surfaces—grass, concrete, wood, stone—anything that will support a body, laptop, and three or four textbooks becomes unintentional street furniture.

We have a dream to recycle the abundance of “space waste” into functional, attractive places for students to sit, study, talk, eat, sleep, procrastinate—whatever the day calls for. With such a high concentration of intelligent, creative, and inspired people, the University of Toronto deserves spaces that will encourage a positive and lively intellectual and social community.

While the university invests millions of dollars into grand architectural improvements that often come at a cost to students, what can be done with minimal resources, economizing on material and money while capitalizing on space that is already ours?

Our proposal is for a neglected hillside space on the east side of Hart House Circle, a space that so many students pass by daily and few ever touch (except maybe to throw their trash at). We envision a long bench, carved into the hillside and recovered with a layer of grass. Combining the form of a traditional bench with the liberating sensation of running your fingers through the lawn on a sunny summer day, this will provide a shady space for the academic and general community that passes through this public space.

We wanted this piece of furniture to be entirely environmentally friendly and comfortable, something out of the ordinary but also evoking the familiar. The simple gesture of reshaping the slope of this hill can re-activate an underused, under-loved space, and allow it to become part of the vibrant outdoor environment around Hart House from which it is currently excluded.

Designer’s statement: SPERAS—King’s College Circle

I don’t have any specific concerns with the current street furniture at U of T, although I do have some utopian ideas on how street furniture can change the way people interact with the campus.

The first thing that interested me was open-ended use of street furniture. I personally find it less appealing to use designed space or furniture when there is instruction on how to properly use it. It’s always more fun to explore and find your own way. I think if street furniture on campus was more adaptable and flexible to students’ needs—for whatever the occasion—it could instigate more interaction with the campus space and with each other.

SPERAS was a concept developed by our group, combining “spectacle” with the term “rasa,” an emotion in an audience inspired by art.

My intent was to explore the role of street furniture as a form of stage prop that would encourage actors to expand the stage space. With SPERAS, street furniture becomes a socio-political stage that facilitates performances and dances as protest on campus.

The second thing I was interested in was everyday student needs. We students have a very peculiar way of going about our everyday—like how I huddle with my laptop by the electrical plugs in a cafe for hours, and then run around the campus like crazy trying to figure out the fastest way to my next class. Street furniture can use this “nature” of being a student; good design can fulfill these needs and promote interaction at the same time.

These were some of the thoughts that drove my studio project addressing King’s College Circle. Ultimately, I wanted to design street furniture so that when students used it, they would see the campus in a whole new way. I wanted it to be open-ended use (and the class project was to design for student activism) but I also wanted to create a pause in students’ daily pattern to create more interaction.

Anarchist U

My growing ennui with university started concidentially with the beginning of my tenure as Editor In Chief of The Varsity. Of course, I used to go to class, but I don’t do that anymore. I also used to hand in assignments, know my T.A.s’ first names, and buy the course books more than 48 hours before a final exam. I’ve been at U of T for (god, can it be?) five years now, with one credit to go in a seemingly endless journey towards graduation. But when finishing school at the absolute worst time to graduate in recent history, what does my degree mean as an experience and of itself?

As number 993863574, a cog among 60,000—U of T’s looming fear of individualism has created a discontent in students once qualified by novelist David Foster Wallace as a “stomach-level sadness.” Student apathy is of course the hot-button on every admin’s lips, from UTSU execs (welcome, President Hudson), to registrar talking heads, to David Naylor himself. But what are we so damn apathetic about? “Obviously, many of our experiences in a regular school setting are experiences of hierarchy and submission to authority,” reflects visual artist Luis Jacob, a Semiotics graduate and founder of the Anarchist Free University. “One basic idea around the Free University is that ‘we are all students, we are all teachers,’ which means that we all have something to learn from one another, and we each have something to offer to others. The Free University runs according to anarchist ideas of equality and mutuality, as well as offering courses whose content deals with anarchist ideas of history.”

In response to his activist work with both the Anarchist Collective in 1998 (who met at an “Active Resistance” gathering that summer), and legendary “Who’s Emma” bookstore in Kensington Market, Jacob (alongside other community members) helped found an education system in which everyone could teach each other about issues of political agency and power. Instead of sinking hundreds into textbooks, and trying to learn in Con Hall classes crammed well into the thousands, Jacob’s university is free, open to the public, and discussion-based, with no recommended reading, grades, or assignments. Anyone can attend a lecture at Anarchist U, with 10-week courses taught by regular Torontonians, as opposed to tenure-track professors.

We’ve all heard the stories about friends at liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, studying what they want to study, in pass/fail environments with less pressure than the average undergrad here faces just by checking out a book at Robarts Library. But what Jacob’s model offers is an opposition within the superstructure itself. He came out of U of T and created a university of its own accord. Could AFU be a model to restructure the experience of learning for learning’s sake?

At the Toronto Free Gallery at Bloor and Lansdowne, a crowd of 20 gathers for the second instalment of Christian Whitall’s course, “Money Is All Around Us.” Making notes about the evils of consumerism on a laminated calendar taped to the wall, Whitall tries to facilitate a discussion about the nature of cash as an economic good. “What good is money except for doing lines of cocaine with rolled up dollar bills?” muses one greying pupil in a denim button-up shirt. A radical in tattered loafers interrupts to explain the transition of money from gold to dollars (“’Cause money doesn’t have to just be one thing…it can be like, loads of shit”), but stops halfway when he realizes he can’t articulate what he’s thinking. Thirty minutes later he rudely interrupts another speaker to continue his point.

Though the crowd of community members ranges from the baby-faced and shy, to the elderly and extroverted, I could’ve held the same sort of anti-capital convo while patrolling a Phish concert. Whitall wants us to identify why consumer objects hold power and status for capital gain, and what it is about society that requires any product to regulate itself, but the class seems stuck on the fact that inmates use cigarettes to barter sexual favours in the prison system. While I’m all for learning on equal footing, this lecture represents the worst of any university tutorial: uninformed, nonsensical, and a waste of time. It’s like that idiotic guy in your Contemporary Fiction class took over your entire lecture—and what’s worse, no one’s cutting him off. Is this really a model of progressive education?

Jacob warns me, “Anarchism is based on participation. Nothing happens if you don’t get involved; on the other hand, if you get deeply involved, it becomes a deeply meaningful thing for you. This applies in a collective project like the Free University, as it does in a regular school like U of T.” “My experiences at U of T were fairly normal. But what stands out as most memorable for me were those classes where my fellow students and I organized reading groups to help us get through the material we were studying in class. These groups led to a much deeper understanding of what we were reading, as well as profound friendships with people who otherwise would have been simply ‘classmates.’”

Any administrator will tell you that U of T can’t afford the small seminar classes that are liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. And if self-directed exploration won’t get you into grad school, what’s the point? What U of T students must do is learn how to teach each other—regardless of GPAs, job prospects, or professor recommendations. For my first three years of university, I helped program free Friday films as part of the Cinema Studies’ Course Student Union. It was there that I got my real film education, discussing Hitchcockian shot scales and the novelty of Michael Hanneke narration with my friends. Through my peers enthusiasm and knowledge of film, I found myself wanting to learn more. I felt involved. I felt committed. And more importantly, I showed up, got involved, and learned—just as I’ve done after two years of editing The Varsity.

U of T as a hegemonic system doesn’t have get under your skin. We’re here to learn, but we’re also here for those necessary life experiences that don’t qualify under a bell curve. The ideal university allows for big dreams and qualitative education. It allows for space and rupture, to allow the individual to figure the framework to govern their own lives, just as effectively as the institution itself.

Greening the Machine

“I think other schools are laughing at us,” says fourth-year political science student Chris Berube. No, he’s not talking about our football team, on-campus food, or even our lack of school spirit. He’s referring to the University of Toronto’s institutional apathy toward the climate crisis. Universities in Canada and abroad are taking on the challenge, yet U of T has yet to act. And it’s no laughing matter. As the largest post-secondary institution in Canada, U of T has a key role to play in the greatest challenge facing our world. Yet our institutional commitments have been paltry, alongside with our reputation as a leading educational and research facility. The message is clear: Simcoe Hall just doesn’t care.

What the powers at be fail to realize, however, is that students do.

The student environmental movement at U of T has boomed in recent years. Individual students alongside the UTSU Sustainability Commission, Students Against Climate Change, the Toronto Undergraduate Geography Society, the Forestry Undergrad Society, and the Environment Student Union are demanding a sustainable university.

Joanna Dafoe, an undergraduate active within the Sustainability Commission explains this explosion in interest: “We see this movement coming together on campus because students fundamentally care about the world we are going to inherit. Naturally, this movement is taking place within the university because of how much potential schools have for discovery, innovation, and leadership.”

These groups are working on a number of initiatives, starting with greenhouse gas reduction. According to current estimates, campus buildings (not including the federated colleges) generated 144,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2007-2008. Waste disposal produced 3,000 tonnes in 2006- 2007, and transportation (the staff, faculty and student commute) accounted for 17,000 tonnes in 2006.

Students can help reduce U of T’s footprint by turning down the thermostat in their dorms, eating food that doesn’t require large carbon emissions to produce or transport, and by walking or taking the TTC to school every day. But individual actions are simply not enough. For effective reduction, there needs to be an institutional commitment.

According to Charlotte Lin, president of the Toronto Undergraduate Geography Society at U of T, “To have emissions-reductions targets would require massive investments and changes, because emissions touch on every single operation of the university.”

The Sustainability Commission has is pushing Simcoe Hall to adopt the President’s Climate Initiative. University presidents who sign the PCI commit to developing a Climate Action Plan, which includes creating a planning committee, taking inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, and identifying strategies to meet reduction targets.

The initiative began in the United States, and now has 614 signatories there. It made its way across the border into BC last year when Simon Fraser, the University of Victoria, Royal Roads, Thomson Rivers, the University of Northern British Columbia, and UBC banded together to sign the University and College President’s Climate Statement of Action on March 13, 2008. Carlton and the University of Ottawa are also on the brink of a signature. “If a really big school can sign onto something like this, it sends a message to political leaders that are failing to do the same thing on the international stage,” says Dafoe.

If the PCI were adopted, there are several ways U of T could reduce its footprint. Creating energy-efficient facilities should be the top priority, says geography professor Danny Harvey, but it’s not. “We could have started from the premise that every new building going up uses half the energy. That’s the minimum, but we don’t do that.” Harvey argues that new buildings can use two-thirds less energy they would otherwise don’t cost more in construction, but they require creative design and, of course, a willing client.

What about existing structures? After all, U of T is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city. This is where retrofitting—which can reduce emissions by as much as 90 per cent—comes in. The initial financial investment for retrofitting is high, but saves money on hydro and gas bills over the long term.

U of T went through its construction boom in the 1960s when the need for new buildings to accommodate the baby boom was high. The result was Northrop Frye, the Medical Science Building, and most of the concrete jungle west of St. George. These buildings shackled U of T to decades of high-energy dependency. But there’s no need to spend millions on erecting new structures on an already crowded campus.

As for updating buildings to have the most energy efficient technology, we have a lot of catching up to do. For schools on the leading edge of environmental reform, efforts began well before the PCI. UBC has been Canada’s leader in emission reduction since 1997, when it became the first Canadian post-secondary institution to adopt a sustainable development policy. Since then, the UBC Sustainability Office has developed a number of programs aimed at reducing the school’s footprint.

UBC’s ECOtrek program allows for major upgrades to existing campus facilities, rather than depleting resources so, UBC has reduced its emissions by 8,000 tonnes a year, saving $2.6 million in utility costs. It will take less than 15 years for the school to make up its initial $35-million investment.

Meanwhile, the UBC TREK program is dedicated to improving transportation options by promoting transit, carpooling, walking, and cycling. The result has been a 185 per cent increase in transit ridership, a 13 per cent reduction in vehicle use, and a 4.8 per cent reduction of single occupancy vehicle use—despite a 22 per cent growth in student enrollment.

U of T commuters, cover your ears for this part: the TREK program also includes a UPass providing students with universal and comprehensive access to Vancouver’s transit system that costs $23.75 a month. The average student saves $800 a year in transportation, and the program saves the atmosphere 16,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

A common concern is that our campus is situated right in the middle of an urban centre, making environmental reform difficult. We’re bound to the energy grid, the waste management system, urban food supplies, and to the major throughways slicing through campus. But this supposed weakness could actually be a strength. The University of California at Berkeley, one of the 614 American signatories of the PCI, is also located in an urban location, across the bay from San Francisco. U of T could learn a lot from this model of urban sustainability.

Utilizing the Northern California waste management infrastructure, Berkeley has managed to divert 57 per cent of its solid waste away from landfills. The per capita landfill tonnage decreased 21 per cent between 1995 and 2006.

It has also improved its diversion of organic waste, increasing the tonnage composted by over 100 per cent since 2000.

Cal Dining, which provides food for all residences at Berkeley, has made use of the environmentally friendly food resources now found in most urban centres. The dining bars in all four of the school’s cafeterias are entirely organic, and they’re working towards making one quarter of all food purchased from local suppliers. Almost one-fifth of Cal Dining’s total purchases are sustainable in some capacity, being either local, organic, fair trade, or humane. This meal plan is cutting greenhouse gases by reducing the number of goods that come from far away. Plus, it’s healthier.

Like U of T, Berkeley also has a public transit system at its fingertips. The Parking and Transport department has worked to ensure more and more people use it. Since 1990, ridership has more than doubled, and 92 per cent of students get to school on foot, bicycle, ridesharing, or transit.

It’s not all doom and gloom here in Toronto. Upon hearing about the PCI, Trinity college bursar Geoff Seaborn brought it to the attention of the Trinity provost, trustees, and students, who began collecting emissions data specific to the college. The Trinity Board of Trustees has approved the federated college’s signing on to the agreement, and Trinity provost Andy Orchard’s signature is expected any day now. This will mark the first institutional commitment at U of T.

“Institutionally, its the right thing to do,” says Seaborn. “We’re pushed by our students who are really active on sustainability, especially in the last few years. And the commitments are well on the way to being met.” Trin already has a planning body, a complete inventory of utility consumption and waste stream, and is working on a transportation plan. Additionally, the college has one of the few green spaces on campus. Atop the St. Hilda’s residence is an ecosystem full of plants and animal life. It’s a green lifeline that also provides insulation for the building.

On another positive note, there seems to be an increase in the number of environmental research efforts on campus. The Centre for Global Change Science, established in September of 2005, promotes interdisciplinary research programs to better understand and predict the global scale effects of human society on the earth’s climate and environment. Lin, who is part of the centre, is starting a journal to publish original research or review papers on global change science in an effort to circulate ideas and generate awareness.

Then there’s the much larger Centre for the Environment. It has a research strategy based on applied environmental science, the environment and health, environmental policy including energy policy, environmental ethics, and the environment and international development. U of T’s research and educational efforts can play a big part in fostering new technology, policies, and ideas.

It is U of T’s responsibility to handle the challenges of environmental sustainability. Simcoe Hall should demand that more funds go into future-oriented projects, instead of pumping more and more money into research geared toward the industries of old. Oil is going to run out within our lifetime. It is time to search for new solutions.

Robarts may not sprout seedlings anytime soon, no matter what Simcoe Hall does. But signing the PCI would be a symbolic and pragmatic thunderbolt, sending a message to the academic and political community that U of T is taking steps toward solving the climate crisis. A place that lets other schools worry about the greatest challenge of our time is not a university we want.

A fair university

“The truth about stories,” Thomas King opens his 2003 Massey Lecture, “is that’s all we are.”

There are stories everywhere, not just in novels, newspapers, or myths acknowledged as such. Our lives are made up of them, and the ones that we tell ourselves tell us who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re allowed to do. This is a story about the date 1827 on U of T T-shirts, when King’s College was founded, but really it is about U of T’s philosophical founders, and why we never talk about them. But forgive me, I should begin in medias res.

“The Task Force [on University Resources] thus recommends that we continue to advocate for responsible self-regulation of tuition. On this model, the University would be responsible for establishing the appropriate tuition level for each of its programs, reflecting more accurately actual operating costs, quality of the experience, and demand. Included in the concept of self-regulation is an elimination of the restrictions on ancillary fees…”

This is taken from the synthesis report of Towards 2030, the University of Toronto administration’s plan for the next 20-odd years. You will recognize various elements of this story without me having to tell it to you. As with all myths, the fun is in the telling: you can pick and choose various elements and combine them to tell a whole new tale. Here we have rising fees to cover a provincial funding gap. But this time, deregulation is called self-regulation, with the word “responsible” tacked on.

Here’s another excerpt. In the period between now and 2030 the number of Ontarians aged 18 to 24 years—in other words, of undergraduate age—is expected to grow substantially, to as much as 80,000 above 2005 levels. The Ontario government expects that at least half of these potential undergraduates will be looking for a post-secondary education in Toronto.

“The University of Toronto is already working closely with the Government of Ontario and with sister institutions on regional plans responsive to the coming wave of undergraduate and graduate students in the Toronto region. It seems clear, however, that our University’s most important contribution to meeting new enrolment pressures will arise through proportionately greater growth in our graduate and second-entry professional programs, rather than primarily from undergraduate expansion.”

Here you will recognize the story of U of T’s role in broader society as an elite research institution and professional school. This falls under what I deem “the Great Minds for a Great Future” cycle. Under the rubric of stories that tell us who we are, it’s very interesting how we assume a demand for graduate and professional programs, even though what the province highlights is that Toronto is where demand for undergraduate places will be highest.

In a plebiscite held in the fall of 2008 by the University of Toronto Students Union, 93 per cent of the 5,398 students, faculty, and staff voted against the adoption of 2030. President Naylor responded that students didn’t understand what the plan is about, and the Governing Council ratified the 2030 framework anyways.

What has been notably lacking from the Towards 2030 discussion is any reference to U of T’s own history. Even among its critics, the current discourse about the University of Toronto maintains that it is an elite institution, that conservatism is our tradition, and that we have not, officially at least, considered alternate roles the school could play in society. We need to tell ourselves additional narratives. Canada’s foremost intellectual and author of 2008’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, John Raulston Saul calls the deregulation of tuition at U of T “a betrayal of the idea introduced by responsible government and Robert Baldwin—a betrayal of the University of Toronto.”

King’s College Circle is named after an earlier incarnation of U of T. There are few physical remains of the former institution— the reconfigured observatory that now houses UTSU, the elm trees by Whitney Hall that were once part of a mighty forest—yet the attitudes that pervade in the 2030 document reflect a similar philosophy regarding the university’s place in society as those held by the man who negotiated the King’s charter, John Strachan.

Strachan was a member of the Family Compact, a small, powerful clique that ran Upper Canada as an oligarchy for much of the early 19th-century. Like others from his caste, Strachan received appointments from the Lieutenant Governor and held an unelected position on the legislative council from 1820 to 1841. He was wealthy: by way of comparison, the 150-acre plot of land allotted as the site for King’s College (from College to Bloor, from Queen’s Park to St. George) cost the same amount as Strachan’s lavish home. It is widely believed that Strachan’s conversion to Anglicanism was motivated by political convenience, though he remained a staunch defender of the faith. It was his stipulation that all members of King’s College be members of the Church of England.

The courtyards and halls of Trinity College still honour Strachan—who founded the college as protest against the new U of T—yet there’s nary an oncampus remembrance for Robert Baldwin, the man who transformed Strachan’s religiously-controlled elite into the publicly controlled civic university.

I receive most of my information about our school’s King’s College days while sitting in the Flavelle House office of Professor Martin Friedland. Friedland is a former dean of the law faculty, and the man U of T chose to write its official history, published in 2002. He says that while the transition from an Anglican King’s College to a secular University of Toronto changed the nature of the university, it didn’t have an immediate effect on who taught, ran, or attended lectures at the school.

Dennis McKim, a PhD student who is writing his dissertation on the intersection of religion and politics in 19th-century British North America, sees it slightly differently. While it’s true that the culture at the newly-built University College was still informed by Christian values, U of T’s existence represented a shift away from the highly sectarian social divisions that had come before.

Says McKim: “What the advent of U of T eventually represented was a shift to a more pluralistic and small-l liberal conception of Canadian society, in which people of different backgrounds would be educated together, and that there would be an effort to transcend those parochial, religious, and ethnic class differences and divisions.”

Frosh weak

On the first day of frosh week back in September of 2005, I was scared shitless. On the second day of frosh week, I was discouraged and embarrassed. By the third day of frosh week, I was bitter, lonely, and drunk.

Those three days set the tone for my first year at the University of Toronto, courtesy of the New College Frosh Committee. Coming to U of T from another country without knowing any other students was intimidating, but I hoped (as I know so many other eager 18-year-olds did) the week-long process would help me meet interesting people, become familiarized with the campus and its resources, and introduce me to a variety of things that the city had to offer. In reality, it did none of the above.

Frosh week is a tradition that has often been saddled with negative connotations (hazing, alcohol poisoning, and general feelings of isolation are pervasive). Yet I was shocked at how unbelievably awful the events planned for the week were, especially considering I had just forked over $100 for this purportedly valuable experience.

I remember being cajoled into some sort of foot race, forced into the repeated shouting of “You can’t spell suck without UC!” and being taken to a ladies-night bar on Richmond Street where the DJ asked all the women in the audience to expose their breasts in exchange for free T-shirts. We nary set foot in Hart House, Robarts, the Athletic Centre, or even the campus Clubs Day, as these activities were deemed not “New College focused” and therefore irrelevant. My leaders did not show us any Toronto neighborhoods other than the clubbing district, did not take us to any restaurants with menus extending beyond pub grub, and never once mentioned any of the live music, film, art, or sporting events that are part and parcel of Toronto. But hey, they rented us a bounce house. It was then that I realized that university wasn’t just like high school; it was actually much, much worse.

Nearly everyone I’ve met at U of T has a frosh-week horror story, and many are far graver than my indulgent gripes about the lack of vegetarian food and feeling socially rejected for not having enough “Gnu-pride.” Nonetheless, frosh week continues to abound each September, with the colleges reaping in funds from befuddled first years who just want to know where Sid Smith is. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Different universities across North America have orientation programs that extend beyond the mundane. Some colleges have focused on using frosh week to jump-start students’ brains by exposing them to a variety of workshops that are both compelling and educational. Bard University in New York state enrolls its freshmen in a three-week-long seminars, where they address topics like censorship and bilingualism in small discussion groups. OPRIG at York University now provides an alternative to the traditional frosh week with “Disorientation,” a series of workshops on topics like sexual identity, socioeconomics, and the environment. Some workshops are even held off campus, at downtown cafes.

While certain frosh weeks are impressive for their educational abilities, others are designed to showcase career options and future opportunities. While my frosh group didn’t come within a 20-foot radius of U of T’s Career Centre, frosh at New York University in Manhattan take a course called Career Reality 101, where they visit the offices of Google and the studio at the Food Network, along with 248 possible locations to choose from. On such excursions, students are exposed to a variety of work environments and get to interact with the staff of different companies and organizations.

There are also frosh programs that are so imaginative and unique that they can spark inspiration in the harshest of cynics. Swarthmore University’s 2008 program included a series of free yoga and tai chi courses, as well as organic and nutritional meals (to avoid the treacherous Frosh 15). First-years at the University of Pugent Sound in Washington state have traditionally had the option of completing a three-day hiking and camping trip through the woods, where small groups interact and learn from one another.

The secret to a successful orientation is variety; not all students will be comfortable or interested in every activity. Perhaps that was what was so disappointing about my frosh experience: the lack of options wound up making me feel inadequate for not being psyched about a possible water balloon raid on the engineering building. Keeping frosh week under the jurisdiction of the colleges hinders students’ experiences rather than expanding them. If frosh week was under the U of T umbrella, we could cater events to a larger variety of interests. What I wouldn’t have done for a tour of Kensington Market, or an Intro to Dostoyevsky reading group, but I would have settled for nearly any activity that didn’t involve a human pyramid.

The inherent problem with frosh week at U of T—and perhaps especially at New College—is that it treats its participants not as young adults, but rather as obnoxious, unimaginative children. The university then expresses shock when many of its students spend first year binge drinking, failing their courses, and generally resenting the institution itself. Only in fourth year have I shaken off the bitterness of frosh week—and the generally hopeless residence experience it foreshadowed—and actually started to like U of T.

We’re starving!

It’s a typical weekday afternoon. You have a few hours to kill between classes, and heading home seems like a waste of time and money. In your early morning haze, you’ve forgotten to pack a lunch. You end up at the Robarts cafeteria. The stir fry is soggy and gelatinous; the pizza is lukewarm and heavy; the salad is pale brown and limp. Buying a sub could take longer than your commute. The staff range from standoffish to hostile, when they aren’t pointedly ignoring you. You leave $8 poorer, hungry, or both.

You are not alone.

On February 10, UTSU hosted a wide-ranging student forum called I F*ing Hate This School. There were few points of agreement, but a hearty round of applause made one thing clear: if there is anything that U of T students fucking hate, it is the food on campus.

Defend the University College cafeteria if you will, schlep to Wymilwood for a fresh sandwich, or grab a cheap and tasty roti at Diablos. Bring your own tupperware to The Hot Yam, a regular free vegan lunch at the International Student Centre. But when it comes to the central, Aramark cafeterias like those at Robarts, Sid Smith, and Gerstein, no one is a fan. Here at The Varsity, we think it must be possible to build a cafeteria where lunch is easy on both your wallet and your preference for realistically textured food. We set out to find more successful models.

An industry trade mag, somehow delivered to our office, offers few solutions. Well-meaning articles discuss environmental sustainability, but the featured recipe is inexplicably called “Kentucky/Indian Fusion: Hot Brown Entree.” The ads are revealing. A stodgy looking off-brand burger franchise boasts, “students will love our big taste—you’ll love the big profits.” Bear Naked, a line of environmentally-conscious granola recently acquired by Kellogg, promises that students are willing to pay extra for natural products, so you can “grow your sales the all-natural way.”

Maclean’s rates cafeterias across the country, but has yet to publish a really positive review. One of their writers, Nicholas Kohler, has developed a flare for disgusting metaphors, at one point comparing lasagne noodles to cadaver skin. For fresh ideas, we had to look further afield.

With more than 20,000 students, lots of commuters, and a central campus that bleeds into downtown, the University of Edinburgh is not a bad model for U of T. The administration-run cafeterias are horrendous, but the student union manages an extensive parallel service that any Canadian student could envy.

The union occupies no less than four large buildings on campus, each housing an array of pubs, cafes, and restaurants. Alcohol sales subsidize the food, which keeps prices at student level in a city where restaurants are about twice as expensive as Toronto.

The food isn’t perfect, and none of these outlets are more than a five-minute walk from the tastier sandwich shops and cafes that surround campus. But they stay in business, thanks to low prices and great atmosphere. The campus pubs face the stiffest competition, with dozens of cheap and local alternatives just off campus, but still do roaring business on the weekends. Edinburgh’s project is only possible because the university cedes substantial responsibility, and plenty of space, to the student union.

“At Edinburgh the university tends to recognize that students know what students want,” says student union president Adam Ramsay. “Democratically owned student services employing professional managers are a real win, for students and the university.”

While it makes sense that student control can improve campus food, we don’t necessarily have to be in charge. At St Olaf College in Minnesota, where the food is ranked fourth out of 368 colleges by The Princeton Review, a humble bulletin board makes all the difference.

“When you leave our servery we have a big giant cork board with comment cards,” says Peter Abramson, general manager. “We probably get 40 or 50 a day, saying, the oatmeal is too salty, or Jane was mean to me at the green station.” This is a college with only 3,000 students. The staff write responses on the cards and post them for students to read. “There’s a real dialogue that we try to keep up.”

At U of T, some of the residences maintain food committees that give their kitchen staff feedback, but there is no meaningful dialogue between students and Aramark. In any case, it’s tough for subsidiaries of big contractors to respond to requests.

This might be why Aramark and Sodexo, infamous for feeding prison inmates and students around the world, are rarely well-reviewed. (Urbandictionary.com offers some concise criticism.) But not all contracting companies are created equal. St Olaf works with a Bon Appetit, a small catering company that hires chefs with real culinary training, and then gives them some power.

“Somebody like Aramark or Sodexo, they have a book that says, here’s what you’re going to run next week, here’s who you’re going to buy it from, and here’s how you’re going to make it,” says Abrahamson. In contrast, he writes each week’s menu from scratch, after consulting with local suppliers about what is fresh. Bon Appetit sets general guidelines: their schools can’t use MSG, trans fats, or high fructose corn syrup. They must prepare bases like soup stock from scratch.

Bon Appetit has two schools in the top five of Princeton Review’s rankings, but a disproportionate number of successful cafeterias are run by university employees, not outsourced as they are throughout most of U of T. Bowdoin College, in Maine, is run in-house by people who have been with the school for as long as 35 years. Bowdoin employs its own butcher, and bakes from scratch on campus. It has some of the best cafeteria food in the United States.

“The dining hall becomes a social hub for the college, so the administration have continued to support it,” says Michele Gaillard, in charge of the operation. “We have a good budget that allows us to make a big investment in our staff, whereas a lot of colleges have either a very small staff or a not-well-trained staff.”

Great food can build community, and that might be just what U of T needs to integrate disaffected commuters in search of the elusive “student experience.” At the University of British Columbia, Sprouts, a student-run cafe and co-op, is building a movement with 75-cent coffee, soup, and home-baked bread. Heather Russell, who works at the volunteer-run centre, describes the rest of the UBC campus as “a food desert.”

“What we try to create is more of a community than anything,” she says of Sprouts. “It’s about having a place for people to go that’s affordable and has good food if you forget your lunch.”

Sprouts sounds a bit like U of T’s now-defunct Radical Roots, a vegan student co-op that used to serve cheap eats to a packed room every weekday at the International Student Centre. The cafe was suddenly shut down by the administration in the fall of 2006.

“The thing that made Radical Roots really unique was that it was a community,” says Agata Durkalec, who dedicated four years of her life to the project while an undergraduate at U of T. “The lines between the people that went there and the people that worked there were really blurry—we all felt like we were all on the same team. I think that a lot of people really appreciated that, and would not be able to get it in any other student space or any other food service provider on campus now.”

In recent years, the university’s approach to food has been more about building revenue than community. In 2008, cafeterias at U of T lost money. But starting in 2009, according to a report presented to the University Affairs Board last year, that should change. By 2010, the report predicts that 13 per cent of food and beverage revenues will be profit, effectively subsidizing the residences and Hart House. By 2013, ancillary services—parking, residence, and food—are predicted to bring in a profit of $1.3 million for the university. This is a somewhat unusual approach. While Bowdoin makes a profit from its food services, the other universities we surveyed aim to break even feeding their students.

In continental Europe, food is more likely to be subsidized. In Berlin, the state-sponsored Mensa cafeterias dish up veggie-friendly meals on the cheap. Danny Auron, a U of T grad and Osgoode Law student who spent last semester studying in Amsterdam, discovered a similar system.

“They had a cafe called the Atrium that served lunch and dinner at deep discount prices (a big bowl of soup was around 80 cents) and the food was good enough to make it into a ‘cheap eats’ guide book or two on the city,” says Auron. “The school provided a place for good, affordable food right in the middle of campus, and attached it to an area with tons of seating for eating, studying, and meeting.” It may not be fancy, but 80-cent soup beats cadaver skin lasagne any day.