Over the past year, the University of Toronto has cracked down on student dissension to a worrisome degree. Last March’s Simcoe Hall sit-in—a peaceful protest against rising student housing costs—ended in the arrest of 14 activists who are currently facing criminal charges (carrying sentences of up to 15 years) and the threat of expulsion. Prohibitively expensive security fees have been imposed on “controversial” events on campus, and posters criticizing a U of T donor for legitimate reasons were removed by the administration. Groups like AlwaysQuestion and Ontario Public Interest Research Group have been under fire for organizing protests. And despite overwhelming student opposition, senior administration continues to push its agenda. Though an UTSU-organized plebiscite showed that 93 per cent of students, faculty, and workers opposed David Naylor’s corporate-friendly Towards 2030 plan, it was still approved by Governing Council (which reserves eight seats out of 50 for students).

U of T’s administrators continue to tell the university community that their protests are unnecessary, and that student activists are too radical to be taken seriously. They are wrong. Historically, almost every major student victory at U of T has been the result of grassroots campaigns. On-campus daycare was created due to occupation of university buildings in 1970. In 1972, undergraduates won access to Robarts Library by organizing sit-ins and a general assembly at Convocation Hall. An end to the men-only policy at Hart House in 1972, campus space for the Women’s Centre in 1986, U of T divestment from Apartheid South Africa in 1987, and the adoption of the first anti-sweatshop policy by a Canadian university in 2000 were all won by sit-ins. Since U of T’s foundation, students’ most significant protests were about creating their own solutions to the issues they faced. And there once was an effective, student-organized counterpoint to university bureaucracy: Rochdale College, a free, cooperative college near campus.

Forty years ago, U of T students took on the university’s top-down approach directly. Bypassing their symbolic, but ultimately futile positions in university governance, they created their own alternative. In a society where inequality was deepening, Rochdale had an open-door policy. Onlookers attacked Rochdale as a “’hippie heaven,” “a haven for dropouts,” and a “place where people went to buy drugs.” But while the college attracted its share of deadbeats, these critics missed the point: Rochdale was an experiment in freedom, representing a vision we are still fighting for.

For the first time in history, students had become the owners of a six-million-dollar college. They had complete self-governance, with their own police force and court.

Rochdale’s government policy was decided at open assemblies. All members of the co-operative were invited to attend, participate in debate, and vote. Academically, Rochdale was just as free: it offered no structured courses, curriculum, exams, degrees, or traditional teaching faculty.

A revolutionary spirit had overtaken much of North America, and student movements had yielded over 300 tuition-free universities across the continent. Rochdale, right in our own backyard, was the largest, and arguably, the most successful. Free universities offered student-organized classes, but did not issue degrees. Anyone could obtain a BA from Rochdale by donating $25 to the college and answering a skill-testing question (such as “What is the capital of Canada”); MAs were earned by a donation of $50, and a skill-testing question of the applicant’s choice. A PhD could be had for $100, no questions asked.

Rochdale became fertile ground for free thought and radical idealism. Traditional professors were replaced by “Resource People” from various academic and non-academic backgrounds, who led informal discussion groups on a wide variety of subjects. It offered a catalogue of courses that would never be offered for credit at mainstream schools, and students built their own degrees. Everyone at Rochdale was both a student and a teacher: it was co-operative living, a democracy where students called the shots. Moreover, it was egalitarian, as oppressed and working-class pupils were offered free alternative education. It was a radical think tank, a place to discuss cultural movements past, and to experiment with workable alternatives to the status quo.

There were many attempts to shut down Rochdale, but it survived for seven years, from 1968 to 1975. As the college became the target of police invasions and mass evictions, it remained the symbol of an era. The U of T governing body, outraged at Rochdale’s open-door policy, locked down the college and issued keys to residents only. In response, tenants began to copy and distribute the keys freely. Undeterred, the governing council set up a paid security force on a 24-hour alert (ironically, some of these security officers were bikers at Rochdale). Residents were often subjected to harassment, and police raids were common—in the early days, cops were frequently welcomed with balloons and confetti and, in one case, a cake that read “Welcome 52 Division.” Tenants started a petition to stop police harassment, but the police would have conducted the investigation themselves. Eventually, the college was closed due to political pressure, and on May 30, 1975, police carried the last residents from the building by force. The doors were welded shut, and the building remained empty for years. Today, it’s an apartment building named after a senator.

Nothing like Rochdale has happened on campus since. The only remnant of the ambitious college is a statue of an unknown student, representing the one-time attempt to create a home for those who simply wanted to exercise their right to learn. But Rochdale is a shining example for those of us who continue to agitate for change. The work we do as activists may not always be easy, fun, or rewarding, but it is our responsibility to challenge the status quo. Without students like us, the university is impotent. We demand free education for all, without barriers. Rochdale demonstrated that this is achievable.

Semra Eylul Sevi is a member of the “Fight Fees 14.”