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The University of Toronto was a very different place in 1880. Confederation was only 13 years old, and most of its relatively small population came from fairly privileged backgrounds.

Nevertheless, an expanding undergraduate population and an increasingly secular attitude in public education began to give rise to an independent student life previously non-existent. Several student societies blossomed, including, in 1879, a newspaper called The White and Blue which represented one of the earliest incarnations of student media anywhere in the country (The Dalhousie Gazette had begun publishing in 1868 and The Queen’s Journal in 1873). Though no copies of this experiment survive in print, The White and Blue seems to have inspired the ambitious graduate and undergraduate students who launched The Varsity as an independent stock company the following year. The paper’s inaugural editorial possessed a palpable optimism about its own prospects and those of further student ventures:

The Varsity starts upon its career unattended by malevolence, and amid the hearty “God speed you!” of friends. The chief incentive however, has not been encouragement, but the consciousness of a capability to supply what is beginning to be looked upon as a trustworthy indication of vigor and intensity of life in a university.
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The Varsity masthead and business board pose for a photograph in 1895. Future Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King is third from the left in the front row/Library and Archives Canada

Since student life remained fairly decentralized in various clubs and societies, The Varsity quickly became a voice for dissent and criticism of the university administration. In 1895, when the University Council cancelled a debate organized by a campus political club on the grounds that the views of several of its speakers were “unorthodox,” the paper published an editorial condemning the move:

This [is a] truly regrettable state of affairs…no other society about the University has ever been required to…submit its programme to the council for approval before applying for an assembly room…[the university council should] act on some manifestly honest principle.

In the same year, editorials appeared criticizing alleged meddling by the provincial government in the affairs of the university and accusing administration officials of making nepotistic appointments.

President James Loudon, observably unpopular among some sectors of the campus and later described by historian W. Stewart Wallace as “conspicuously [lacking] the faculty of conciliating the goodwill of either the public, the university staff, or the undergraduates,” grew increasingly uncomfortable with this state of affairs. On January 18, 1895 the University Council passed a motion demanding an apology from The Varsity’s Editor-in-Chief Joseph Montgomery, who agreed, following a meeting with Loudon, to publish an editorial apologizing for “insubordination.” But when he confronted the rest of the paper’s editors with the agreement, they refused to comply and he was forced to resign his post. Though the president had no authority to censor content in The Varsity, Montgomery’s replacement, James Alexander Tucker, was expelled within days for persistently rejecting demands to print an apology. Tucker wrote defiantly: “Rather we would leave the University without a degree than surrender the principle for which we have been contending.”

Tensions between students, faculty, and the administration seemed to be high all over campus. Latin professor William Dale published a letter in The Globe on February 9 criticizing the university for its attitude towards The Varsity, and was himself dismissed on February 15. That same day, a large gathering of undergraduates, including Varsity staff member William Lyon Mackenzie King, voted to abstain from classes until Dale was reinstated. The strike was so effective that professors soon found themselves speaking to virtually empty lecture halls, yet after several days King, who later in life earned a reputation as “the Great Compromiser,” offered president Loudon a truce with the understanding that the university would appoint a commission to study the problems that had led to the strike (“a strike if necessary but not necessarily a strike”).

When fired Varsity editor James Tucker tried to write his exams later that year, he was forbidden to do so. He finished his degree at Stanford and became Assistant Editor of Saturday Night Magazine. His friends published a book of his fiction and poetry following his untimely death in 1903. His predecessor Joseph Montgomery earned his diploma at U of T and became a corporate lawyer.

The strike represented a defining moment for both The Varsity and the university. The report made by the ensuing commission formed the basis for the U of T Act of 1905 which, among other things, led to the creation of the Student Administrative Council: a centralized organization for student social, cultural, and political life.

In addition to the provocative editorials published during its first few years, The Varsity also regularly printed poetry and prose by U of T students. These were eventually compiled in an edition called The Varsity Book of Prose and Poetry, a copy of which remains in the E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria College to this day.

Women Out of the Cold

Though the inaugural issue of The Varsity had addressed the issue of co-education, it would be four more years before women were first admitted to U of T. William Houston, who had graduated from the campus several years prior, wrote:

The question of co-education of the sexes in Colleges is still a vexed one and some time must elapse before it can be regarded as finally disposed of…it is only a question of time when female undergraduates will be knocking down the door of University College for admission…Let a few young ladies muster courage to break the ice and they will soon find a numerous troop plunging in after them and the young gentlemen generously applauding their intrepidity.

Just over ten years earlier, president John McCaul and the university senate had prevented Emily Stowe from entering to study medicine. (When she predicted that the entrance of women to the campus would be inevitable, McCaul is said to have angrily rebutted: “Never in my day madam!”). Stowe would become the first woman in Canada to be licensed to practice medicine and as she correctly foresaw, women would be regularly admitted to the University of Toronto soon after in 1884.

For the next several decades, The Varsity would regularly publish fiction and poetry by female students, though publication of their other efforts occurred much less frequently. Eventually, women became members of the staff and in 1944, Betsy Mosbaugh became the paper’s first female Editor-in-Chief at the age of 21. A fourth-year philosophy and English student at University College, the hard-working and ambitious Mosbaugh once succeeded in trumping The Globe and Mail by publishing an edition of The Varsity in spite of a massive blizzard which had shut down large parts of North America. Speaking to U of T Magazine in 2006, Barbara Michasiw, a former News Editor who had worked with Mosbaugh described her as such:

We were kind of in awe of her…Long before there was a feminist movement she was a very strong woman. And although she probably would not have been editor had it not been war years and there was a shortage of men, it wasn’t because she didn’t have the ability. She certainly did, and she did a great job as editor. You didn’t cross Betsy. But she was fair, she was very fair.
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Mugging outside the old CIUT building/Varsity Archives

Brighter days in store? The S.A.C. years: 1914–1960

The Varsity celebrated the arrival of the twentieth century with an editorial announcing a “revived spirit in university life” and predicting “brighter days in store”. It was absorbed into S.A.C. and so began a difficult relationship which would span most of the next 40 years. In 1926, the council decided not to take positions on political or other controversial issues — a policy that perhaps aimed to keep the organization united, but created decades of tension between it and The Varsity. Even editorials of a thoroughly apolitical nature were subject to scrutiny by S.A.C. executives and there were many instances of censorship throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

In a 1929 issue of The Varsity, the paper’s editor L.J. Ryan wrote an opinion piece in response to a speech given by a preacher at a meeting of one of the campus’s leading Christian organizations which denounced the practice of “petting.” It is probable that the tone of the article was intended to be every bit as sarcastic as it sounds:

It is not for undergraduates to contradict a man whose experience of the world has been so much greater than their own, but in light of our close connection with the younger generation who are thus accused of debasing their souls, we should like to attempt an explanation of our generation and its actions… Petting as an institution has come to be recognized by all who are not wilfully blind to existing conditions.

Following a request from the university’s board of governors, S.A.C. fired Ryan. Incensed, the entire Varsity masthead resigned their posts and began a new publication dubbed The Adversity, which published in the pages of the Toronto Telegram.

In another incident two years later, the paper’s editor, Andrew Allen, wrote an extremely controversial editorial suggesting that many people on campus practiced religion purely out of social convention; attending church as little as society would permit and contributing to what Allen claimed was a widespread “practical atheism.” In an issue soon after, he published an excerpt from Milton’s Second Defence of the People of England in response to criticism about the propriety of his remarks. The university’s chief disciplinary body, aptly named “Caput,” reprimanded The Varsity and it did not print for the remainder of the 1931-1932 publishing year. Soon after the paper resumed printing, S.A.C. implemented a series of guidelines for Varsity editors, actively forbidding any discussion of politics or other topics likely to provoke “hostility,” telling the university’s board of governors “The Varsity shall cause no more trouble.” Needless to say, it did.

In March 1952, it printed a joke issue which, among other things, partially reproduced the text of a document published by university president Sidney Smith concerning the need for teaching reforms in the field of English, substituting every instance of the word “English” with “sex.” Once again S.A.C. suspended publication of The Varsity prompting Editor-in-Chief Barbara Brown, News Editor Ian Montagnes, and most of the rest of the senior masthead to resign in protest. Five years later, another joke issue provoked an especially harsh response from S.A.C. who called it “libellous” and “in bad taste” and, on the morning of March 7, 1957, ordered the North Toronto Herald Printers to burn all printed copies of the paper in their possession without informing anyone on The Varsity staff. The paper’s editor Peter Gzowski released a statement in response which read:

We deny that yesterday’s gag issue was libellous in form or content, that it contained material that would have offended any but the most fanatically puritanical of minds, that any mature student would have received anything but a healthy laugh from reading it.
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In an undated photograph, U of T students protest rising debt levels on the streets of Toronto/Varsity Archives.

The 1960s and 1970s: Action and Activism

Varsity editors and members of S.A.C. began to work amicably together for the first time in at least 30 years during the latter part of the 1960s. In concert with other student organizations across North America, both pursued a more activist course, amid increasingly liberalized attitudes within the postwar generation towards politics, culture, and sex. At times in its history, the paper had adopted conservative positions on a number of issues. In one case in 1947, a demonstration by left-wing students at Queen’s Park in support of unionizing workers from the Imperial Optical Company was met with an editorial declaring that “[the protestors] had a lot to learn” and suggesting that they take their concerns to university administration.

These attitudes were nowhere to be found in the 1960s when, at times, The Varsity took positions not only critical but openly antagonistic towards the university’s policies. Towards the end of the decade, university officials had become so threatened by student demonstrations surrounding the Vietnam War and other causes that the Committee of Ontario University Presidents — on which U of T President Claude Bissell sat — published a report recommending the advent of harsher measures to crack down on dissent including new rules which would have effectively banned students from disagreeing with professors during lectures. S.A.C. publicly condemned the document and when the president refused to distance himself from it, The Varsity published a front-page ultimatum to university officials, which also called for the takeover of Simcoe Hall if demands were not met by October 1, 1969. The same issue carried an editorial which called the document “an insult to every student’s intelligence and freedom”. In the fall of that year, following the reformation of the criminal code, The Varsity printed an advertisement for the first Gay and Lesbian group on campus: The University of Toronto Homophile Association.

In 1972, Varsity co-editors Linda McQuaig and Thomas Walkom helped initiate a massive demonstration of students at Convocation Hall after undergraduates were banned from the new stacks in Robarts Library. McQuaig also notably championed feminist causes, on one occasion pretending to be pregnant to expose an anti-abortion counselling service and later going undercover as a stripper.
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Posters advertising the S.A.C. elections in March 1976/Varsity Archives

No Time Like the Present

In 1980, after more than half a century in S.A.C., The Varsity became officially independent: collecting its own levy, electing its own board of directors, and enjoying complete editorial autonomy for the first time in its history. During the neo-liberal revolution of the 1980s and 1990s the view that public universities should adopt a more economically-focused outlook increasingly gained traction. In this period, The Varsity was particularly critical of the administration on the issues relating to educational reform, with its editors including current U of T philosophy professor and author Mark Kingwell (Editor-in-Chief, 1983-1984) and left-wing activist Naomi Klein (Editor-in-Chief, 1992-1993). More recently, its editors criticized President Naylor’s “Towards 2030” planning document on the grounds that it would push the university into adopting a virtually private educational model.

Autonomy from S.A.C., however, came with its problems. In 2004, tensions erupted between the paper’s staff members and it’s board of directors over the latter body’s intent to assume control of the hiring of editors. The Annual General Meeting was cancelled and several editors walked off the job. Yet the paper survived this existential crisis and succeeded in reconstituting itself over the summer and continuing to publish the following year. The board of directors was not reassembled until 2007 and not fully reconstituted until January of last year.

Having overcome these problems, the newspaper now enjoys a level of editorial freedom and independence the likes of which a century’s worth of its editors could never have dreamed. From the Boer War to Trudeaumania, from the first electric streetlight to the first extraterrestrial launch, The Varsity published in an inhospitable atmosphere of hostile scrutiny — first at the hands of the university’s administration, and later from the more conservative factions of the student government. Its final separation from S.A.C. gave it total autonomy over its own affairs, complete with both the freedoms and struggles independence produces.

Today The Varsity continues upon its career unattended by malevolence, and amid the hearty “God speed you!” of friends.

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