On February 1, 2018, the governing board of Massey College voted unanimously to change the traditional title used by the Head of College from ‘Master’ to ‘Principal.’ This decision comes after an incident back in September, when former Senior Fellow Michael Marrus made a racist remark to a Black Junior Fellow and, referencing the title, said, “You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?”
This change is just one of many that have recently been made to long-standing traditions at the university — traditions that have turned out to cause more harm than good. In situations like these, we should welcome the opportunity to revisit and challenge our past. That includes striking traditions off the books if it is demonstrated that they are no longer appropriate.
In a university as old as ours, we have a long and unpleasant history to reconcile with — we’re bound to have some traditions that have not withstood the test of time. What may have once been considered acceptable is now recognized to be offensive at best, actively discriminatory at worst.
Women weren’t permitted to enter the university until 1884, and they weren’t admitted as full members of Hart House until 1972, following a long struggle over entry. Many saw the space of the university, and particularly the space of Hart House — which organized leisure activities and sports — to be traditionally male spaces. We now know that this is patently absurd.
In recent years, several frosh cheers have been altered or changed to remove more offensive elements, including phrases promoting bigotry or rape culture.
Having participated in frosh at University College twice, once as a frosh and once as a leader, I understand that cheers can feel like a special, exciting part of a college’s identity and often represent fun traditions to pass on year to year. However, we must recognize that some of these cheers are disrespectful. In 2009, The Undergraduate Commerce Society (UCS) was investigated by UTM administration after two anonymous students made complaints about discriminatory and bigoted cheers from the UCS orientation — known as ‘Biz Frosh’ — which included chants about sexual assault. In 2014, the coordinators of Innis College orientation announced intentions to remove some cheers that “crossed the line.”
Meanwhile, at St. Michael’s College, President David Mulroney has set out the goal of trying to bring the college closer to its Catholic roots. Many community members, however, feel that this goal has had discriminatory effects: allegations have been made that Mulroney refused to hold a prayer service for Muslim students following the Québec City mosque shooting and has denied complaints of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students at St. Mike’s.
In many cases, upholding and respecting certain traditions is important. It allows us to connect to a long history, and helps us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves. Entering this enormous, historical university can be intimidating, but participating in traditions, old and new, makes us feel included.
However, if those traditions themselves are what uphold exclusion, then they have failed in their purpose. If upholding traditions means creating an unsafe environment for marginalized students, those traditions ought to go by the wayside. Traditions have to change in order to ensure that the university atmosphere is welcoming and inclusive to all.
We should remember that those who are hurt most by old traditions are rarely the ones begging for their continued existence.
When frosh cheers were changed, several people complained that doing so was superfluous or pointless. But for many women, getting rid of misogynistic language in these cheers means combating larger power structures that are meant to marginalize them — especially given that they have historically been excluded from university spaces.
Similarly, using the title of ‘Master’ at Massey College might be seen as a harmless tradition — but it was also one that opened the door for instances of anti-Black racism such as the one in September.
Of course, changes in tradition or symbolism should be accompanied by more substantive remedies. At Massey, Head of College Hugh Segal has agreed to work with Junior Fellows to organize a town hall on racism, promising to institute anti-racism education for all members of the college. Taking the ‘Master’ title off the books was a good way to spark these changes.
Like it or not, times are changing, and as the university evolves, traditions should follow suit. We no longer attend a university that keeps women out. Cheers promoting violence or bigotry are no longer tolerated. And, through it all, our university is becoming ever more diverse.
We can hold onto the traditions that make us feel like a part of this place, but we need to make sure what we hold on to isn’t keeping others behind. The past was not all perfect — it’s time to take off the rose-coloured glasses and move forward.
Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women & Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.