What makes a community?

Image of John Hannigan over Mary Silcox's shoulder.

Growth has been constant at UTSC for years. With this growth comes exciting opportunities—more students, and new faculty, research and learning facilities, not to mention this summer’s Pan Am & Parapan American Games. But growth also poses challenges, especially for the close-knit nature of our campus.

Sociology Professor John Hannigan, who has been with UTSC for close to 40 years, discusses the changing nature of the campus community with relative newcomer Mary Silcox, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology.

John Hannigan: I first came to UTSC in 1976, which makes me one of the veteran warriors of this place. The enrolment was about 4,500, which shows you the growth that’s happened. In terms of buildings alone, there’s been a tremendous expansion. The only food service then was the H-Wing cafeteria. There was a cook named Tony who fried everything with onions.

Mary Silcox: If you didn’t like onions, you were in trouble.

JH: If you didn’t like onions, you brought your own lunch!

It was pretty much a commuter campus for both students and faculty. You didn’t stick around unless you had a night class.

MS: I started in 2010. I had been a professor at the University of Winnipeg, which had around 10,000 students by the time I left. UTSC is essentially the same size as Winnipeg, and it’s only one campus of a tri-campus system.

Some still think of UTSC as a commuter campus. That’s one of the challenges we face.

JH: There is, though, a growing number who have reasons to be here, like labs or committees.

MS: When I’m here really late, walking through campus, I’m amazed by how many students are here. On more than one occasion I’ve had to take a different route, because there’s a group dancing where I would normally actually walk!

JH: That’s a huge change from years ago.

MS: I really like the farmers market. It adds to the sense of community.

JH: In social sciences, we’ve moved from being a division to individual departments. It was a long time coming. It’s reinvigorated a lot of departments. The downside is that it’s not as easy to get to know colleagues in other disciplines.

MS: That’s a natural evolution. UTSC is like a medium-sized university now. So there’s probably less of a sense of being one small group with a common goal. There are certainly still ways in which I feel more supported on this campus. I had a lot of support from the VP Research office when I was preparing the grant I just submitted. We have a lot of supportin terms of our jobs, and a lot of very dedicated people help us through things like transitions at the beginning of our careers.

JH: You do have opportunities to sit on committees and work with people from other disciplines. It’s definitely a community in that sense.

MS: I see students using every corner that’s available on campus. We’ve managed to grow enrolments and our faculty complement. I’m amazed at how much building has happened in just a few years. It is an extraordinary amount of growth.

My community starts with my lab, a group of graduate students that is here every day. We have monthly meetings. Actually, today’s my PhD student’s birthday, so I made her butter tarts! I make a conscious effort to build community at a smaller level. I’d like to see us develop more facilities for graduate students. That would contribute to a sense of community for people who are here regularly.

JH: A colleague at Northwestern University, Gary Alan Fine, came up with a concept he calls tiny publics— smaller groups that have shared interests and identities. Most of us pursue communities within these tiny publics. So that may be what we are moving towards at UTSC. Fine found that these tiny publics provide the place and support for involvement in the wider public of the community.For a long time, I was in the B-Wing, kitty-corner to Mike Bunce, the geographer. I came to know Mike really well. When we got our first computers. I had no idea what to do with mine, and Mike already had one. So I said, “Mike, how do I turn this on?”

MS: Very few universities in North America are hiring at the rate that we’re hiring, and that’s really exciting, to have this influx of new, young, excited people who are coming in and really want to be here.

JH: And it’s amazing how highly qualified these hires are.

MS: People, when they’re brought in, can be inculcated to a culture of, “This is your identity. This is the place for you.” That becomes very important. It’s our responsibility as faculty to do that, to welcome people fully
and give them a sense that this is where they need to be and this is where they belong.

I think a question is, at what layer do we identify? Do you feel your community is the tri-campus department or the downtown department? Do you feel your community is the department at UTSC? Some students and faculty never go downtown. Their identity is purely UTSC and their department.

JH: For me, there is carry-over from earlier days. I run into Larry Sawchuk and Michael Lambek from anthropology, and John Miron from geography. I still feel that sort of sense of community that goes back decades.

MS: The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre is becoming a real locus for a certain avenue of interests.

JH: There are some interesting connections. Some have already happened as a result of these facilities. Those facilities are not just pools. They have a high-performance athletic centre over there as well.

One of my colleagues had put in a big research application but needed a high-tech machine. And then she discovered—amazing! —they had one of these over in the centre already. So she doesn’t have to go elsewhere for her research. There’s one right here.

MS: We’re becoming a large, diverse campus, and we’re hiring people in a diverse array of areas. And that’s what we want. That’s going to be good, and it is going to be a locus of connections for people with certain common interests.