A new book delves into York’s modest beginnings and burgeoning struggles

Rumours, broken promises, conspiracies and revolts might sound like the stuff of a good mystery novel. Instead it is York Professor Emeritus John Saywell’s telling of the struggles marking the earliest days of York University in his recently released book, Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion 1960-1973.

Saywell doesn’t shy away from detailing the conflicts that plagued York’s founding president Murray Ross as he endeavoured to build the University in its upstart years, along with the subsequent resignations, accusations, jockeying for power and position and, much later, the sombre reflections that come with distance and age. The book also looks into the student protests of the time, the crisis around hiring American professors, financial troubles and budget power struggles, restructuring and more.

As York’s first permanent dean of the then Faculty of Arts & Science, and chairman of the Division of Social Science, Saywell says Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion 1960-1973 (University of Toronto Press, 2008) started as a memoir, but he soon realized there was a lot to be told and turned to the York University Archives & Special Collections to bolster the historical content.

"It became clear that there was a lot happening in the realm of higher education in Ontario at that time. It suggested to me, it should be a fuller study," Saywell says. "Secondly, I realized my memory was faulty."

For research, Saywell used the official records of York – presidential papers, vice-presidential papers for finance and student affairs, and documents from Senate and its committees, the board of governors and the Faculty of Arts council – as well as privately-held papers and correspondence and conversations with some of the key players.

As a result, Someone to Teach Them is part autobiographical, part historical, and that, says Saywell, placed him in the awkward position of trying to balance the historian in him with his private recollections and how he viewed his own role in the unfolding events of the time. "It is both the history of York, of higher education, and about me."

The 1950s into the 1970s saw a huge increase in the number of students wanting to pursue postsecondary education in Ontario, but there weren’t enough universities or professors to handle the demand. The landscape of postsecondary education needed to change to accommodate the surge of students, but even with new universities such as York starting, growth would far outstrip expectations. York was to take on the overflow of students from the University of Toronto, but Ross and faculty members saw York as something different – a university unlike any other.

Saywell delves into the administrative, faculty and student issues that plagued the early years of turning a farm field into a highly-respected university. According to Saywell, who was at York from 1963 until 1998 when he retired as the director of the graduate program in history, "we have the best graduate program in Canada now, but we didn’t get there without making some enemies."

Left: John Saywell in a photo taken by The Globe and Mail in 1967, from York’s Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections

The development of the college system, the creation of the Faculty of Education, the student revolt of the late 1960s as it pertained to York, are all covered in Someone to Teach Them. The book also examines the criticism levied at Canadian universities, including York, for hiring large numbers of American professors to teach the ever growing numbers of students. Saywell debated the issue in 1969 on the CBC television program The Way It Is, when he was co-host of the show, coming out in favour of hiring from the US if that’s where the quality professors were to be found, Canadian graduate schools being in their infancy.

In sum, Someone to Teach Them details the crises that came with growing a university at a tumultuous time in postsecondary education in Ontario. A launch event for the book will take place at York in October.

Saywell is the author of several books, including Just Call Me Mitch: the Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn (University of Toronto Press, 1992) and The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (University of Toronto Press, 2002). Prior to coming to York, Saywell taught at the University of Toronto from 1954 to 1963. He was also the editor of the Canadian Historical Review from 1957 to 1963 and editor of the Canadian Annual Review from 1960 to 1979.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer