Spirit of Atkinson captured through Heritage Moments series

Exciting changes are happening at York University as the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies and the Faculty of Arts prepare to combine their strengths in the new Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS). Set to launch July 1, LA&PS will bring the best of both Faculties together and champion pioneering and socially relevant liberal arts education, related professional programs and research. As the two Faculties move forward with planning and preparation, much reflection is being done on their respective histories. Atkinson has arranged a Heritage Moments series aimed at celebrating the Faculty’s rich heritage and capturing the spirit of its faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Sponsored by the Office of the Master, the first of these five panelled discussions took place on Jan. 14. The event brought to life the early days at York and Atkinson College – days that Professor Emeritus John Unrau describes as “intensely exciting, challenging and fun”. Unrau, along with Professor Emeritus David Wood and Professor Joan Gibson, each painted a lively and energetic portrait of the time. Professor Madelyn Dick moderated the discussion, occasionally adding in some anecdotes of her own and helping to provide historical and demographical context.

Atkinson officially took root in 1965 when education was beginning to rapidly expand in Canada. The dramatic growth and interest in postsecondary education was due to a number of interrelated factors including the post-war boom, increased immigration and the large number of women beginning to fill seats in the classroom. The early years were a period of building as Wood noted during the discussion; faculty were starting up departments from scratch and creating their own curricula, and construction on the fairly desolate Keele campus was well underway (he kept a tumbleweed in his office for 25 years as a memorial to this humble beginning).

Right: Professor Emeritus John Unrau

Wood arrived at Atkinson College in the summer of 1965 and founded the Department of Geography. He and Unrau – who came to Atkinson in 1969 and later founded the renowned Canadian Writers in Person series – described early Atkinson as a time of great collegiality, when sherry was enjoyed at Faculty Council, intellectual discussions took place in on-campus pubs, and where being social with colleagues and students was a strong part of the academic experience. There were hockey and poker groups, regular class parties, and theme days that took place on Saturdays and were dedicated entirely to literary greats such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. As Unrau says “there was so much going on, so much to look forward to.”

Left: Professor Emeritus David Wood

Most faculty members were younger than their students – it took Unrau 15 minutes to convince his first class that he was indeed their instructor – which made for a rather unique learning environment. Faculty taught and learned from their students who were as diverse as the curriculum; there were plumbers and doctors, diamond merchants and taxi drivers, and husband and wife teams. 

"It was an atmosphere that enhanced an education,” said Joan Gibson, who came to Atkinson in 1970. “We were a very tight-knit and collegial community.” Gibson joined the Humanities Department, making her way in what was still very much a man’s world. At one point, she held the position of associate dean – virtually unheard of for a woman in Canada.

While those at Atkinson thrived on its collegial and innovative environment, others regarded the College as the black sheep of the University. A prevailing belief was that students and faculty were of a lower calibre than those elsewhere at York. One University administrator even dubbed Atkinson as a place of “part-time students, part-time minds”. As all three speakers noted, however, these misconceptions would be turned on their head in the years to come.

“I really want to thank Professors Wood, Unrau and Gibson for giving us such a wonderful glimpse of Atkinson’s early beginnings,” said Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton. “I hope we can all take lessons and inspiration from their stories; and I really encourage us all to think about how we are going to create community and take what we have contributed and build it into the new Faculty.”

Atkinson, from its inception, has focused on making education accessible to mature and part-time students. It has left a definite footprint at York – providing a deep understanding across the University of how to provide high-quality education that is flexible and available to York’s diverse body of students. Members of the York community are encouraged to come out for the next Heritage Moment titled Teaching Our Mandate: Mature & Part-Time Students. The event will be held tomorrow at 2:30pm in the Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson College.

Future sessions include March 4, April 1, and May 6 – all immediately following Atkinson Faculty Council.

Plans are also underway to capture some of these heritage moments through a Web site and a commemorative book sponsored by U50 Events. For information on how you can contribute, e-mail aklegacy@yorku.ca