Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Power 2015 / Undergraduate Ethnography

What is the University? (Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power)

In this course, students start their research projects by asking broadly “What is the University?” While the university might have its own ideas about what it means to be and to run an educational institution, the students apply their theoretical knowledge acumen to think critically and productively about the thing that we call the university (see below).

The University of Toronto, According to the University of Toronto


The University of Toronto is committed to being an internationally significant research university, with undergraduate, graduate and professional programs of excellent quality.

Purpose of the University

The University of Toronto is dedicated to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.

Within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research. And we affirm that these rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.

It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.

Objectives of the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto is determined to build on its past achievements and so enhance its research and teaching. The University anticipates that it will remain a large university. It will continue to exploit the advantages of size by encouraging scholarship in a wide range of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and the professions. It will continue to value its inheritance of colleges and federated universities that give many students an institutional home within the large University. It will strive to make its campuses attractive settings for scholarly activity.

The University as a Legal Entity

By Laura Beach

While the university is often thought in terms of the activities that take place within its boundaries, or the purported goals, aims and missions of the collective campus bodies – as a space for learning, growing, conducting research, producing knowledge, making friends and falling in love – it can also be framed and approached as a legal entity. This is how Mariana Valverde approaches the university, as an institution with a legal basis, a legal existence and a legal infrastructure. This aspect is only exposed when there is a problem or contestation. For example, the current debate over divestment at U of T opens up a number of normally unconsidered questions, including: Why does the university have investments?; Who decides where it invests?; Who authorizes investments?

Universities were the original corporations, prior to “for profit” corporations; universitas roughly translates as corporation. This establishes the university is an eternal, immortal body, not tied to any one individual, which ensures a legal continuity of property and legal responsibility – known as the “power of perpetual succession”. The division between “public” and “private” corporations is messy and ambiguous in practice; the University of Toronto, for example, is a private corporation that is quasi-public and increasingly privatized. This is not the same across the globe; universities in Finland are all centrally managed by the government, while Canadian universities are highly autonomous.

The University of Toronto as a legal entity is more complex than many other universities in Canada. While York University is a single corporation, U of T is an amalgamation of different legal bodies with different jurisdictions: the federated universities of St. Michael’s, Victoria College and Trinity College, which are all legal corporations. Each college within U of T has a high degree of autonomy over its financial and material assets – for example, Victoria College pulls in a pretty penny as a landlord for the upscale commercial district along Bloor Street, and is under no obligation to share with the rest of U of T.

In our projects we primarily looked at the university from within, though we recognize that the post-secondary educational institution is situated within the socio-legal, economic and ideological framework of the nation state. Every now and then our projects would remind us of the links between the campus community and the “outside”, for example when looking at how policies regarding campus identity cards intersect with state agendas around border policing, or the way in which Student Life programs, and the allocation of funds for these programs, are intimately related to national and international university ratings based on student experience.

The University as a Service Provider

By Shannon McKechnie

The University of Toronto inhabits a large space in the city of Toronto bordered by major streets and intersections associated with Toronto, the big city. More than 6,000 students consider this space home, as residents of the colleges, and more than 55,000 undergraduate and graduate students wander the campus grounds each day. This is a larger community than the town I grew up in. So what is the University to me?

The University will appear differently to each unique student, staff, or faculty member. My experience at UofT has revealed the role of the University as a service provider for the campus population. In addition to providing the academic programs and departments that bring students to campus, the University provides a myriad of programs, services, and resources, all specifically designed for the post-secondary student. The Division of Student Life is the administrative unit that oversees many of these services, from health and wellness, to career exploration and leadership development.

Within these city blocks, and among the thousands of minds on our campus, the University is a space where great ideas and opinions are nourished, developed, and shared with the world. The services the University provides supports the academic mission of the institution, ensuring the rest of the person creating these great ideas is cared for during their time at the University, and for their future. In my experience with the University, the services provided contribute to my learning by making University a holistic experience that is about my development as a person, not just a brain.

The University as Hub of Experience

By Saania Punja

The University of Toronto, known as one of the leading institutes for academics and research, is more than just a place of higher learning. It is also a place where student lives come into play. Students experience this campus in different ways on a daily basis, whether that is from studying at the library, meeting friends, or running through St. George St. to get to class. It is from these experiences, both individual and shared, that students are able to place themselves in spaces of shared values and interests. These areas play an important role in the way they view themselves and others at the University.

While experiences allow students to explore their own separate identities, they also bring them together in many ways. In my fieldwork I found that the shared experiences of students create similar attitudes about the University amongst them and thus form student culture – where going through a particular experience comes to mean that one is now a student of the University. It is important to pay attention to these mutual experiences because it is those that build connections between students even without their knowledge of it.

It is then also then interesting how students are able to use on-campus groups and organizations not only to shape their own identities, but also to change certain areas of their lives on campus. This could be anything from growing in their personal areas of interest or coming together for a shared cause. In this way the University is a place of diverse clubs and organizations, interactions and spaces, values and beliefs that are sustained by the students within it.

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