Carving out space for free and risky creative thought

Knowledge is power Time flies think outside the box

Principled principals like the late Bob McNutt ensure that students get the education they need and deserve

By Robert Price

TORONTO – VIEWPOINT – Despite his hectic schedule – and the razzing we gave him nearly every week – he always returned my calls.

He was Bob McNutt, principal of Erindale College, now the University of Toronto Mississauga, and I was a student journalist with the campus newspaper.

McNutt’s earnestness in returning our calls, even on weekends, and providing comment for stories may seem inconsequential nearly two decades after the fact. But it says a lot about the kind of man he was. He took the student press seriously. And he remained serious – and cool – even when we took pot shots at him in editorials or roasted him in the April Fool’s Day edition. We were merciless.

So when I received an email from the college informing the community that McNutt passed away last week, I felt a pang of guilt. First, for the occasional ad hominem attack, I launched against him. And then for not having thanked him for the seriousness and respect, he showed the student press, even when we student journalists did not return his respect.

McNutt was a geochemist who excelled as an administrator. He studied at MIT before moving to McMaster, where he served as dean, and later to Erindale College, where he held the position of principal for eight years. During those eight years, he strengthened the university’s ties to the City of Mississauga – he’s the person who changed the college’s name to the University of Toronto Mississauga – and put the college on the road to quick and steady expansion. The campus wouldn’t be what it is today if McNutt hadn’t used his powers as principal in the ways he did.

College principals generally aren’t remembered well. They might get their names on a building and their photo usually hangs in a place of honour in some back hallway. Most students know nothing of these people, even though principals have more power to craft a student’s education than anybody else. It’s power that principals don’t always use wisely.

Principals should be … well, principled. They champion the values of liberal education, rather than the fashions of the day. And they carve out a space for free and risky creative thought and push back against the corporatization of learning spaces.

Nobody should be installed as principal of a serious school who doesn’t have a commitment to liberal learning or the integrity of character to pull it off.

Looking back, McNutt had both.

He pushed Erindale College into an era of expansion of programs and facilities that have paid off for most students.

And he took responsibility for his vision of the campus.

I recall one tense moment when he showed his character.

On the day before a town hall meeting to discuss a botched fundraising effort, I passed him in a hallway and told him I planned to ask him – in front the school – who screwed up.

He replied, “I’ll give you an honest answer tomorrow.”

The next day, in front of students and faculty, McNutt explained that the screw-up with the fundraising campaign was his mistake. He was in charge and so the fault lay with him. He said he’d make good and ensure the fundraising campaign met its target. Eventually, it did.

McNutt had respect for his campus and its students. Its student newspaper, too.

I only understand the value of the respect he showed us in retrospect. How differently I would have taken my job as a student journalist if the principal of the college had said, “Bug off, kid, I’m busy.” Or if he had replied at the town hall, “I don’t have to answer questions from a student newspaper.”

McNutt never did that. Not once.

If it’s not too late, I thank him.

Columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

© Troy Media

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