Robert Fulford's column about Claude Bissell

(The National Post, September 5, 2000)

If you were reading the newspapers in the years when Claude Bissell was president of the University of Toronto, 1958 to 1971, you knew the place was in a bad way. Frantic expansion, overcrowded classrooms, arbitrary management and noisy radical politics: These were dominant themes of his presidency, to outsiders and some insiders as well.

But in retrospect, those years have acquired a patina of excellence. Bissell died in June at the age of 84, and on Sept. 21 his friends and colleagues will be discussing his career at a memorial gathering in Massey College. They may well speak of the Bissell era as a kind of golden age, and for good reason.

During Bissell's presidency, Northrop Frye at Victoria College was, according to one survey, the world's second most quoted critic in the humanities, Aristotle being the first. Nearby, at St. Michael's College, another English professor, Marshall McLuhan, was inventing a new field, media studies. John Polanyi was working on what the Nobel committee would call, in 1986, "a new field of research in chemistry." In the law school, Bora Laskin, later the chief justice of the Supreme Court, was consolidating his reputation as a constitutional scholar. Around the corner, Robertson Davies, the founding master of Massey College, was writing the novels that made him a world figure.

And Bissell was building a monument to his era, the Robarts Library. Many of those who thought that building much too big for its environment (I among them) have since realized that Bissell needed a lot of space to create one of the three or four best libraries on the continent, a library good enough to serve the first-class graduate school that was also in his plans.

He wasn't responsible for the brilliance of faculty members like Frye, McLuhan, Polanyi and Davies, but he helped create the environment in which they flourished. The fact that he could appreciate both Frye and McLuhan (whose followers considered them mutually exclusive passions) suggests his breadth of understanding. The fact that he could keep so many sacred monsters more or less happy, and keep Frye and McLuhan from going elsewhere for better pay, demonstrates what one of his colleagues called "the always amiable sense of purpose" that went along with his imagination, energy and management skill.

In the 1940s, Bissell taught English literature before becoming an administrator under president Sidney Smith, first as his assistant and then vice-president. It was not an altogether happy apprenticeship. Smith was intelligent but pompous, and his reaction to a spoof in the campus newspaper, The Varsity, was typical. The editors printed the text of a speech in which he announced remedial English classes (made necessary by inadequate training in high school), but they substituted the word "sex" wherever Smith used the word "English"; they attributed the speech to president Kidney Myth. Affronted, Smith made a fuss about punishing the students and forcing them to apologize. Bissell, a man of tolerant good humour, must have looked on in horror.

He left Toronto in 1956 for Ottawa, to become president of Carleton University. During his two years in that job, he created the first Institute of Canadian Studies, an experiment that was copied across the country.

He first swam into my vision in 1957, with the publication of Our Living Tradition, a series of books collecting guest lectures at Carleton on historical figures. Bissell explained that the lecturers (Frank Underhill, Mason Wade, Donald Creighton, Davies etc.) were chosen to break down the barrier between politics and literature. He argued that academic history limited itself by seeing Canadians simply as political and economic animals, and that literary critics viewed our writers too narrowly, as exotic products of a thin literary culture. His arguments for a broader cultural understanding of history and a more informed understanding of literature are now commonplace, but they were remarkable at the time, and affected many of us.

In 1957, Smith went to Ottawa to become minister for external affairs under the new prime minister, John Diefenbaker. That summer, Bissell noted Smith's weaknesses in his diary: a constitutional inability to be direct in public; an attraction to platitudes; and "an unnatural respect" for businessmen, which made him servile before the board of governors.

Not long after he wrote those words, Bissell was chosen to replace Smith. He became, at 42, the youngest of the university's presidents to that point -- and entirely different from his predecessor. He spoke directly and well, and he was willing to fight businessmen and politicians when necessary.

But as it turned out, neither businessmen nor politicians were the problem. Instead, the great blight of the Bissell years was something called (always with the dignity of capital letters) Student Power. In rhetoric, it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the American student movement. Like the Americans, the Toronto student radicals believed their cause was so important that it justified forgoing any pretense of civility. Disrupting the curriculum, coarsening the tone of campus life, they were hardest of all on Bissell.

That was partly because radicals are always meanest to liberals, but also because they disdained excellence in scholarship, which Bissell had struggled to master, learned to revere, and hoped to pass on to them. Instead, student politicians praised "relevance," as they chose to define it. Bissell survived that hurricane and remained amiable to his opponents -- rather too amiable, as he sometimes thought in later years.

His last major project was Vincent Massey's biography in two volumes, The Young Vincent Massey and The Imperial Canadian. Not all the reviews were enthusiastic (I found the first volume superb, the second sometimes evasive) but the size of Bissell's achievement, and the dedication behind his research, were unquestionable.

Typically, he tracked Massey's reading: If a certain book seemed important to Massey in 1920, then Bissell read it in 1980 and told us exactly what it meant in Massey's life. He brought the same care to everything from Massey's vexed relations with Mackenzie King to his tragic (in Massey's view) failure to become Sir Vincent. Bissell left us a detailed and engaging picture of the Canadian leadership class in the first half of the 20th century -- a monument to the biographer as well as the subject, and worth a place just below the Robarts Library on any list of Claude Bissell's many accomplishments.

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