McMaster University has been well served by its historians. C.M. Johnston wrote an impressive two-volume account of the formerly Baptist institution covering its Toronto decades through to the early years of its relocation to Hamilton. James G. Greenlee, the author of a first-rate biography of former University of Toronto president, Sir Robert Falconer, carries the McMaster story forward from 1957 to its centennial year, 1987.
It is an intriguing, instructive story. President Harry Thode (1961–72) envisioned McMaster as a "medium-sized, but aggressively front rank, multi-faculty university." He was a proponent of "differentiation." The university, he believed, should build on its strengths and should avoid trying to be all things to all people, an approach largely followed by his successors, Arthur Bourns and Alvin Lee, and one, incidentally, now being embraced by the current provincial government. A scientist who supported the arts and social sciences – to a point – Thode oversaw the establishment of the McMaster medical school, which achieved almost [End Page 119] instant prominence for its novel admission practices (well-rounded non-science students were encouraged to apply) and its innovative pedagogy, including problem-based, student-led learning. Thode recruited as the faculty's first dean, John Evans, a rising star from the University of Toronto who insisted upon, and was granted, the autonomy to reinvent medical education which occurred, strikingly, in an otherwise conventional academic community.
This was the 1960s, however, and conventions were under scrutiny. Both faculty and students grew increasingly outspoken and McMaster had its share of academic turmoil. The political science department erupted into a warring camp between traditionalists and behaviourists, and students mounted a campaign in support of a professor who was denied tenure (he never completed his Ph.D. thesis). This skirmish paled in the wake of a 1974 conflict involving French department faculty appointments that featured a student strike, the occupation of administrative offices, and a mass senate meeting with 3,000 attendees. In his analysis of these and other episodes, the author wisely takes the long view. Notwithstanding student extremism and administrative clumsiness, the event led to sensible changes in campus-wide promotion, tenure, and appeal processes.
Although health, engineering, and research science were McMaster's highest priorities, the arts achieved distinction in selected areas. The university secured the prized Bertrand Russell archives and created a noteworthy program in religious studies, featuring the brilliant and irascible philosopher, George Grant. A conservative admired by the nationalist New Left for his anti-American, anti-techno-capitalist views, he came to lament, among other things, McMaster's allegedly soulless utilitarianism, and he departed for Dalhousie University in 1980.
Greenlee carefully illuminates the evolution of the university, warts and all. His treatment of the institution's presidents is probing, insightful, and fair. He provides political, economic, and regional context by situating the university's development on the Ontario and national landscapes. He writes elegantly and at times playfully. How, for example, did the president lure the founding dean of medicine? "To paraphrase Bob Dylan, Thode [went] 'knock, knock, knocking on Evan's door."'
The author has invited some controversy by leaving aside the subjects of feminism, gay rights, and other aspects of identity politics that have infused university life since at least the 1980s. Anticipating reaction, Greenlee writes in the introduction that his volume takes up issues that distinguished life at McMaster from that elsewhere, and apparently debates about gender and race were not in that category. This claim seems speculative and is certainly unproven. Critics will be sure to note that of the twenty-one photographs of important McMaster leaders (following [End Page 120] the preface), none are women. The book's stark representational gap, visually and textually, will hopefully be filled in the future. In the meantime, Greenlee's McMaster should be appreciated for its otherwise considerable scholarly achievements.