When Huron University College president Barry Craig first announced his intention to establish independence for the small liberal arts institution from its affiliate university, Western University, the response was far from positive. “The initial reaction from almost every group was negative,” says Dr. Craig. “Like, where’s this coming from? And why haven’t we heard about this?”
In February, the institution announced that, after a period of consultation with its community and approval by its board of governors, it would apply to the province of Ontario for the authority to grant its own degrees. The announcement came after a long history of affiliation between Huron and Western. Huron, dubbed Western’s “founding college,” opened its doors in 1863 as a theological college, more than 10 years before Western was incorporated. The two schools have retained their affiliation since Western’s founding in 1878.
It’s not surprising that changing this relationship — which includes access to classes and services on Western’s main campus and a Western degree upon graduation — would cause a stir. But Dr. Craig, who joined Huron from St. Thomas University in 2016, says “the more we’ve been able to explain it, the more people have come to understand the why.” After the announcement, Huron held a Zoom event for alumni and those who attended were asked at the beginning for their thoughts on Huron becoming an independent institution. “It was about 50/50, based on what they had read,” Dr. Craig says. “After I’d spent an hour explaining more details, it grew to 70 percent support.”
When Dr. Craig arrived at Huron, he noticed the relationship between it and Western University is similar to the relationship between St. Thomas and the University of New Brunswick with one significant difference. “We gave our own degrees at St. Thomas and controlled our own academic life. We shared services, we transferred money to get access to gyms and libraries, same as we do here. But we had autonomy over the academic file.”
Having autonomy over its own curriculum and academic programming, which would allow Huron to make changes to admissions and programs, is one of the goals Dr. Craig is trying to achieve by having Huron become an independent institution. He also learned when he took over as president of Huron that it does not receive government funding directly. Although mostly secular now, it’s still a religious-based institution, which means government funding is passed on from Western to Huron. It’s the same story for both Brescia and King’s, which were founded as Catholic liberal arts colleges. “We’re not allowed to apply for any capital money and, of course, that puts us in a challenging position. Every time we [need] a new building, we have to raise all the money, whereas most universities in Ontario and across Canada can periodically access capital money,” Dr. Craig explains. “We lobbied for some years with our MPs and others to see if we could get a change, and we didn’t really get any traction.”
Despite the challenges facing postsecondary institutions this year, Dr. Craig suggests Huron is in a good position to make this change. “We’ve increased [being students’] first choice by over 300 percent. For a liberal arts school, it’s pretty unusual in North America nowadays to double your enrollment.” He adds that the recent moves by provinces, including Ontario, toward performance-based funding for universities didn’t factor much into the independence conversation, since the grant Huron receives from the government through Western is only 13 percent of its operating budget. The change has more to do with Huron having “maximum flexibility and control over our own future.”
“Liberal arts have been under fire everywhere for a couple of decades,” Dr. Craig says, noting that universities and governments have focused more on supporting STEM programming than the social sciences and humanities. But employers want liberal arts graduates who have depth and breadth in their understanding of the world, he adds. “A free and democratic society requires citizens who are capable of critical thought. … and that’s what we specialize in.”
Since the announcement, Huron has appointed its first board of governors and has been engaging in consultations with its community. The application to the province will likely take place later this year, along with negotiations with Western to try to maintain existing elements of the institutions’ relationship. In a statement, Western said there are many implications to consider about the change, and the two institutions will discuss them over the coming weeks and months. If everything goes well, Huron students entering in the 2022–2023 academic year will be the first cohort to graduate (in 2026) with solely Huron degrees.