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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What was the setting in 1972 for another chapter in U of T student activism?

Answer Plans to limit undergraduate access to Robarts Library sparked a 4,500-name petition and two sit-ins in Simcoe Hall.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

(In his chapter on student activism, Friedland discusses the rising tide of student protests at U of T, culminating in the 1972 Robarts sit-in, 30 years ago this week:)

The Toronto police were called in to end a Simcoe Hall sit-in in 1972 over the issue of access to the library stacks in the as-yet-unopened Robarts Library.

Toronto police broke through the senate door and evicted 25 protesters. The next day, 500 showed up.

When the library was planned, it was assumed that faculty members, graduate students, and fourth year undergraduates would have access to the stacks, but not other students. The undergraduates, however, wanted equal access. Bob Spencer, the Students' Administrative Council (SAC) president, wrote to Jack Sword, the acting president - following Claude Bissell's resignation as of July 1, 1971 - pointing out "the almost unanimous opposition of the student body" to the proposed stacks policy, an opposition that included SAC and the Graduate Students Union. A petition containing 4,500 names was placed before the library council. Linda McQuaig, the co-editor of the Varsity and now a well-known author, presented 2,500 coupons that had been printed in the paper and that students had signed and returned. The students' position was in line with other demands for equality respecting such issues as the equal treatment of general and honours students.

"Books, like all other raw materials of education," one pamphlet read, "should be available to anyone who wants to use them." A library council committee, chaired by English professor Peter Heyworth, continued to recommend limiting access, and this was approved at a meeting of the senate in the Medical Sciences Building on a Friday evening in March 1972 by a vote of 67 to 28.

Spencer arrest
SAC president Bob Spencer being arrested at the first sit-in

After the vote, about 75 people left the meeting and forced their way into Simcoe Hall. They refused to leave the senate chamber until the senate had met again and granted open stack access to all undergraduates. On Sunday morning, about 25 protesters who remained in the building were evicted with the assistance of the Toronto police, who had to break through the door of the senate chamber to get in. Fourteen people were charged with criminal code trespass offences, including SAC's president Spencer and Thomas Walkom, a co-editor of the Varsity and now a writer for the Toronto Star. Four others were charged with trespass along with more serious charges, such as assault.

U of T's acting president Jack Sword at the second sit-in.

On Monday afternoon, a mass student rally in Convocation Hall was followed by another occupation of the senate chamber, this time by more that 500 people. Removing this number posed the significant risk that the violence would escalate. The occupation was abandoned the following day after extensive negotiations and after Acting President Sword said he would call another meeting of the senate and would personally support equal access to the stacks, subject to a daily quota to be set by the library administrators. The University also agreed to tell the crown attorney that it was not in the University's interest to proceed with the charges.

It was the "potentially most dangerous student demonstration" in 25 years, an administrator said.

Sword sent a detailed letter to the university community explaining the problems the administration had faced. "The calling of police to clear the building of six to eight hundred students," he wrote, "would have involved a very large number of police and the probability of serious violence and damage, and we would have borne the responsibility of using overwhelming force against our own students." Nevertheless, the council of the faculty association condemned the administration's actions by a vote of 14 to 3. "The reaction of conservative faculty against the administration," Acting Provost Donald Forster acknowledged, "was quite bitter and left some wounds which will take time to heal."

As it turned out, the crown attorney agreed to drop the trespassing charges but proceeded with the more serious charges, which resulted in convictions in three cases, Friedland goes on to write. The incidents, recalled Vice-president Ross in his memoirs, "were the potentially most dangerous to the university among all the student demonstrations which took place" in his twenty-five years as a university administrator. When the library opened in 1973, it was decided by the library itself that upon application all students would be given stack passes.

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