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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What University of Toronto professor influenced communications guru Marshall McLuhan in the 1950s?

Answer Harold Innis's research in emerging communications technologies explored the potential for greater realism and "greater delusion."

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.

As graduate dean, Harold Innis was able to continue his scholarship. He published three major books on communications between 1950 and 1952, including The Bias of Communication, in which he noted, for example, that "as modern developments in communication have made for greater realism they have made for greater possibilities of delusion."

McLuhan later wrote, "he showed us how to understand cultures." .

His work influenced Marshall McLuhan and others. "By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture," McLuhan later wrote, "he showed us how to understand cultures."

Innis pressed the central administration of the University for additional funding for graduate work. The thirty-seven institutions that made up the Association of American Universities, he pointed out, had an average of $100,000 a year for graduate fellowships, whereas Toronto had less than $25,000, mainly for the sciences. Over a four-year period, only 138 students out of the more than 5,000 who enrolled in the graduate school held fellowships.

He raised other questions about what was happening at the University. He was concerned, for example, about the concentration of undergraduate students from the Toronto area. It was becoming a streetcar university. The graduate students were also predominantly from Ontario, and almost half were from Toronto. In earlier periods, the majority of students had come from outside Toronto. Just before the First World War, for example, about two-thirds of the students were from outside Toronto, and in the 1880s the proportion of those from outside had been even higher.

He was also concerned about the role of the colleges, which were losing their importance because students were less interested in the college subjects than in the university subjects and the professional courses. Innis had suggested earlier to President Cody that University College could be revitalized by bringing in the social sciences. In the fall of 1951, [Sidney] Smith formed a high-powered committee to examine the humanities and asked Innis to head it.

The humanities committee had held three meetings when Innis became ill. In January 1952, he felt pain in his back while walking from the University to his home on Dunvegan Road. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and in May he underwent surgery. He kept working from his home, meeting on graduate school matters with Andrew Gordon and Jack Sword, the graduate school secretary. Innis was also preparing his presidential address for the American Economic Association meeting in December. He died on November 8, 1952 at the age of 58.

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