By all accounts, February 10, 1355 began quietly enough in Oxford. It was the feast day of St. Scholastica, who, despite what her name might suggest, is the patron saint of nuns and ‘convulsive children.’ The townsfolk went about their business, while the scholars of Oxford University attended to their studies. A normal day. But trouble was brewing inside the Swindlestock Tavern.
Students Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, unsatisfied with the quality of the house libations, argued with the tavern-keeper John Croidon. Harsh words were spoken. A drink was thrown in Croidon’s face. The argument quickly became a brawl, and the violence spilled into the streets. The Mayor of Oxford demanded that the students be arrested, but the Chancellor of Oxford refused. Some 200 students rallied in support of Spryngeheuse and de Chesterfield, and attacked the Mayor and his officials. As news of the conflict spread, locals laid siege to the university, crying “Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!” The riot lasted two days, and killed over
6o scholars and 30 townspeople. Good knocks, indeed.
After the violence had ended, and with the weight of Oxford’s papal bull behind them, the students and scholars of Oxford were quick to humiliate their non-academic foes. The Mayor and Councillors were forced to march, heads uncovered, through town, and pay a fine of one penny for every scholar killed. Amazingly, this annual ritual of penance continued for 470 years,
until the Mayor finally put an end to it in 1825.
This is, of course, an extreme example of the antipathy between the civic authorities of the town and the academics of the gown. Modern-day disputes between academia and civic authority seldom break out into riots. Still, small vestiges of the St. Scholastica conflict remain. The town views the gown as aloof and haughty, as the stereotypical ivory tower. The scholars of the gown see the concerns of the town as distractions from the high-minded pursuit of knowledge. In many ways, town and gown remain two different worlds, with little common ground to connect them.
Perhaps these divisions are beginning to change. In this issue of Academic Matters, we’ve tried to highlight the connections that do exist between universities and their host communities. We also look at ways of strengthening the relationship between town and gown, in an effort to enrich both worlds.
George Fallis considers the question of what, exactly, makes a “civic” university, and how our modern institutions might better contribute to the vitality of our democracy. Mark Wexler considers what it means personally for academics to pay more attention to the needs of the town, and how this strategy of engagement may ultimately secure the university’s survival. Kelley Castle outlines some innovative programs that seek to connect students and community members, with surprising, occasionally uncomfortable, and deeply moving results.
Katherine Graham provides an introduction to community-based research in Canada, and explains how such research delivers real benefits to both scholars and communities. Similarly, Kathleen Bloom looks at a model that engages students with community groups that might otherwise lack the capacity for conducting in-depth research.
From the cultural angle, Mark Langer writes on the long history of town-and-gown depictions in film. From the earliest days of film, academia has been seen as world apart from the everyday reality of the town, and this portrayal has likely influenced how we understand the relationship today.
While the relationship between town and gown may not always be an easy one, our contributors have provided some intriguing ideas for bridging the gap between universities and communities. We’ve come a long way from riots in the streets of Oxford, but more work is need to maximize the reciprocal benefits that come when town and gown work together.
We close out the issue with an article that, while not about town and gown, offers some timely commentary on an important issue. Program prioritization is a controversial topic on campuses across Canada. Leo Groarke and Beverly Hamilton suggest that the very real downsides of this methodology far outweigh any potential benefits.
As always, we want to know what you think about Academic Matters. Leave a comment on our website, or feel free to get in touch
at email@example.com. I’d also like to extend a special thanks to Associate Editor Erica Rayment for doing a lot of the heavy lifting on this issue.
Thanks for reading, and remember to keep checking academicmatters.ca for the latest blog posts and
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Graeme Stewart is the Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters, Communications Manager for the OCUFA,
and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.