The scene is unimaginable today-900 students gathered in the Simon Fraser University mall with revolution on their minds. And willing to do something about it. But as recounted in Hugh Johnston's period history, Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M $45), that was part of normal life in 1968. It was the age of protest and, in June of that year, SFU's counter-culturalism culminated with a mass demonstration of students to demand the resignations of the University's president and board. The goal of these students is equally unimaginable today as were their tactics-a university led by its faculty and students. Three weeks earlier, students in Paris had launched their now famous May uprising that brought the city and the government of Charles de Gaulle to a standstill. Around the world and atop Burnaby Mountain, there was real excitement about what was possible. As Johnston tells it, an older student, "a mother of five,"; incited the SFU crowd with a loaded question: did they want "another Paris?"; The roar came back: "Yes!";

Right from its title, Radical Campus is both disapproving of this history, and proud of it. Johnston's conflicted stance is not surprising. This lengthy and detailed tome is really an unofficial biography of Simon Fraser University. And it is a fitting tribute, even in its ambivalence. Along the way Johnston has an eye for the telling vignette. He recalls, for instance, the graduation ceremony for doctoral candidate and student activist, Jim Harding. As he received his diploma, Harding, a co-founder of the SDU (Students for a Democratic University), surprised the crusty SFU Chancellor Gordon Shrum by kissing Shrum's shoe. This was no act of gratitude: Harding later explained he had learned at university to kiss the boots of the authorities.

Setting up an "instant university"; was the whim of premier W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett in 1963. B.C.'s long-serving province-builder, Bennett had a penchant for mega-projects, from dams to highways to universities. And he liked to get his way. His designate for the SFU job was the equally colourful, and determined, Gordon Shrum, a UBC physics professor turned politician.

It started with a big architectural competition that led to the classical mountaintop design of architects Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey. But this vision of a whole university hewn out of the forest had to be delivered in short order. Despite the visionary design, no one had a plan-just an impossible schedule. Between the conception and the execution, the decade quickly awoke from the lingering somnambulance of the 50s into the raucous marches of the mid and late 60s. Vietnam and anti-war demos. Ken Kesey and the cross-continental acid trip. Janis Joplin and the Beatles. Peace and love, riot police and tear gas.

Although Johnston does not much explore the larger context, SFU was part of the biggest building boom in the history of universities. Across North America and Europe, new suburban universities drove an expansion in higher education. York and Trent, Calgary and the University of Victoria-all were founded in the same era. What happened in those years laid the foundation for what became today's knowledge economy. Though it still escapes notice today, the result was the creation of a "higher education industry"; on a grand scale.

What that new industry would look like was really what was at stake during SFU's infancy. Radical Campus is the story of this stumbling evolution, everyone groping in the dark toward unknown objectives. Johnston's take on all this is ambivalent. Whatever its abstract potential, the practical pursuit of democracy at the university was, he argues, squandered by activist exuberance. And yet SFU remains an innovator today partly because of its early years. In those days, SFU pioneered students on Senate, and interdisciplinary studies. In recent years, SFU created the state-of-the-art Wosk Centre for Dialogue. As Johnston reports, however, the incessant demands for bottom-up democracy boomeranged with the "radicals"; eventually losing public sympathy. Without power, their actions led to the opposite of what they wanted. Today the modern university is more administocracy than democracy, increasingly dominated by a commitment to public relations and corporate solicitations than to collective citizenship and critical knowledge.

Radical Campus offers an engaging and woefully overlooked take on one of the most important institutions of our age. At SFU, the cast of characters is huge; and Johnston provides some rich and illuminating backgrounds. The famous British Marxist, Tom Bottomore, one of SFU's earliest and biggest academic scores, lasted only a few years, falling victim to the controversial implosion of SFU's Politics, Sociology and Anthropology (PSA) department-about which a separate and unbiased book still needs to be written. And there was Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, SFU's very first president and Shrum's chosen man, who was unceremoniously sacked in the summer of '68. Many key figures remain well-known, such as the music professor Murray Schafer, Students for a Democratic University president Martin Loney and an idealistic flower child from West Vancouver, Maggie Sinclair (later Mrs. Pierre Trudeau).

Other key activists included PSA student, Sharon Yandle, and student society president, Stan Wong. All are mixed in a jumble of sit-ins, strikes, insults and riotous meetings, smashed furniture, police actions, mass arrests and firings.
How tame we have become! Johnston also takes a detour across town and includes the story of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, American co-founder of the Youth International Party, and his invasion with several hundred students of the UBC Faculty Club. (I was there-and I can remember being shocked, along with many others, by Rubin's inhumane treatment of a small pig, his token of oppression).
Although SFU sociology professor Nathan Popkin, one of seven blacklisted professors during the late '60s, was somehow not interviewed for this book-even though he's still living in Vancouver-Radical Campus is chock-full of information. If anything, there is so much detail that it almost overwhelms the reader. Radical Campus is a biography of an institution, and a snapshot of a time. It is, however, not an analysis of a movement, nor of a promise lost. Others will have to take up this task.

Meanwhile ours is a period not dissimilar to the early 1960s. Just as Vietnam was in its infancy then, the oil wars are in their infancy now. Citizens were faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation then, and America was paralyzed by its own anti-communism; now we have the real catastrophe of global warming, and a creeping new authoritarianism in the U.S. that is full of denials, hell bent on business as usual. And where are the universities? Will students again wake up? 1-55365-140-5

[Michael M'Gonigle, a professor of law at the University of Victoria, is co-author (with Justine Starke) of Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, to be published by New Society Publishers. For more info, see M'Gonigle entry]

[BCBW 2006] "History"