Getting Hired – The Old Way

Peter Russell


On 14 May 1958, I came to Toronto to marry my fiancée, Sue Jarvis, in the chapel of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. A few days later I returned to Montreal with my bride – and a job at the University of Toronto. This is a story of how faculty were hired in the old days.

The wedding rehearsal was in the afternoon of the day I arrived and was conducted by the Provost of Trinity, the Reverend Derwyn Owen, who would conduct our wedding ceremonies two days later. Derwyn Owen had been the curate at St. Cuthbert’s church in Leaside where my family were parishioners in the 1930s. He was for me both a mentor and a friend – we both played hockey and loved the Maple Leafs. When the rehearsal was over, Owen said to me “Peter, Ashley would like to see you.” C.A. Ashley was an elderly professor of accounting who lived in a suite at the end of the third floor of Welsh House, in the Trinity residence, where I had lived as an undergraduate. He often invited students on his floor in for tea or a sherry before dinner. Having been away from the College for three years, I was happy to go up and see Ashley.

When I arrived at Professor Ashley’s door, he didn’t invite me in because he had other visitors. He just asked if I would have time the next day to see “Bladen” in the Department of Political Economy. I said that I thought I could squeeze that in. (In truth, I had nothing to do but wait all that day for the “stag” my friends were throwing for me in the evening.). “Bladen” I knew was Professor Vincent Bladen, the Head of the Department of Political Economy.

I had really not considered university teaching until a few months earlier when a Montreal friend of mine, Peter Slater, invited me for dinner at his parents’ home on the McGill campus where his father was Dean of Divinity. When I arrived at the Slater house ahead of Peter, Dean Slater invited me in to his study. The Dean and I were soon engaged in a lively conversation about the cold war. Suddenly, Dean Slater asked me, “Peter what do you do?” I told him I worked for ALCAN (the Aluminum Company of Canada) in Personnel at their Head Office in Montreal. On hearing that, he exclaimed “You shouldn’t be there, you should be at a university!” Well, that got me thinking. But I hadn’t done anything about it until I accepted the invitation to see Professor Bladen.

When I arrived next morning at Bladen’s office, he wasted no time getting to the point of the interview. He began by telling me that because of the Russians’ success in getting their “Sputnik” into space, governments in the west were throwing money at their universities. Premier Leslie Frost had greatly increased the funding of Ontario universities, so that suddenly Bladen found himself with money to hire a number of new faculty. He even had money to hire another political philosopher! Perhaps I would be interested in the position.

Well this was a surprising development. In 1955 I had completed a four year degree at the University of Toronto in Philosophy and History and as a Rhodes Scholar had gone on to Oxford to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, where I earned a second B.A. with first class honours in 1957. After leaving Oxford I spent the summer of 1957 working with Gilbert Jackson, a business consultant in Toronto, and combed through his files looking for promising Canadian businesses. That led me to apply for a position at ALCAN who hired me sight unseen for a job that began in September 1957. I certainly had no Ph D, and no plans to get one. This turned out not to be a problem for Vincent Bladen.

“Russell,” he said “you took a first at Oxford. That’s my only academic accomplishment. If that is good enough for me, it should be good enough for you.” He then asked me “Russell, are you a liberal?” With some hesitation (for at 26 I wasn’t sure what I was) I replied that I thought I was. “Well,” he said, “that’s good because we have only one political philosopher. He is very good, but he is a Marxist (he was referring to C.B. Macpherson) and we are looking for someone to balance him.” With that, he pulled out a pad of foolscap, wrote something across the bottom two lines of the page, tore off what he had written with a ruler, and handed this thin strip of paper over to me. It said, “I offer you the position of lecturer in the Department of Political Economy from September 1, 1958 to June 30, 1959 at a salary of $5,000.” It was signed Vincent W. Bladen.

I was somewhat stunned – and flattered. Though my wedding was still 24 hours away, I knew my duty. So I told Professor Bladen that I thought the offer sounded most promising, but must talk it over with my fiancée. Sue and I did talk it over later that day. While she looked forward to living in Montreal, she was thrilled to be returning to Toronto in September, and knew (better than I) that a university position would suit me well. So I telephoned Professor Bladen the next day to accept the offer.


The Sequel – Getting Tenure the Easy Way

In June 1958, I dropped into Professor Bladen’s office. During the year, Bladen had become Dean of Arts and Science. He now had his office in a bungalow-type building (long since torn down) on the grassy area in front of Hart House. I had decided not to return to ALCAN after a year’s leave of absence but to pursue an academic career. So I was off to Harvard to do a Ph D in their Department of Government. I just dropped by to thank the Professor for the opportunity he had given me to get a taste of academic life and to say good-bye.

It quickly became clear that Dean Bladen did not think much of my plan. Somewhat gravely he said, “I saw that lovely wife of yours the other day and, Russell, I think she’s “with child” again. This of course, was all too true. Katie, our first born had arrived in February, and Sue was now carrying Mary. The Bladens were wonderfully hospitable to new faculty and had us in several times for parties and dinners. They didn’t miss much. So, “yes”, I stammered, somewhat shamefacedly. Then he delivered his punch line: “And Russell you are planning to park your wife and two little babies in a garret in Cambridge, Massachusetts while you pursue your studies at Harvard!” Well, indeed, that is exactly what I was planning to do – though up to then I had not seen it in that light.

“But,” I asked, “don’t you have to get a PhD to hold a permanent position at universities these days?” “Not at this university as long as I am in this chair,” Bladen replied. “Your teaching seems to have gone well this year, but you must do some serious writing if you want to have a position here.” He asked if I liked writing. I said I really didn’t know. Up to this point in my life the only writing I had done was writing undergraduate essays and letters to my mother. But I was willing to give it a try. On that basis I walked out of the Dean’s office with a position for the next academic year, and went home to tell Sue the good news. She was pleased, but many of my colleagues were not. They warned me that without a PhD I wouldn’t have any “mobility”. Well, that was probably true, but I wasn’t the least bit interested in mobility. The prospect of being at U of T for the rest of my career looked pretty good to me.

For the next few years I continued to teach in the Department of Political Economy on one year contracts. In 1967 the University introduced Tenure. Although getting tenure in the future would be governed by some very tough rules, tenure was automatically bestowed on all faculty who had reached the rank of Associate Professor. Like all others who had reached that rank, I received a short letter from the Board of Governors telling me I now had tenure.

Sometimes the cleverest thing you can do is to get born in the right year.