Dr. Claude Bissell (1916 – 2000), Eighth President of the University of Toronto

05Oct13

CORINNE MCLUHAN: “I was doing my best to get Marshall interested in the offers he had had from universities in the States. We went to see Claude Bissell, president of the U of T. And Claude said ‘All right, Marshall, what would you think about having your own building, your own Coach house?’ Marshall was in 7th heaven”. – McLuhan’s Wake (2002)

Biography 

  • Born in Meaford, Ontario, the youngest of nine children.
  • Graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936
  • Received Master of Arts degree in English literature in 1937.
  • PhD in English Literature from Cornell, 1940.
  • Served in the Canadian Army during World War II.
  • Assistant professor at the University of Toronto in 1952.
  • President of Carleton College (now Carleton University) from 1956 to 1958.
  • Returned to University of Toronto in 1958 to become the 8th president.
  • Tripled the size of the university during his tenure
  • Claude T. Bissell Building at the University of Toronto is named after him.
  • The country’s youngest university president when he accepted the position at Carleton in 1956 at the age of 40. 

Bissell was the chairman of the Canada Council 1960-62, and the first Mackenzie King professor of Canadian studies at Harvard 1967-68. He is the author of The Strength of the University (1968), Halfway up Parnassus(1974), The Humanities in the University (1977), and a 2-volume biography of Vincent Massey: The Young Vincent Massey (1981) and The Imperial Canadian (1986).

Robert Fulford Remembers Claude Bissell

(The National Post, September 5, 2000)

If you were reading the newspapers in the years when Claude Bissell was president of the University of Toronto, 1958 to 1971, you knew the place was in a bad way. Frantic expansion, overcrowded classrooms, arbitrary management and noisy radical politics: These were dominant themes of his presidency, to outsiders and some insiders as well.

But in retrospect, those years have acquired a patina of excellence. Bissell died in June at the age of 84, and on Sept. 21 his friends and colleagues will be discussing his career at a memorial gathering in Massey College. They may well speak of the Bissell era as a kind of golden age, and for good reason.

During Bissell’s presidency, Northrop Frye at Victoria College was, according to one survey, the world’s second most quoted critic in the humanities, Aristotle being the first. Nearby, at St. Michael’s College, another English professor, Marshall McLuhan, was inventing a new field, media studies. John Polanyi was working on what the Nobel committee would call, in 1986, “a new field of research in chemistry.” In the law school, Bora Laskin, later the chief justice of the Supreme Court, was consolidating his reputation as a constitutional scholar. Around the corner, Robertson Davies, the founding master of Massey College, was writing the novels that made him a world figure.

And Bissell was building a monument to his era, the Robarts Library. Many of those who thought that building much too big for its environment (I among them) have since realized that Bissell needed a lot of space to create one of the three or four best libraries on the continent, a library good enough to serve the first-class graduate school that was also in his plans.

He wasn’t responsible for the brilliance of faculty members like Frye, McLuhan, Polanyi and Davies, but he helped create the environment in which they flourished. The fact that he could appreciate both Frye and McLuhan (whose followers considered them mutually exclusive passions) suggests his breadth of understanding. The fact that he could keep so many sacred monsters more or less happy, and keep Frye and McLuhan from going elsewhere for better pay, demonstrates what one of his colleagues called “the always amiable sense of purpose” that went along with his imagination, energy and management skill.

In the 1940s, Bissell taught English literature before becoming an administrator under president Sidney Smith, first as his assistant and then vice-president. It was not an altogether happy apprenticeship. Smith was intelligent but pompous, and his reaction to a spoof in the campus newspaper, The Varsity, was typical. The editors printed the text of a speech in which he announced remedial English classes (made necessary by inadequate training in high school), but they substituted the word “sex” wherever Smith used the word “English”; they attributed the speech to president Kidney Myth. Affronted, Smith made a fuss about punishing the students and forcing them to apologize. Bissell, a man of tolerant good humour, must have looked on in horror.

He left Toronto in 1956 for Ottawa, to become president of Carleton University. During his two years in that job, he created the first Institute of Canadian Studies, an experiment that was copied across the country. Read the rest at: http://www.robertfulford.com/ClaudeBissell.html

bissell-buildingClaude T. Bissell Building, University of Toronto
The Claude T. Bissell Building houses U of T’s Faculty of Information. The university named this building after Bissell to honour his contributions to U of T as a student, scholar and leader.

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