Students looking to toss around a football, read beneath a tree or catch a breath of air between classes at the University of Toronto are having to look a lot harder these days as yet another piece of campus green space finds itself on the auction block. St. Michael's College recently confirmed its intention to sell Orientation Field to help offset a ballooning deficit.
The field, currently used for annual Frosh Week activities as well as for intramural sports and as an area for students and local residents to relax, is the third major chunk of campus real estate to be sold for profit in recent years. Bay Charles Tower, a high-rise, was built on property formerly owned by the school. Victoria College tore down a campus gym in favour of parking spaces.
As one of three non-federated colleges at the university, St. Michael's says it has no choice. The institution is currently in the middle of a serious financial crunch.
With an annual budget of $13 million and yearly losses of $2.2 million, the college is currently operating at a $7.4 million deficit.
St. Michael's president Richard Alway says, "We don't want to sell the field. But if St. Mike's is going to continue, I don't see how we're going to do it without selling."
Founded by Basilian priests, the college was originally sponsored by the priests and nuns who taught there. They donated half their salaries back to the school, but the hiring of lay people in recent years has caused a severe drain in finances, and St. Michael's ran a debt through most of the 1980s.
Alway says that at this point nothing short of "a sizable infusion of cash in the foreseeable future" will save the university, whose only saleable asset, he says, is the field.
Students at the college are outraged. Caroline Brooks, head of the recently formed Save the Field committee, contends, "I see it as a band-aid solution to deeper financial problems." Brooks, who also sits on the collegium board, went on to say, "We need to recognize that the entire organizational structure of St. Mike's needs to be rethought."
Last Wednesday, December 3, in a small boardroom overlooking the field, both sides of the argument came together to discuss the fate of the "surplus Bay Street lands." News of the proposed sale drew students and faculty members as well as alumni to the standing-room-only meeting.
Many argued that a private condo, the most likely outcome for the field, would be of no direct benefit to the students at all.
Members of SMCSU, the college student council, also made appeals to the board of St. Micheal's, presenting them with more than 1,000 signatures collected from those opposed to the sale and stressing the field's importance to the establishment of community and "the creation of school spirit and pride."
The field clearly holds a sentimental value for many at the college. As Student Administrative Council president Ashley Morton put it, "I hope the board will examine the very real non-financial costs this sale would incur."
The loss of green space is especially distressing to those who rely on these areas on campus as their escape from the concrete and glass that make up downtown Toronto. Said one third-year student, "I like all the grassy areas. Even though we're in the middle of the city, you kind of forget that because there are so many trees and so much landscaping."
At present, no specific buyer has placed a bid, though the administration at St. Michael's has made it clear that if an offer does materialize, the school will take it.
The whole process would take less than a couple of weeks to finalize, and this fact has students anxious and busy organizing more petitions, rallies and concerts. Their protests may fall on deaf ears.