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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Location, location, location

Campuses in smaller cities benefit from much greater school spirit than those in large urban settings, reports Jordan Heath-Rawlings

By Jordan Heath-Rawlings
Special to The Globe and Mail

Creating a positive atmosphere on a Canadian university campus is just like selling real estate: Location is everything. Unlike the property market, however, campuses located in smaller cities are much more likely to deliver a high return.

Consider the University of Guelph, where students responding to the University Report Card survey raved about a well-connected and green campus, integrated into the city, but located in a space that marks it as its own entity.

In the survey, students ranked Guelph first among 38 Canadian campuses in providing students with a positive atmosphere - a category that encompasses everything from school spirit to cultural diversity, the sense of community on campus and how safe a student feels while attending school.

The Guelph campus typifies the criteria required for a good atmosphere report: The campus is connected, large and very green, 90 per cent of first year students live in residence, and the campus plays a large role in interacting with the city which houses it.

“[The city of] Guelph’s a nice size, which helps. You can feel like a real part of the city because it’s not so big,” said Brenda Whiteside, vice-president of student affairs at the university. “You can get lost if a campus is smack in the middle of a huge urban metropolis.

“We try to get [students] to recognize that they're part of the university, but they’re also part of the city. So they develop a real allegiance not just to their university but to Guelph as well, and that's really powerful.”

When the crop of first-year students arrives for orientation, tours of not just the campus but also the city, are mandatory. The university also encourages first-year students to participate in Project Service, during the second week of the term, where students volunteer for local charities and services.

“It gives them a feeling of belonging to something, and it builds the loyalty and community we're looking for,” said Ms. Whiteside.

Typically, high and low-end atmosphere scores in the survey were defined by the campuses’ locations and the percentage of the first-year student body that lives in residence. Schools like Guelph scored well, while schools in the centre or on the outskirts of large cities, with a high commuter population and a low number of residence rooms, made up the bottom of the list.

Guelph took the top spot, followed closely by Queen’s University. Sherbrooke University, the University of Western Ontario and Wilfred Laurier University rounded out the top five.

The bottom five, in contrast, were comprised exclusively of campuses with a low number of residence beds and a small percentage of students living on the campus.

The University of Toronto's Scarborough campus finished 34th, Ryerson University was next, followed by Simon Fraser University in B.C. and U of T's Mississauga campus. Montreal’s Concordia University was ranked last in terms of campus atmosphere.

Chris Mota, a spokeswoman for Concordia, said “it’s obvious” larger inner-city schools would score poorly. At Concordia, however, students cited reasons more serious than the pains of a simple commute to class or the lack of extra-curricular school spirit as factors hurting the university.

For most campuses, political activities that reflected diversity and multiculturalism pushed scores higher. However, recent political rallies and events at Concordia alienated some students, who responded that an overly politicized student body sometimes serves to stifle students with dissenting opinions.

“At Concordia, we are overrun by people who have ideas about the Israeli-Arab dispute,” said student Chelsey Price. “There may be too much freedom of expression at Concordia, so much so that it can be oppressive to the average Joe Blow.”

Concordia's downtown Montreal campus was the epicentre for much of the Israeli-Arab debate in Canada during the past academic year, with former Israeli prime minister Bejamin Netanyahu cancelling a proposed speech last September after violent protests by pro-Palestinian students.

Concordia seems to be the exception, not the rule, to the campus atmosphere category, with the other universities receiving their rankings based on the simple elements of scholarly life: the construction of campus buildings, the design of the grounds and the feeling of community and diversity at the school.

Smaller campuses in big cities, such as Toronto’s Ryerson University and the U of T’s Scarborough campus, lost points with students for a lack of after-school activities and school spirit. A common response from students was that, at Ryerson, nobody stays around after class.

Marion Creery, director of student services at Ryerson, pointed out how difficult it is to house an entire student population in downtown Toronto, and to encourage students who are often living at home to remain on campus and join in school-spirit-building activities.

“If you had a non-commuter campus, [a sense of community] would probably develop on its own,” she said. “We’re not in that position, so we have to take steps to create activities at times when everyone can attend.”

But the nature of a campus such as Ryerson’s, where only 850 of 6,000 first-year students live in residence, means that it’s hard to communicate word of the events to everyone.

“If they were here day and night, they’d find out [about school events] on their own,” she said. “Since they aren’t, we are trying to hold events during the day or afternoon, when a lot of students are on campus already.”

Many Ryerson students cited the lack of togetherness and school spirit on campus as the main contributing factors in pulling the school’s ranking down the charts.

“It is an urban campus, so there is no school spirit,” student Philip Stavrou said simply. ROBTv Workopolis