Sheldon Goldfarb, PhD’92, MAS’96, has been the AMS Archivist at UBC for more than 20 years. In 2014, a year before the Alma Mater Society’s 100th anniversary, he began the gargantuan task of writing a book to tell the story of a century of student life and politics at UBC. The result – The Hundred‑Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC – can now be ordered from the UBC Bookstore (bookstore.ubc.ca) and a portion of the revenues goes to the AMS. As a taster, Goldfarb shared with Trek magazine some of the fascinating tidbits he has uncovered during his project.
During which era would you most like to have been a student at UBC, and why?
Well, the most interesting era was probably the late 60s, when the world was turned upside down, and not just at UBC: protests, demonstrations, the counterculture… students occupying the Faculty Club. That doesn’t mean I’d have liked to live through it all; you know the old curse about living in interesting times. It might have been interesting (in a quieter way) to have been in the room with Sherwood and Evelyn Lett when they wrote the first constitution for the Alma Mater Society – not that that constitution lasted very long. Within a year or two it was being amended. Amending its constitution, or at least its code and bylaws, is one of the oldest traditions at the AMS. We’re always changing things, then changing them back.
Over the decades, what aspects of student life have changed the most?
What I discovered in writing the book was that, on the one hand, lots of things are just the same as they’ve always been (students complaining about fees, the student leadership worrying about how to engage the general student body, students partying, students studying), but at the same time – wow – some things we just don’t do anymore, like electrocuting students as part of first year orientation (not electrocuting them to death, but zapping them with electricity). Hazing is gone, thank goodness.
And student attitudes have changed about things like Indigenous peoples and feminism. The student body no longer pretends to be an Indigenous group, with the Totem for an annual publication. We still use the name Thunderbird, of course, but we did eventually get permission for that from a chief.
But the biggest change, though this probably affects the student leadership more than the general student body, is that since the wild 60s turned everything upside down, the students have obtained a say in running the university, or at least have representation on the Senate and Board of Governors, and on various university committees and faculty bodies. They are also supposed to be consulted on tuition increases and the like. There was very little of that before 1965. In fact, the students didn’t even have full control over their student society: one of those early constitutional changes I mentioned was vetoed by the University Senate, and Student Council used to have to submit its minutes to the university for approval.
What have been your most unusual discoveries about UBC’s student history?
One was that the university used to cancel classes so students could attend the AMS General Meeting. I’ve suggested to the current AMS president that he mention this to Santa Ono.
I also learned that UBC almost closed during the Depression, and that in the early days the students would rampage through the downtown streets in wild, linked-arm snake dances.
And then there were the Revolutionary Trutchkeyites, which I discovered in the pages of the Ubyssey back in 1978 in the free announcement column for clubs. Every week or so, amidst the notices from the French club or whatever, there’d be these strange announcements emanating from a group called the Revolutionary Trutchkeyites, talking about sock hunts or cleaning binges or eating spaghetti and watching Fellini movies – usually to take place at Trutch House. I presume this was a group of people living in a house on Trutch Street, all with keys of course, hence Trutchkey… not to be confused with Trotsky….
Do any individuals in particular stand out?
Oh, yes, two in particular from the past 50 years: Stan Persky and Kurt Preinsperg. Persky was one of the leaders of the revolution in the late 60s, an unorthodox president of the Arts Undergraduate Society who wanted to introduce “human government” and who at one point tried to get athletic funding for an imaginary hockey league; unfortunately, I think all he got was imaginary funding.
As revolutionaries go, he was rather quirky, maybe more hippie comedian than hardliner. When Dow Chemical came to campus, he wanted to reason with people to convince them not to apply to work for them. His harder‑line fellow activist, Gabor Maté, said, Oh, let’s just block the doors.
And then there was Kurt Preinsperg, the longtime controversial writer of letters to the editor of the Ubyssey (about things like tying foreign aid to population control). He went from that to becoming president of the AMS (not the usual route) but got in trouble for compiling “Rules for Romance” (tips for picking up girls, some said). There was even a tongue-in-cheek documentary made about him, called, of course, Rules for Romance.
Earlier there was Evelyn Lett, who helped write the first AMS constitution and who continued to be interested in student affairs for years afterward (pushing for student residences, for instance). The AMS gave her its Great Trekker Award in 1965. Later there was the first female frosh president, who made an even bigger splash after UBC: Kim Campbell, our first female prime minister (who has graciously contributed a foreword to the book).
What do you consider to have been the most inventive student protest?
Making a complaint to the UN about tuition was pretty inventive, though it backfired on the AMS president who did it. Then there was Pat Marchak (later dean of Arts), who made a protest of sorts as editor of the Ubyssey, writing an editorial in which she attacked “phonies,” i.e. people who put extra-curricular activities ahead of their studies. That backfired too, because at Christmas she confessed that no new staffers had joined the paper. Presumably they were too busy studying.