A couple of decades ago, the Alternative Campus Tour was born as an assignment in a first-year Environmental Studies course at York University. The tour was based on the idea of thinking critically about different sites and aspects of the campus, to encourage students to study their immediate everyday surroundings, and to see the campus as a microcosm of the world.
The objective of the tour was to challenge common assumptions about the campus and to record alternative stories and narratives. The faculty members, teaching assistants and students set about researching and recording a multi-storied campus. The accounts were then shared during the campus tour. The stories have varied widely, exploring, for example the provision of drinking water, security and safety, public transit access, the presence of exotic species on campus, the history (or lack thereof) of Indigenous peoples on campus, the presence of a settler and farming community, storm water management, community gardens, art, green roofs, and the campus woodlots.
The sharing of stories is an exercise in recognizing the everyday, celebrating historical events, imagining different futures, and encouraging action toward building that different future.
The sharing of stories is important at a time when universities are facing mounting fiscal problems and demands to account for their social and economic relevance. Universities are responding to the financial crisis by increasing tuition fees, cutting costs and services, hiring part-time precarious and often racialized faculty, raising private money, and scrambling for the tuition fees of local and international students. They are also competing for increasingly scarce government funds that are awarded on the basis of the number of students that fill the seats of lecture halls. Universities are also hiring experts and consultants to both assist and monitor efforts to become more “accountable” to society by providing hard figures on student satisfaction and success rate on landing jobs after graduation, and the performance of professors with respect to teaching and research activities. Universities are in increasing competition with each other and strive hard to brand themselves and their faculties to enhance their visibility and reputation to attract students, wealthy donors and media attention.
Critics respond by lamenting the emergence of what they call the neoliberal university, a university that panders towards the demands of the market and the cries for job skills rather than retains an independent and critical voice and stance in society. Many of these critics argue that the market system is responsible for rather than a solution to the social and economic problems of our times and that the university should be in the forefront of articulating an alternative society.
A couple of years ago, a few members of the Alternative Campus Tour collective decided to take the tour beyond its course context. Several tours were conducted for other classes and for the university community as a whole (one was combined with the Art Gallery of York University) and another one for a group of high school students, seniors, and single mothers from the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. The tour is now a regular feature of the annual Jane's Walk that features city walks across the world.
In 2012, the Alternative Campus Tour was successful in obtaining a grant from York University’s Academic Innovation Fund to expand its work. We then committed to develop the multi-storied and multi-media accounts of the campus tour that are posted on this website.