Reinventing us: Groarke weaves a compelling historical study

It goes without saying that in Reinventing Brantford: A University Comes Downtown, Leo Groarke has written the definitive book on Laurier Brantford, largely because it happens to be the first and only book on Laurier Brantford. It also happens to be an informative and engrossing account of the origins and early years of our campus, looking at the key battles both with the city and inside the university.

There are few who could tell Laurier Brantford’s story better than Groarke. Having been at the campus since 2000 – first as dean, then as principal – he has experienced and seen nine of the school’s 10 years firsthand. For events he wasn’t personally involved in, like the early attempts to bring a university to Brantford, Groarke has clearly done an immense amount of research. This is not the story of Groarke’s time at Laurier Brantford, it’s the story of its birth before he was ever involved.

I thought I already had a decent understanding of Laurier Brantford history before I delved into this book, but I quickly learned just how wrong I was. Every building has multiple stories behind it – its original use, its role in Brantford’s heyday, the state it was in when Laurier first considered it, and what had to be done to convert it into an academic building – and Groarke tells all of them delightfully, with a great mix of history and anecdotes.

But it’s not just Brantford being reinvented in this book. Chapters on heritage buildings and a growing campus are interspersed with chapters about Laurier Brantford’s innovative curriculum: a reinvention of university curriculum as focused around liberal arts (the Contemporary Studies program). Groarke explains the societal changes that put the liberal arts out of favour, the university politics that tried to keep it that way, and why they ultimately became the focus of Laurier Brantford.

The only real complaint I have with Reinventing Brantford is that it focuses almost too much on the past. Developments since Groarke started his project in 2006 – such as the troubles getting funding for the University Centre, the partnership with the Sanderson Centre, and the library renovations – are skirted over or ignored completely. Obviously there had to be a cut-off point eventually, and I did enjoy reading about Laurier Brantford’s early days more than the years I have been here, but it does give the book a feeling of already being out of date.

But overall, Reinventing Brantford is an excellent book, a great historical record, and a must-read for anybody interested in how Laurier Brantford was created, conceived, and ultimately made into the thriving campus it is today.

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