How Institutions Include/Exclude: The Athletics and Recreation Department

by Sywia Pucek

The university as an institution, although advertised as one coherent body under the name University of Toronto, contains several organizational divisions such as departments, subsections, and student groups. Although most attendees, whether student, staff, or faculty, will not end up using or participating in many of these organizational bodies, their presence will always be directly involved with at least one of these organizational groups. To give further perspective, the UofT encompasses approximately 27,000 full and part time staff, faculty, and librarians, making it the city of Toronto’s largest employer. It also includes an enrolment of 91,286 students in total across 3 campuses (University of Toronto, 2019). Ultimately, all these individuals make the University. As a post-secondary student and part-time staff at the UTSC campus, my concern lies with how the process of homemaking is directly and indirectly related to elements of inclusivity within a community. Following in the footsteps of Emile Brulé (2015), an institutional ethnographic approach provides a framework through which one can understand how people produce their everyday reality when directly engaging with the Department of Athletics and Recreation at UTSC (a specific unit responsible for providing recreational activity on Campus and a gathering place for those pursuing a healthy active lifestyle).

The Athletics and Recreation Department at UTSC is the unit responsible for enhancing the university experience through a multitude of sport and recreation programs (Athletics and Recreation, 2019). For example, there are drop-ins, group fitness classes, certification courses, instructional classes, leagues, tournaments, special events, private and personal training, fitness-gym space, sports and recreation, academic courses, and outdoor recreation trips, all housed and offered under the department. Activities offered include aquafit, cricket, martial arts, parasports, strength and conditioning training, an Amazing Race, swimming, table tennis, underwater hockey, walking, and yoga, to name a few. The department itself is housed within the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC), where it shares space with the City of Toronto (co-owner) and TPASC Incorporated (third-party manager). The TPASC facility contains 4 gymnasiums, 2 Olympic size pools, a diving tank, a climbing wall, a walking/running track, cardio and weight rooms and fitness studios, which students can use (Athletics and Recreation 2019; Campbell, 2014). It is significant that the Department lacks a physical office presence on UTSC’s main campus. This means that the department hires students to act as representatives and to speak on its behalf, therefore allowing the department to be the largest employer of students on campus (Interviewee, personal communication). The Department, according to much of its full-time staff is a place of hope, diversity, discovery, and friendship (Group Discussion, personal communication). Additionally, TPASC is an integral part of the department’s identity, as the site is marketed as this local and global hub where students, athletes, the general public, and basically anyone can enjoy the facility (Field et al., 2016). It is regarded for its architectural ingenuity and is praised by the lawyers and developers which fought for its establishment (Interviewee, personal communication).

Based on interviews, group discussions, and personal experiences, I can say the department is an integral part of some students “university experience”. This “university experience” is a type of “cultural capital” that also promotes social mobility in a stratified society. In this case, there are students who value participating in extracurriculars outside of academia (Waters 2006), specifically those associated with Athletics and Recreation. Benefits can be personal, social, and academic. The significance of this imagined ‘university experience’ is its replicability amongst not just one, but hundreds of participants in the department’s programming. Ultimately, homemaking was not about recreating “home”, but rather about creating or finding the elements which brought a sense of “university connectedness”, which is a subjective sense to “fit’ within the university or within the micro-units of a sub-culture by being accepted, respected, included, and supported” (Wilson et al., 2018). I will now attend to the blind-spots.

Despite this project being developed with good intentions – providing Scarborough and UTSC with a world-class sports facility for youth – ultimately, it bargained on future generations’ obligations to pay back hundreds of millions on principal (Valverde and Briggs 2015). Incoming university students are indirectly participating in the department’s and TPASC’s programing by funding their very existence even if the students do not directly participate in any of the programming offered. Indeed, even prior to the development of TPASC, a student-fee was applied to cover the expenses of the Athletics and Recreation Department that sought to promote overall health and wellbeing as factors to achieving academic success (Athletics and Recreation, 2019). As Valverde and her colleagues note, USTC “administrators worked with student leaders to organize a vote to support the Scarborough aquatic facility in the spring of 2010” (Valverde et al 2020). However, the levy jumped to $280 per year for most students and this would raise more than $60 million for the university. UTSC and the UofT in general are global institutions which function as educators, employers, real estate owners, generators of revenue, hubs of network building and places for personal growth and development” (Valverde and Briggs 2015). We cannot ignore that the University is a community builder as it does bring people together and allows various relationships to form. However, universities such as the UofT can also be described as neoliberal because of their corporatisation, the managerialism of their academic institutions, the routinization and commodification of teaching and learning to accommodate growing numbers, and the co-option of research by corporate, industrial and military funding agencies.

UTSC’s revenue depends on its investment in property but also on it bringing foreign students to its campus. In 2018/2019, 29.8% of all students were from other countries. For the 2019/2020 academic year, there were over 14,000 students of which over 3200 students were international students and only 925 beds were available at Residence. This meant almost 1/4th of all students were international students. Therefore, many of the students who would live on campus or close to campus are International Students or students who do not live with family. Many of these students utilize the services of the Athletics and Recreation Department. It is therefore important to understand the challenges related to those who do not participate in departmental programming. For example, travel and commuting time were identified as a primary factor in whether students participated in departmental programming or not. Importantly, much of the programming did not work with the schedules of students who did not live on Residence or close to campus – either programming was not available, or students lived far from campus and had to worry about a long commute or an early or very late commute in the dark. This is further depicted in a study of student commutes, which shows that the mean commute time by transit to UTSC is 60 mins and that in general “[c]ommute times have been linked with students willingness to travel to and participate in activities on-campus in the Toronto region” (Allen, Wessel, Farber, 2018: 14-15). A light rail transit (LRT) line that was supposed to be built in Scarborough and in conjunction with the construction of the Pan Am stadium was abandoned by then-Mayor Rob Ford and this location became far less accessible (Valverde et al 2020). If the university is investing in infrastructural development and in the development of land around campus, who ultimately benefits from such investments and how they are made accountable and transparent for all to see?