University of King's College
There’s a university in Halifax where the classics come to life. It’s a place where it’s cool to be smart, and students and professors explore culture and history together.
That place is the University of King’s College, the oldest chartered university in English speaking Canada, and an institution that is steeped in history.
King’s was founded in Windsor in 1789, and remained there until 1920. That year a fire ravaged the campus, raising the question of how, or if, King’s College would survive.
King’s accepted a grant from the Carnegie Foundation of New York to rebuild the university in Halifax and enter an association with Dalhousie University. This connection has grown and strengthened over time.
While King’s College is closely linked with Dalhousie University, which has an enrollment of more than 16,000, King’s maintains a total student population of just over 1,100. It boasts a personal atmosphere and a strong sense of community and faculty is able to offer individual attention in its well-known interdisciplinary programs in the humanities and journalism.
Chris Elson is vice president of University of King’s College and a professor of French Literature in the Dalhousie French department, one of a number of Joint Faculty. He says the 1970s were a time of major change for the university.
In 1972, the College introduced its unique Foundation Year Program and in 1978 it established the only degree-granting School of Journalism in Atlantic Canada. This was the beginning of a new period of King’s history and shifted it to the national stage.
“The Foundation Year and the School of Journalism really put King’s on the map. The programs are unique and strive to offer the best education in their respective areas. We started to see more students coming to the university from outside the province,” Elson says.
The Foundation Year is an intensive year of study during which students explore a body of the greatest works of philosophy and literature in western tradition. One of the fundamental principles of the program is reading the works in their entirety and making connections to history, society and culture. The program started with fewer than 100 students and has grown to include 300 students today.
“The Foundation Year Program has a sense of established wisdom and ongoing reflection. We know which texts and approaches have worked well but we’re always re-evaluating and adjusting with the help of a dedicated Council of Coordinators. The program has a lot of admirers and imitators, so we’re attentive to our place on the national scene. We continue to innovate and communicate the excitement this program offers for first year students,” Elson explains, adding that he is a graduate of the program himself.
Students come from all over to take the Foundation Year at King’s College. Elson says that in recent years the student population has come to a balance including roughly 40 per cent from Nova Scotia, 40 per cent from Ontario, 20 per cent from other Canadian provinces and a small number of international students, mostly from the U.S.
Students emerge from the program to continue their degrees through King’s and Dalhousie, but Elson says that even many of those whose studies after first year are primarily in the faculties at Dalhousie maintain close ties to the university because of its traditions and closely-knit community.
“We say we do about 50 per cent of the teaching for our King’s students. Some do most or all of their work after first year at Dalhousie, and others do as much as possible through King’s. Our students like to maintain that ‘K’ in front of their student number. It’s invisible, but they know they’re part of the university.”
Students with journalistic aspirations know they’re attending one of the best universities in Canada when they enter the King’s Journalism program, or “J School,” as they like to call it. Undergraduate students complete the Foundation Year before proceeding with the program, and there is a post-graduate program for those who have completed undergraduate degrees.
Elson says the journalism profession is evolving quickly in response to changes in the media industry. He says King’s has expanded its repertoire to offer online journalism training, as well as background training in entrepreneurial skills.
“The program produces well-educated journalists; we don’t just teach them the trade. Journalism students also learn about how to make work happen for themselves. It’s no longer a safe expectation to be hired by a newspaper or broadcast outlet, they have to develop their own outlets and find ways to apply their skills.”
University of King’s College offers students a rich extra-curricular life, with distinguished international speakers visiting regularly, a closely-knit residential community, and a large number of associations and societies that focus on all aspects of student life – from debating and community service, to literature and writing, and a very active theatre troupe.
“The King’s Theatrical Society puts on a variety of plays, but often includes plays that are part of the Foundation Year and the Combined Honours programs. This is an example of the way intellectual life and social life come together. It’s a unique environment where learning is celebrated.”
Elson reinforces the strength of the partnership between King’s and Dalhousie, saying that professors from King’s often teach at Dalhousie and vice versa. He says King’s makes a consistent effort to offer courses that complement the Dalhousie degree programs.
In the 1990s, King’s introduced new Combined Honours programs designed to complement the programs at Dalhousie and enable students to truly take advantage of access to the two institutions. King’s now offers a History of Science and Technology program as well as joint degrees in Early Modern Studies and Contemporary Studies with the faculties of arts and social sciences and science at Dalhousie. The school recently introduced a class in the History of Engineering that will provide additional humanities-based learning to engineering students.
“King’s continually seeks to respond to evolving student and faculty interests, and we want students to be able to take full advantage of both universities to get the best education. For example, a student in the Faculty of Science at Dalhousie can take courses in the History of Science and Technology to learn more about the historical and social emergence of science as well as topics like bio-politics,” he explains.
A Dartmouth native, Elson says he considers himself lucky to be able to work for University of King’s College. After finishing the Foundation Year Program in the 1980s, he completed a degree in Philosophy and French from King’s-Dalhousie. He went on to do his doctorate in French Literature at Paris Sorbonne University, and worked in Saskatchewan before returning to Nova Scotia to work at King’s.
“I’m honoured to be part of such an established and creative university. It’s a dream work environment for a Joint Faculty member who participates in both the life of a disciplinary department at Dalhousie and the intense reflection at King’s. My colleagues are extremely dedicated to teaching and the students and people here care about every aspect of the life of the institution.”
Elson adds that the history and people at University of King’s College are uniquely Nova Scotian. He says you can feel it when you attend the university.
“There’s a sense of rootedness here. The programs have come out of the intellectual life of this place. We see a lot of students coming from central Canada, and when they get here, they really feel the Nova Scotia culture. The same is true for some new faculty who live outside the city. They’re delighted to live the Nova Scotia lifestyle with a strong connection to history of this place.”
When you have a happy faculty and engaged students, the results are always positive. In the recent National Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by Indiana University’s Center for Post-Secondary Research, University of King’s College placed first in Canada in student experience and satisfaction at the first year level. It’s hard to get any better than that.