Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960–1973.


312 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 978-0-8020-9827-6
DDC 378.713'541




Reviewed by Ashley Thomson

Ashley Thomson is a full librarian at Laurentian University and co-editor or co-author of nine books, most recently Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005.


Founded in 1959, York University is, in 2009, celebrating its 50th anniversary, and so the appearance of this book is timely. While not the official history—that’s Michiel Horn’s York University: The Way Must Be Tried—Saywell’s memoir/history will be indispensable to anyone trying to understand the early years of Canada’s third largest university.


In the book, Saywell discusses York’s inception as a branch of the University of Toronto, his hiring in 1963 as the university’s new Dean of Arts, the university’s independence in 1965, and its expansion beyond its Glendon campus to a vast, barren field in North York. He also examines the establishment of York’s college system, the creation of its General Education curriculum and later of graduate studies programs, hiring faculty in a competitive environment when few qualified Canadians were available, handling increasing throngs of students, creating a unique Faculty of Education and later a Faculty of Fine Arts, and trying to improve the overall quality of the university. As dean of the largest faculty, Saywell was well placed to replace Founding President Murray Ross when he retired in 1970, but instead the board chose David Slater, who lasted only three years, largely because he was unable to handle the provincial cutbacks that came York’s way shortly after his appointment.


As a memoir, the book is a little short of personal reflection, and as a history, it is hindered by the absence of any records generated from his tenure as dean (since they had all been destroyed by others who thought that archives were not worth preserving). That said, readers will appreciate his honesty throughout—“the student body was mediocre at best”—and the measured way he discusses his own involvement with events.


After resigning as dean, Saywell became a well-known member of York’s History Department, ultimately retiring from the university in 1999. If there is one criticism that can be made of this book it is that this so-called memoir ends in 1973 rather than when Saywell retired, since by the sounds of it there are lots of good stories left to tell.


Saywell, John T., “Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960–1973.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,