Some of you reading this may have already heard that, after just over seven life-changing years as the Warden of Hart House, I am leaving the University of Toronto at the end of October. Therefore, in this edition’s Word from the Warden, I am offering up three words for the price of one : “goodbye” and “thank you.”

When I first started at Hart House in 2015, I really didn’t know what to expect. Unlike many of you, I had never been involved at Hart House in my days as a U of T student. In fact, my emotional response to the mere mention of the place was somewhere on the spectrum between neutral and negative. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by the neo-gothic architecture of the building at 7 Hart House Circle, which was all very unfamiliar and unwelcoming to a kid from the suburbs of Scarborough. To be honest, I was also put off by the whiff of “clubbiness” that I sensed at Hart House during my time as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s. Back then, I perceived it an institution that existed for the enjoyment of “other people” – people who were far cooler, richer, smarter, outgoing and confident than I was or could ever hope to be.

Years later, when Margaret Hancock was the Warden, my unofficial godfather and dear friend Vincent Massey Tovell – yes, one of those Masseys – would regularly extol the virtues of both Margaret and Hart House during our Sunday lunches together. He talked about the importance of students having the opportunity to engage with the other estates of the University about key issues of the day, to experience and enjoy the arts together, and to learn from one another outside the confines of the lecture hall or laboratory. Over time, the concept of Hart House that Vincent described began to make more and more sense to me intellectually, but I still had no sense of emotional attachment to the place.

When, in early 2015, I was approached by a friend who worked at U of T about the role of Warden, my initial response was probably a mix of an eye roll and a chortle. Recalling my own non-relationship with the place during my seven years of study at U of T, I thought I was the least likely possible candidate for the role. But once I took a deeper dive into what Hart House actually represented and familiarized myself with the unique range of experiences it offered to all students at the University, I became a total convert. I suspect that my enthusiasm almost literally jumped off the page when I finally submitted my application.

Well, we all know how that turned out. I started at Hart House in August 2015. Since then, my belief in the value of co-curricular education, and in the rich contributions that the arts, wellness and dialogue can make to young people’s lives, has become a deeply entrenched part of my very being. I have greatly benefited from my own engagement with these three key areas over the course of my own life, but it took me many long years and a very circuitous path to objectively appreciate how early and intersectional exposure to the arts, wellness and dialogue can be truly transformative.  For me, supporting that work at Hart House became missional.

But it has by no means been a mission I have undertaken alone. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to work alongside a remarkable group of staff colleagues and student leaders to help steer the ship of Hart House.  Together we have accomplished a lot. In no particular order, here is a partial list of what has been achieved at Hart House since 2015:

  • Launched a 5-Year Strategic Plan for Hart House in 2016, “Delight in Discovery;”
  • Created the Hart House Global Commons and grew it into a partnership spanning six universities on five continents;
  • Partnered with the Waakibiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health on the delivery of land-based education at Hart House Farm;
  • Obtained central University approval and secured funding for the initial phase of the Hart House Infrastructure Renewal Project, now set to turn sod as early as spring/summer 2023;
  • Fostered and embedded a culture of assessment across the House;
  • Created and rolled out the “Hart House For You” brand and a comprehensive marketing strategy;
  • Streamlined our annual budget and business planning processes;
  • Inaugurated the Hart House Quarterly Newsletter, now with some 40,000 subscribers and counting, and grew our social media presence across multiple platforms;
  • Received the largest financial gift in the history of Hart House upon the passing of Donald Burwash;
  • Planned and executed the year-long recognition of Hart House’s 100th Anniversary in 2019-2020;
  • Welcomed Waabidiziiyan doopwining (to see yourself at the table), the Hart House Centennial Art Commission, to the Great Hall;
  • Renovated the Arbor Room and partnered with the Rick Hansen Foundation to enhance and ensure its accessibility;
  • Completed significant accessibility enhancements to the Hart House Farm;
  • Completed construction of first truly “universal” washroom at Hart House, with the financial support of the University of Toronto Students’ Union;
  • Obtained support for our budget and operating plan from the Council on Student Services multiple years in a row;
  • Hosted the first-ever and subsequent Black Students’ Graduations in the Great Hall;
  • Established the Well-Being Collective @ Hart House to promote wellness through a lens of Indigenous, Black and Racialized experience;
  • Supported the growth and flourishment of Youth Access and Outreach programs;
  • Created and grew the Hip Hop Education program;
  • Supported students throughout the COVID pandemic with the creation of the Virtual Hart House;
  • Built back our hospitality business post-pandemic and established innovative new revenue lines; and
  • Launched Hart House’s second 2021-2026 Strategic Plan “Preparing the Table” in 2021.

I have been delighted to contribute directly to the success of some of these achievements, and to vigorously applaud and admire others from the sidelines while they have taken the lead. For me, the key is not so much “who” did “what,” but, rather, that EVERYONE who has contributed in any way to keeping Hart House open, clean, fed, festive, creative, welcoming and engaging for students during the past seven years has been essential to our collective success.  

To our donors, supporters and volunteers, a sincere “thank you” for your ideas, your sweat equity, your voices of experience, your words of encouragement and your financial gifts. I have felt your support, and I am deeply honoured to have been able to serve the Hart House community to the best of my abilities. I am leaving you in excellent hands with our Interim Warden, Sherry Kulman, and the rest of the leadership team.

My next professional challenge will be that of President & CEO of the Mount Pleasant Group (MPG), starting October 31. MPG owns and operates multiple historic and community-based cemeteries and funeral centres across the GTA. Sites include the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the Toronto Necropolis, and Pine Hills Cemetery, where my own parents, sister and grandparents are buried. My sincere hope is that I might be able to impart even a little of the same light and joy to the bereaving families that I meet through my work with MPG that Hart House has brought to my life since 2015.  I also hope to still see you around Hart House from time to time, where I am a proud mentor in the Hart House Mentorship Program and a committed donor.

But for now, thank you, and goodbye.

John MonahanWarden of Hart House