The Story of Rochdale College - Canada's Experiment in Alternative Education

The building which housed Rochdale College still stands at the intersection of Bloor and Huron streets downtown.
The building which housed Rochdale College still stands at the intersection of Bloor and Huron streets downtown.

The Story of Rochdale College

Rochdale College was opened in 1968, and was the largest co-op residence in North America. Originally intended to be a residence of two stories at most, as a way to take advantage of the inner-city property it was constructed to consist of 18 levels. This resulted in a large population of residents, a fact that would be instrumental in the college's eventual path from an idealist experiment in student-run alternative education and co-operative to a haven for drugs and crime.


Rochdale was born out of a growing demand for student housing at the University of Toronto. In 1958, Howard Adelman, a nineteen-year-old entrepreneur and philosophy student, was hired to address the housing demands. He advised the Campus Co-operative to acquire property and form a non-profit co-operative college residence, which was in style at universities throughout North America at the time. In 1964, Campus Co-operative incorporated Rochdale College. Adelman quickly noted that property tax on the building could be avoided if they ran educational programs. This decision severed Campus Co-operative's connection to Rochdale. Some viewed educational programs as a dishonest means of avoiding tax while the dedicated ones believed it was a noble idea. At the time, the idea of a “free university” was popular amongst those who argued that modern universities served the establishment, stifled innovation, and had dictatorial governing bodies.

As a free university, members debated and decided on policies during open meetings where everybody could attend. Rochdale offered no structured curriculum or degrees. With no formal tutors or classes, students developed their learning system by posting work on notice boards and forming discussion groups to learn and evaluate themselves. Rochdale did not offer degrees based on performance, but anyone could purchase a degree through a donation if they so wished.

Co-operative Housing

Rochdale College’s design was meant for communal living. For example, kitchen facilities were not found in all units, with the intention that their use would be shared among residents regardless. Parts of the building were divided into independently operated self-contained units (ashrams). Each unit was responsible for its own rent collection and housekeeping. The lower floors were common areas used for education, socialization, and commercial purposes while the rooftop was used for sunbathing.


By the early 1970s, Rochdale had started to come undone. Drug dealers, criminals, and squatters among other groups from the nearby settlements began to seek refuge. At one time, Rochdale's population included a large amount of undercover police officers, as the building had a reputation citywide for its abundance of illegal drugs. Suicides and overdoses occurred in the building, which did not help to distract from its ugly reputation. Financial troubles escalated the dire situation. The governing body was unable to reach an agreement on whether to expel rent defaulters or live by its principles since everybody who lived or claimed to live, had a vote. A building that was designed to host 840 occupants hosted thousands. Unable to pay the mortgage, Rochdale sunk into insolvency.


Rochdale was closed officially because of the financial woes in 1975. It took months to evict some occupants forcefully, and after that, the doors were permanently sealed to prevent break-ins. During its short but wild lifetime, the college symbolized the strengths and challenges of a “free university.” In the seven years it was operational, over five thousand people called Rochdale home. Rochdale is best described by the words of British Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, “in the state of nature, life is nasty, brutish, and short.”


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