It is difficult to imagine being expelled today for an act as innocuous as writing a feather-ruffling poem, but that is exactly what happened to former Acadia student Robert Fiander in 1959.
On the afternoon of March 14th, students, faculty, and community members alike gathered in the Fountain Commons to learn about the “Fiander Fiasco.” The presentation was lead by a group of sociology students in a Graduate Research methods class, detailing the expulsion of Acadia student Robert “Bob” Fiander nearly sixty years ago. Fiander’s expulsion was based on the grounds of “foul blasphemy” regarding the controversial poem that he had penned and published in the Athenaeum. On February 3rd, 1959, Fiander received a letter from the then president, Dr. Watson Kirconnel, informing him of not only his suspension but demanding he leave the town of Wolfville. The grounds of suspension? Foul blasphemy, regarding a poem he had written for the student newspaper, the Athenaeum, titled “Paradoxically Speaking.”
Sociology students involved in the project were in their fourth year or doing a graduate degree. There were six students who presented their findings and the story of Fiander, as follows: Kate Dalrymple, Nora Allen, Sulemain Semalulu, Elise Snow-Kropla, Jessica Bundy, and Vicki Archer. The student researchers noted that putting the pieces of Fiander’s story together was not an easy task. The researchers had little information regarding Fiander to work from, and had to refer to archival sources, interviews with students at the time of Fiander’s Acadia career, and interviews with his relatives. Through months of work and dedication to the project, the students uncovered events leading up to Fiander’s expulsion, deliberations regarding the poem and his dismissal from Acadia, as well as those involved in and opposed to the process.
Dr. Zelda Abramson, a sociology professor who aided the students in the project, introduced the project, emphasizing that Robert “Bob” Fiander’s situation had sparked interest in not only his expulsion, but his life, his personality, and the wider Acadia culture at that time. The crowd listened as Dr. Jessica Slights of the English department performed the poem that Fiander penned. Slights asked that the audience imagine that they were being transported back to 1959 as she delivered the poem in the satirical and conversational style Fiander had intended.
Stressed was the importance to understand historical and cultural context at this time. Researchers spoke to the cultural context of Acadia in 1959, highlighting the community standards and social pressures, sharp gender roles, taboos that continued to surround alcohol and the “slight religious undertone” of Acadia’s Baptist roots. Acadia at the time housed less than 1000 students, of whom most lived in residence. The town of Wolfville, still largely dominated by conservative values, was very separate from the school, often at odds with Acadia’s more liberal body of students. Also characteristic of the time were strict rules, regulation, and punishment deemed “moralistic,” but the lack of formal documents and communication of these students presented another intervening factor. Especially relevant was the existence of a demerit system, one that Fiander seemed to have encountered before the poem.
The students also delved deeper in to Fiander’s situation, regarding who made the decision to have him expelled from Acadia. Although on the surface it appeared that it had been the singular motion of President Kirconnel, further research proved otherwise. The importance of the student judicial committee and students’ input in the event as well as the minutes of the Board of Governor’s presented a story that showed both support for and disdain for Fiander.
The presentation finished with an analysis of the poem from Dr. William Brackney of the Divinity College. Dr. Brackney provided insight on to the content of the poem, and the contempt of god and sacred people, such as alluding to the Virgin Mary and the death of Christ in a very untraditional manner. Ultimately, he expressed that although “blasphemy” was a harsh assertion, the piece certainly did contain many elements that could certainly bring about a negative reaction from the Baptist Community that Acadia housed at the time.
Blasphemous or not, the poem is certainly communicative of Fiander’s intelligence, wit, and willingness to bring dominant and traditional modes of thinking in to authority. The group of student researchers did a phenomenal job not only uncovering details of Fiander’s time at Acadia, but of portraying the climate of Acadia in the late 1950s, and of humanizing Fiander so that he is not to be forgotten.