KPE remembers Dr. Brian Pronger, scholar and activist

Associate Professor Brian Pronger (photo provided by Jim Bartley)

The Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education is remembering Associate Professor Brian Pronger, who passed away peacefully on October 17 after suffering a stroke. Pronger completed his PhD in Philosophy and Exercise Science under the supervision of Professor Bruce Kidd, former dean of KPE, and was appointed associate professor in the Faculty in the early 1990s.

“This is a great loss for the Faculty and the critical study of sports and physical activity. Brian challenged us to question our traditional thinking in so many ways—about science and received wisdom, about sport and major games, about physical fitness and the body, and about sexuality,” says Kidd.

“One of his many legacies was the transformation of the fourth year required philosophy course into a ‘professional finishing course,’ in which students gained knowledge and experience in wrestling with the difficult ethical issues facing leaders in kinesiology, health and sport. They learned to distinguish between what they confidently knew and what they did not know, and how to face up to what they did not know.”

Another of his legacies for the University as a whole, according to Kidd, was the creation of the Sexual Representation Collection, a comprehensive archive of modern sexuality.

“He taught me a ton, and at the same time, brought a joyous spirit into the Faculty. He will be sorely missed,” says Kidd.

Caroline Fusco, an associate professor at KPE, was supervised by Pronger during her PhD studies at the Faculty. 

“I came to the University of Toronto to study with Brian, because he was one of the top scholars in the field of physical cultural studies at that time, advancing postmodern/poststructuralist, queer and social justice studies of the body, sexuality, desire and, science and technology,” she says.

“He was an incredible mentor and teacher and I learned so much from him through his graduate and undergraduate teaching. I still have my course papers I wrote for him with his hand-written comments – invaluable,” says Fusco, who was also Pronger’s teaching assistant for many years.

She remembers travelling to conferences together in his old car, the windows down all the way, because the car didn’t have AC, and arriving rosy cheeked, with wind-blown hair and a little hard of hearing.
“We laughed a lot,” she says, adding no dissertation meeting with Pronger would have been complete without a celebratory martini.

Fusco recalls dinners as a guest at the home Pronger shared with his life partner, Jim Bartley, and their dogs Jascha and Boris. 

“Their lovely home was filled to the brim with books, art and music. I was mesmerized with Brian’s notation in his books, his characteristic pencil sketched round glasses beside what he deemed a very important point - I do that myself now,” she says.

Pronger fell ill in the winter of 2003, just before Fusco defended her PhD dissertation. Professor Kidd guided her through the final stages of her PhD and when the Faculty learned that Pronger could not return as a professor because of his illness, the position was advertised and she was hired in 2005. 

“Since then, I have been dedicated to continuing Brian’s legacy of mentorship, teaching and social justice. I am saddened that whole generations of students will never experience what it was like to sit in a classroom with him and listen to his brilliant philosophies about the limits placed on the human body,” says Fusco.

“But his words still survive and through them students will still have an opportunity to learn about resistance and transcending domination, which Brian was committed to doing through his life work.”

Dr. Pronger’s many writings include two books, Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and The Meaning of Sex and Body Fascism: Salvation in the Technology of Physical Fitness, that continue to inform scholars in many fields of studies to this day. 

Associate Professor Lynda Mainwaring and Pronger worked as colleagues at KPE. 

“Brian loved being a professor in our Faculty,” she says. “He contributed much to the intellectual and cultural atmosphere as a thinker, scholar, advocate for equality and an insightful, engaged colleague.”

Mainwaring remembers the lively debates that would ensue among students in Pronger’s fourth year philosophy class, where he would invite colleagues to present different perspectives on the nature of science and technology. 

She also recalls how much Pronger truly embodied the experience of convocation. 

“Donned in U of T cap with his gown billowing, Professor Pronger sailed proudly from the Benson building across the back campus to Convocation Hall joyfully, dignified and with great respect for the academic tradition and scholarship.”

“He was brilliant, stood up for what he believed, enjoyed life, sport, dance, animals, music and culture and he was a lot of fun to be around,” says Mainwaring. “Metaphorically, Brian's life and contributions were like a piece of classical music, fully orchestrated and sophisticated, with over and undertones of provocative progressive jazz.”

Speaking on behalf of the Faculty, Professor Ira Jacobs, dean of KPE, described Pronger as a brilliant scholar, eloquent speaker, mesmerizing debater, swimmer and activist for social justice. 

“He had a remarkable impact in a short period of time on the Faculty, the University of Toronto and his field of scholarship,” said Jacobs. “Dr. Pronger’s accomplishments during his all-too-short decade at the Faculty were meteoric.”