In fall 1999 an in-house task force recommended closing the college as a cost-saving measure, which led to a flurry of protest and a successful campaign to save Traill, which has since been converted to a centre of graduate studies.Located on Symons Campus along the Otonabee River, this college was opened in 1967.It is named after the early 17th century explorer Samuel de Champlain, who explored the Otonabee area in 1615 and founded Quebec City in 1608 and whose sword is featured in the Trent crest.

This donation included a functioning hydroelectric power plant dating from the 1890s, which still generates a substantial portion of the university's electricity and produces income for the university; the power plant underwent a $22.8-million upgrade in 2013. Trent University was established as a provincial university under the Trent University Act of 1963.

Trent owns 50% of the power plant along with Peterborough Utilities Group owning the remaining 50%. In fall 1964, the university welcomed its first students and opened its first modest campus comprising three refurbished older buildings in central Peterborough: Rubidge Hall, Catherine Parr Traill College for women, and Peter Robinson College for men in 1964.

Close to 6,800 undergraduate students and nearly 500 graduate students are enrolled at the Peterborough campus while Trent University Durham serves over 800 full and part-time students at the Thornton Road campus in Oshawa. The governance was modelled on the provincial University of Toronto Act of 1906 which established a bicameral system of university government consisting of a senate (faculty), responsible for academic policy, and a board of governors (citizens) exercising exclusive control over financial policy and having formal authority in all other matters.

The university was founded through the efforts of a citizens' committee interested in creating a university to serve the City of Peterborough and the surrounding counties. It is divided into a series of colleges: Champlain, Lady Eaton, Catharine Parr Traill, Otonabee, Peter Gzowski, and Julian Blackburn.

Symons of the University of Toronto (2.2 sq mi), over half of which is a part of Trent's Nature Areas, an ecologically diverse wild-life preserve.

Each college, with exception of Blackburn, which is non-residential and serves Trent’s 1,700 part-time students, has its own residence hall, dining room, and student government.

The Symons campus plan and the original college buildings, including Champlain College, Lady Eaton College, Bata Library and the Faryon bridge which spans the Otonabee, were designed by the renowned Canadian architect Ron Thom. The campaign for a post-secondary institution in Peterborough coincided with the Ontairo government’s policy of creating new universities and expanding existing institutions to respond to population pressure and the belief that higher education was a key to social justice and economic productivity for individuals and for society.

The university is represented in Canadian Interuniversity Sport by the Trent Excalibur. The president, appointed by the board, was to provide a link between the 2 bodies and to perform institutional leadership.

Some of the specialized programs at Trent include the Human Resources Management Certificate Program, a joint program with Fleming College allowing students to earn a B. This college was named after the pioneer writer and biologist Catharine Parr Traill, who settled with her husband on the Otonabee in 1832 and lived there until her death in 1899. Traill College consists of Wallis Hall, Stewart and Crawford Houses, which are residential; as well as Scott House — the original location of Catharine Parr Traill College in its entirety — Kerr house, and the Principal's Lodge which houses the on-line political and cultural theory journal, Theory and Event.