When the dollar dropped

Room full of paper waste

Paper recycling was a novelty. Ed Goodwin of central stores checks over some of the 50 tons of waste, mostly from the computing centre, that UW shipped out that year.

Working like a dog: that's always been the way it is for students, and never more than in 1978, when the Ontario Student Assistance Program computer broke down in August and thousands of loans and grants were delayed. Fees were going up, too, and so were the prices of textbooks, thanks to a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar. It had been equal to the American one for decades but took a ten-cent drop in late 1977 and has never recovered. (The new exchange rate also hit the library, making it able to buy fewer books from outside Canada.) But nobody took the dog's-life idea literally, until somebody cast a glance over Dogs in Canada magazine one day in 1977 and discovered a full-page ad for the "University of Waterloo", which proved to be a canine obedience school in Granby, near Waterloo, Québec. A lawyer's letter was quickly dispatched -- really, have you human beings no sense of humour at all? -- and no more was heard from the canine direction.

Another animal came to campus in 1978 and stayed, though. That was my bronze friend Porcellino, the boar who now lives in front of the Modern Languages building. For the first while after a departing faculty member donated him, though, he lived in a warehouse, where for a while he was flank-by-swirl with "Convolution", the red "worm" sculpture that had been vandalized, put back in place near the Physics building, and soon vandalized again, this time beyond repair.

And then there was the horse that appeared on the front page of the Gazette one week in January, with a Mountie on its back. Some people thought it a very daring thing for the paper to do, using a Musical Ride picture to accompany a news story about the university's president, Burt Matthews, denying that the university had ever "condoned, directly or indirectly", RCMP surveillance on campus. People were sensitive about that kind of thing in 1978, as I recall. Fortunately, the president never said a word about surveillance by unmounted trolls. Nearly two decades later, I feel safe in telling you that we were everywhere in those days; I myself was present at many of the meetings of the Task Force on Computing Services for 1980, as it looked two whole years into the high-tech future. (Among its recommendations: change the name of the computing centre to "department of computing services".)

However, I was safe and warm under my bridge on January 26 when the big snowstorm hit. There had been one major storm two weeks earlier, but this one, coming in the middle of the day on a Thursday, was out of the ordinary, it became clear. When Kitchener Transit (not on strike at the time) announced that it was taking its buses off the roads, the university authorities spread the word that while UW never closed, no matter what, staff who wanted to do so could go home. By then it was too late; lots of them never made it. About fifteen people slept overnight in the Dana Porter Library, more than thirty beds were made available in the Villages, a pretty good slumber party got going in the Faculty Club, and so on. Next day, only a minority of offices were occupied, as those who had been on campus for the night struggled home, and those who had made it home Thursday night had the sense not to hurry in on Friday morn ing. It was after that experience that the president's office looked for the first time at a policy on sometimes closing the campus in the face of a storm too fierce to ignore.

Oddly enough, Matthews had a more enduring problem to think about on January 26 than the weather outside his window. He was in the process of firing one of the university's senior staff members, Bill Lobban, the director of "physical resources" -- what you'd now call plant operations. The exact reason for the dismissal has never been said publicly, and neither has the settlement that was reached after Lobban filed a lawsuit. Perhaps it's best just to say that things were changing on the campus and that it was time for a change in who was managing things like the janitors and the central plant. A few weeks later, the authorities announced that Lobban's department was being split into plant operations and "physical planning", the latter being in charge of all the growth and development that would be happening just as soon as there was money again.

Not much growth and development was on the horizon, although parts of environmental studies moved into the warehouse at 156 Columbia Street and it was given the name "ES 2", later to be applied to the new salmon-pink wing opposite Laurel Lake. On the central campus, "Chemistry I" also got a new name: "Earth Sciences and Chemistry". And the plant operations department announced a three-year plan to introduce a $1.4 million central controls system, replacing the old mechanical system for controlling fans and lights that was getting pretty creaky. And speaking of creaky systems, one of the highlights of 1978 has to have been the near-breakdown of the telephone switchboard: calls were getting cut off at random, driving both the customers and the operators crazy. How did they finally fix the problem? With a vacuum cleaner -- got some of the dust out of the old monster, and it worked fine.

There were a number of innovations in 1978, and talk of an "innovation centre", connected somehow to the university's research office, that would help inventors bring their ideas to market. It took a while, but that one eventually did come to pass. So did cloning, which biology professor Jack Pasternak predicted in print that year. The most successful innnovation of 1978 wasn't put into use on campus, but found grateful users in many nations around the world. I refer to the Waterloo Pump, designed by folks in the faculty of engineering and made out of the most ubiquitous of the world's construction materials, polyvinyl pipe; easy to use, not worth stealing, tolerant of any lubricant, it's helped bring clean water to hundreds of villages that previously had no such thing.

The campus, of course, had clean water coming out of the taps (although one faculty member, even without pressure from the troll population, wrote an indignant letter about the revolting condition of Laurel Creek). Water conservation was added to the year's list of good causes, though, along with energy conservation, Participaction (the federal government's new campaign to get people exercising), and the need to review investment in companies that did business in segregated South Africa. The UW smoking projects were expanded, and got front-page coverage in the Gazette a couple of times as they encouraged staff, faculty and students to join the butt-out movement. And the library and the co-op department got onto the flextime bandwagon.

There was certainly a lot happening that year. The Centre for Occupational Health and Safety was formed, the fine arts department introduced a film studies option, and the math faculty organized a "Mathematics/Commerce Group" to administer its business-related programs. Health studies was breaking away from kinesiology, classical studies was breaking away from French and Spanish, the UW Shop was breaking away from the bookstore. The Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Work in Chemistry, realizing how much it was spending on shuttling students and professors back and forth between UW and U of G, bought a pair of minibuses. A proposal for a university "publications office", which would have to approve all printed matter, met a battering in the senate and was abandoned, as was a proposed UW logo consisting of a stylized W made out of a couple of books. Malcolm Muggeridge filled the Humanities Theatre for two Pascal Lectures in the fall.

And for much of the year, the place to be on Thursday nights at 9 was at home beside the radio, as CKMS broadcast "Sarah Goes to College", an original and somewhat implausible soap opera about a young woman whose campus experiences included everything from lecherous professors to, if I remember correctly, some sort of time traveller. Curiously enough, she never met up with a troll. If she had done, I could have warned her about a few of the other perils, including the most deadly of them all, the Senate Long-Range Planning Committee. And would the campus listen to me? It would not; which is why the Third Decade plan came to be made public at the end of 1978, a year and a half after the third decade began.

<< Previous page                  Home                    Next page >>