Return of the engineer

Doug and Robert Wright

Among the students Doug Wright found at Waterloo, when he got here as president, was his son Robert, a
mathematics undergraduate.

Don't you people -- you human beings, I mean -- ever settle any of your problems, ever move on from one thing to another? We trolls don't have many problems compared to you, but when something does come up, such as an infestation of billygoats gruff or noisy Villagers, we take firm peremptory action and go right back to sleep. But human beings just keep chewing over the same stuff. Proof? My recollections of 1981, when people at your university grumbled and fretted about student loan programs, the lack of computer science graduates for all the jobs that were opening up, the future of "grade 13" in Ontario high schools, and the possibility of building a research park on the north campus. Sixteen years later, what are you all fretting and grumbling about? Loans, computer science jobs, grade 13, and the research park.

Admittedly, a few preoccupations change, a few things were new in 1981 that are now taken for granted. A staff member, never publicly identified, was actually fired that year for sexual harassment, something relatively new in most people's lexicons. You may not realize how much of what women were doing that year was brand-new, such as standing up to various kinds of abuse. Jennifer Hilton had just finished a term as the first-ever female president of the Engineering Society, and gave it as her opinion that out siders had made too much fuss about "Cobra", a game popular in some parts of engineering in which male students tried to bite female students on the bottom. Improving the status of women, and reducing the engineering reputation for row diness, had been "199th" on her priority list, Hilton said. And I'm sure Cobra wasn't foremost in anybody's mind when, early in 1981, the president of the university created an Ad Hoc Committee to Recommend a Policy on Ethical Behaviour. That eventually led to Policy 33, the "ethics committee", and so much else that's now part of the warp and woof of life at Waterloo. And I wish to go on record as saying that none of it has changed the behaviour of the indigenous trolls one iota -- but you might have guessed that already.

The most prominent figure at Waterloo in 1981 was a little man with a white beard who was not, in fact, a troll, but a civil engineer turned civil servant. Spare me the jokes about oxymorons, please, although Doug Wright -- that was his name -- embodied plenty of contradictions, such as a taste for opera and dance that people don't always associate with engineers. Wright came back to Waterloo, where he had been the boy dean of engineering in the 1960s, after a decade away at Queen's Park, working with higher education and then with "citizenship and culture", via a six-month leave to tour the world. By the time he hit campus, on July 1, there was no room to doubt that international links for the university would always be his chief interest. He'd been meeting people in England, in France, in Germany, who might want to visit or set up exchanges and joint research activities; he'd even been to Saudi Arabia, watching the hajj, feasting on whole roast sheep, and making contacts at the explosively growing technical universities of that suddenly rich country. For the eleven years that Wright served as Waterloo's president, he was more often away than on campus, as he continued to develop and encourage those worldwide connections, talking with high-rollers abroad and in Toronto and Ottawa, dragging Waterloo to the next level of prominence. "Waterloo, the world knows you," said posters and coffee cups that were produced by the university's fund- raisers early in Wright's years. Jokers on campus said it differently: "Why is it so easy to get a parking spot at Waterloo these days? Because everybody's at the airport, trying to get a word with the president!"

But first of all, in 1981, people at Waterloo saw Wright as the former dean, the builder of the engineering faculty, the link with the university's early hard-scrabble days, now come home in triumph. On his first morning behind a desk in Needles Hall, a delegation from engineering headed by Greg McNeice waited on him to request that the university lay on a regular noon-hour shuttle bus between the campus and the popular pub out at Heidelberg. "That was all they could think of to ask for!" Wright chortled afterwards. He was delighted to see his old friends again, and brought some of them to renewed prominence on campus -- such as Wes Graham, traditionally dubbed "the father of computing at Waterloo", who was soon enticed away from his laboratory and his software marketing operation to take charge of computing campus-wide, with the title of "dean".

Computing was really starting to flower -- somebody reported that for the first time there were more "terminals" on campus than electric typewriters, and there were "more than 120 microcomputers in the faculty of engineering alone". Still, it was by no means clear that desktop computers (or bridgetop computers, in my case) with their own printers were the future, rather than ever more powerful mainframes linked to dumb terminals. The university considered spending more than half a million dollars on a central, computerized "document preparation facility", an idea that was scrapped before it was tried.

With the university's 25th anniversary coming up in 1982, it was the perfect time for Wright to put some of the pioneers in the spotlight; Al Adlington was seen at Waterloo, and even Mike Brookes made a visit from England to see how the campus had matured since he'd laid it out two decades earlier. Meanwhile, in another link with the university's past, John Pollock joined the board of governors; he was the son of Carl Pollock, one of the founders, whose name had been given to the biggest of the engineering buildings. New on the board at the same time was Toronto businessman Trevor Eyton, the most prominent of the big-money figures who would be associated with Waterloo's management and fund-raising for the next decade or more.

But I'm getting ahead of myself; let me stick to the events of 1981. If Greg McNeice and his friends couldn't think of anything they needed besides a shuttle bus -- nothing the president would be likely to approve, anyway -- others on campus weren't so modest. The wish list for the Watfund campaign, made public early in the year, hit a total of $21 million, which was almost enough, even in a year of 10 per cent inflation, to be considered real money. The list was "flexible", said vice-president Tom Brzustowski, and that's certainly the truth, since one item on it was $700,000 for a "computer research centre". It seems to me that when the Davis Centre finally got built -- not with donations to the original Watfund, admittedly -- its price was a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than that. The Watfund list was headed by the Environmental Studies 2 building (which was opened in the middle of that year, in fact) and a possible building for what you'd now call "applied health sciences", though it had a longer name then. Wright gave himself writer's cramp in October, applying that tight little black signature of his individually to 3,000 appeal letters, one for each staff and faculty member. The donations began to come in.

Money was arriving from the government as well as from the private sector, of course. People at the university easily fell into the habit of thinking of the Ontario treasurer and education minister the enemy, and wondering whether Wright still had any friends at Queen's Park whose arms he might twist. Bill Davis's Tories were reelected comfortably that year, and the Gazette observed that Davis now had the scope to "do what he likes". Maybe he didn't dislike universities as much as people affected to think. He did increase their grants by 10.1 per cent that year; that was close to the previous year's inflation rate, but the economy was going haywire, prices rose by more than 12 per cent in 1981, and people were worse off than ever when their pay increase was only 10 per cent. (Fees went up by the same amount, I seem to remember, and there were far fewer protests than there had been the year before.) For longer-term policy about higher education, Davis was waiting for the report of what was dubbed "super-committee", a study of universities being headed by deputy minister Harry Fisher. And how many such commissions and studies and task forces have there been, before and since, including the one Wright himself had chaired a decade earlier? And how many of their recommendations have ever been adopted? Really, it's enough to make a troll cynical.

But the university did see progress here and there in 1981. I've mentioned the dental insurance plan for the people who work here; I might equally mention the expansion of the Graduate House, the construction of Siegfried Hall at St. Jerome's College, and the agreement between the university and its four church colleges (which caught the imagination only of a few bean-counters and deans at the time, but which has done more for the stability of the university than any other action except perhaps the construction of the pipe to channel that stream that would otherwise have undermined the Math and Computer building by now). Among other innovations I might mention the new rule that engineering students had to choose a program of study before entering Waterloo, rather than all taking a common first year and then overwhelming the electrical engineering department.

Oh, and there was the escort service, set up in 1981 after a series of reports and rumours about sexual assaults in Waterloo Park and elsewhere. A number of assaults did actually happen -- and a man pleaded guilty to some of them -- but the rumours far, far exceeded the reality. Still, the escort service (and the installation of better lighting in the park, thanks to the city of Waterloo) provided a new sense of security and no doubt prevented any number of ugly incidents. I don't suppose you'll spare a moment's sympathy for the two trolls who had to find new homes because they couldn't sleep where they had been, with all the bright lights, tramping feet, and reassuring whistles from the Federation's foot patrol. I think that's about all I can remember about 1981, with one interesting exception. In the year in which John Lennon was shot -- the tough eighties had begun and the mellow sixties were quite definitely over -- the school of optometry ruled that it was now acceptable for students to wear beards if they wished. The male ones, at any rate.

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