Yuppies and biotechnology

Murray Moo-Young and Jack Pasternak

Biotechnology had some of the same glamour enjoyed by microchip technology. Murray Moo-Young and Jack Pasternak were directors of UW research centres in the field, and Moo-Young edited a four-volume reference work, Comprehensive Biotechnology, published that year.

In the year that laptop computers came into general use (and Hewlett-Packard gave Waterloo a hundred of them for experiments in student use); in the year of the still mysterious Air India crash, which killed two children of a biology faculty member; in the year that the Canadian Encyclopedia was published, with more than a dozen experts from your university among the authors; in the year the Blue Jays won their division for the very first time; in that eventful year of 1985, the biggest excitement on campus came from a seven-letter word published in the Toronto Star.


The Star was doing a series on Ontario's universities, and Waterloo's turn came up on the Saturday of the Canada Day weekend. Waterloo is "the suitcase university", reporter Jack Cahill also wrote. "There's not much joy to all of this and there's not much spirit either on a campus where the first loyalty is to 'me' and a hopefully prosperous future. Loneliness is one of Waterloo's big lessons." He got it exactly right, if you want my opinion -- hustle, write programs, take job interviews, and show me the money, that's life at your university. But you can't expect a troll to buy into the free market economy, now can you?

The official reaction (from human beings, I mean, not from trolls) was that the article had been "fair". President Doug Wright did add that he was sorry it hadn't said much about the university's work in non-technical fields, along with the inevitable discussion of computers and biotechnology. The student response was a mixture of outrage and a sort of ironic pride. "Whiz kids at computers without any time for fun," the headline had said; right, then, students said, we'll hold a Yuppie Pub in Federation Hall, just to show them. It had taken weeks for Fed Hall to get an actual liquor licence, but it did arrive in time for the good times to roll at the beginning of the winter term. One of the more creative responses to the "Yuppie" label was the organization of the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team, a dozen young folks in the crispest of blue suits, swinging their attach cases in unsmiling, well-rehearsed unison. "Let's do lunch!" they cried at the end of their routine. And their lunch, the spectator could easily guess, was going to be a salad to start, then the tofu surprise.

You know, as I think back on 1985, more than a few things happened that were fun -- maybe fun with an undertone of desperation, but fun nevertheless. In orientation week, for instance, a total of 1,334 students did the Bird Dance on the Village green, setting a world record. And there was always the irreverent presence of the Warrior Band, which not only attended sports events, both on campus and out of town, but showed up to play a central part in the ground- breaking ceremonies for the Davis Centre on a windy April afternoon. I was at the event too, of course -- wouldn't miss a chance to see a platform full of Tories make gentle jokes at each other's expense, would I? The guest of honour was Bill Davis, naturally, since the "computer research centre" was being named in his honour. The Band played "Hail to the Chief" as the ex-premier arrived, and some other martial air as he turned a little mound of artificially arranged dirt with a silver shovel.

You have to remember that what you know now as the site of the Davis Centre was still a parking lot in those days. At least, it had been a parking lot -- lot B -- until the end of March, after which the new "B" was created on the far side of the railway tracks, with an entrance off Phillip Street. The move took a lot of 8:29 and 4:31 traffic off the east side of the ring road, but it also gave some hundreds of people a longer walk to and from their cars every day. There was deep grumbling about it, particularly when people got a look at the new lot and discovered that it was not much better than a mudhole in the late winter of '85. Everybody was given free parking for a month, by way of compensation, and some gravel was brought in to improve the traction. Still, the grumbling didn't die down easily. One of my troll colleagues maintains to this day that the closing of the original parking lot B was a watershed in the history of staff and faculty morale at Waterloo: that trust and enthusiasm around here were never the same afterwards.

To be fair, though, there was enthusiasm for the prospect of the Davis Centre, as it slowly rose on that site east of Math and Computer. "Slowly" would be the operative word; for months there was nothing but dirt and a construction fence, and much talk of "critical path planning". Everybody waited to see what the building would be like. Meanwhile, the library started figuring out how to move a few hundred thousand books from Math and Computer into the new library space -- in the end they used a roller contraption like the ones supermarkets sometimes have -- and the food services department talked of some mysterious thing called a "food fair" that it would be operating instead of a mere "coffee shop".

Styles in food service were certainly changing. The old Campus Centre coffee shop was reborn as the Wild Duck Café -- I got a good view of its daffy duck artwork from my creekside den here -- and something called Pastry Plus was opened in South Campus Hall, complementing the rather drab old cafeteria. The people behind the counters couldn't exactly unscramble eggs, but they did something almost as amazing: they lowered the price of coffee, at least for a time. The runaway inflation of the early '80s was over, and the annual increase in tuition fees was a modest 5 per cent.

Ah, but then there was the "computer fee", officially known as the computer service charge, collected from all students beginning that fall. It ranged from $28 in the low-tech faculties to $70 in engineering and math, the idea being that it would cover the exploding cost of computing for students. Waterloo, as you know, has always prided itself on giving students access to the latest in computer facilities, but "computing" was beginning to embrace some expensive things -- word processing and, especially, laser printing -- and nobody had the budget to meet infinitely rising demand. Hence the new fee, which had two effects. Some students began expecting more service than the university was equipped to provide; others began organizing protests and appealing to the government to rule that the fee was illegal. There was even a decorous two-hour sit-in at Needles Hall one afternoon in November. Eventually, as I recall, the fee was eliminated (or rather, subsumed into the general tuition fee), but as 1985 came to an end it was still a cause of friction between many students and the university's management. It may also have been a partial cause of the Waterloo Engineering Endowment Fund, since there were dissenting voices from some engineers who said that they had nothing against students paying a larger share of the real costs of their education, as long as the government also carried its share of the load.

The question was, and continues to be, how big was each share? In 1985 the government received a report from something called the Bovey Commission, another in its apparently endless sequence of study committees about higher education; this one recommended not just higher fees for students, but "differential" fees, with engineers and optometrists being soaked much more heavily than, say, philosophers or trolls. The government did increase its grant to universities that year, but as usual, the increase didn't keep up with rising costs. On Hallowe'en afternoon Doug Wright addressed a glum assemblage of department heads in the Needles Hall board room, announcing a campus-wide cut of 2.5 per cent in general spending. It would be the first of many such little slices that would eventually change the whole atmosphere of the university.

The sixties and seventies were definitely history. The last holdout of the earlier ethos was the "integrated studies" program, housed on the first floor of the Psychology building, where some students worked like beavers on programs they had devised themselves, and others just sat around and gnawed. (Believe me: I know beavers. I'm a troll, remember?) Early in 1985 the vice-president (academic), Tom Brzustowski, had had about enough of what he was hearing -- out-of-control phone bills, loud-talking folks who had once been students but hadn't actually paid fees for a few years, gossip and plots and personality conflicts getting in the way of the people who did want to work. He clamped down on the program's finances, and the senate ordered an in vestigation, which led to some new rules (no more "non-degree" students hanging around), the appointment of "academic staff" in place of "resource persons", and a new name for the program: independent studies.

As I look back on 1985, I remember other changes as well, naturally. I recall the retirement of Hildegard Marsden, dean of women for many years, and the eventual decision that women no longer needed the special protective wing of their own dean; no successor would be named. I recall the announcement that the teaching resource office was being merged with the continuing education office and given the acronym TRACE. I recall the pilot version of Computer Science 100, taught by Arnie Dyck to some six hundred students at once. I recall the opening of the New Oxford English Dictionary Centre in the basement of the Dana Porter Library, a throwback to the days when much of the library's space was occupied with administrative offices rather than books.

I recall the creating of a Guelph-Waterloo Biotechnology Institute. I recall the inaugural meeting of the Faculty Relations Committee, which would, though perhaps most people didn't know it at the time, change the entire governance of the university. I recall the launch of the library's Industrial and Business Information Service, and the opening (with somewhat more publicity than any of the previously mentioned innovations) of the optometry school's Centre for Sight Enhancement, providing technical help for people who until then would have been dismissed as incurably blind.

And finally, I remember watching the CBC's "Fifth Estate" one evening in February -- yes, of course I get cable television here under the bridge! -- and seeing a 15-minute segment about the University of Waterloo, with special emphasis on the energetic, well-travelled promoter of technology transfer, Douglas T. Wright himself. In balance I liked it better than the report in the Star a few weeks later, I'd say.

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