The dreadful plight

View of the Davis Centre under construction.
View of the Davis Centre under construction.

Doug Wright shaved off his beard in the summer of 1986, during a trip to Asia, and Halley's Comet passed by the Earth, causing some excitement up in Gus Bakos's observatory atop the Physics building. I don't claim that these two events are related; I merely mention them as examples of the kind of thing that people at Waterloo got excited about, as well as a rash of small fires on the campus that turned out to be the work of one arsonist.

Things of more serious importance were happening too in 1986, of course, and it's striking how many of them had to do with women in one way or another. The one that grabbed the media eye was the Miss Oktoberfest pageant, which was held in the Humanities Theatre, as it had been held for some years without much special attention. The world was in the feminist, if not post-feminist, era by 1986, and protesters demanded that the beauty pageant be driven off campus, if not shut down altogether. Doug Wright, as president of the university, said he was willing to listen to argument, but eventually concluded that it was legal (and a big deal in the local community), and he wasn't going to ban it. Somebody promptly called him a hypocrite: hadn't he vetoed a request from the Engineering Society to present strippers in the same theatre? In any case, if I recall correctly, the pageant would stay at Humanities for another couple of years, not more, then take its business downtown to the Centre in the Square, where there were likely to be fewer picketers -- or so it seemed at the time.

Wright was acting for women's rights on other fronts, as when he announced that the university was "determined to double" the number of women on faculty within a decade. There were 66 at that time, by the official count. Did the determination bring results? It's now 11 years later, rather than 10, but the number of women faculty is 132, which is just exactly twice 66.

A "women scholars program" was established, and announced in national ads. It was largely financed with money provided by the Ontario government under the rubric of "excellence", roughly translatable as "things the universities should be doing which we'd like to draw special attention to". At about the same time, the vice-president appointed an "advisor on academic human resources", which was code for getting women into some jobs and making sure they succeeded at them. In a perhaps not unrelated de velopment, the department of man-environment studies gave itself a new, non-sex-specific name: environment and resource studies. Better acronym, anyway, I remember thinking.

Let me go back to that business of the "excellence" money, because it points up one of the real ironies of what was going on in 1986. The government (headed just then by David Peterson of the Liberals) was, if not absolutely throwing money at the universities, certainly increasing its spending; in addition to a percentage increase in general grants, there was money for "excellence", there was money for special projects (including more laptop computers), there was the creation of a Premier's Council to advise on educational and economic development. And the response from the campuses? A "Week of Action" in mid-March to draw attention to the dreadful plight of post-secondary education. At Waterloo, some 1,000 students marched downtown one Wednesday afternoon, chanting slogans that I'm sure impressed the government as much as they impressed me when I watched from the University Avenue overpass. In an inspired public relations gesture, Doug Wright himself, as well as some of the deans and a number of faculty members, joined the march. It was suggested that staff and faculty members donate "a day's pay", or less if they chose, to the university's kitty, and 206 of them actually did that.

Alumni were also encouraged to put some pressure on the government over funding. "The University of Waterloo is in financial trouble," vice-president Jon Dellandrea wrote to them. "Some laboratory courses at Waterloo feature equipment which by industrial standards is a joke." Of course alumni were asked to send cheques, as well as to put pressure on the government. With the Watfund officially having achieved its $21 million goal, attention turned to an "alumni campaign" to raise $3 million over three years, which seemed like a lot of money at the time.

No doubt your university needed money -- it always has, it always will -- but there was a particular tone of panic in some of what was being said that year, as a couple of prominent faculty members left Waterloo for greener pastures: Ted Rhodes of chemical engineering went to industry (although he ended up as a university president, or so the trolls of Halifax tell me) and Giacinto Scoles, then Waterloo's big name in laser chemistry, to a post in the United States. If the sky wasn't actually falling, it was at least 16 per cent lower than it had been ten years earlier; grants per student were down from more than $6,000 a year to a little more than $5,000. Vice-president Tom Brzustowski sent out a general request for money-saving ideas, and received lots of them, mostly very small or less than practical. I couldn't believe that things were really all that tough, not when it was announced that most staff and faculty members were getting a 4 per cent pay increase.

The engineering faculty did close its construction management diploma program -- though more for lack of customers than for lack of funds, I think -- and a budget cut meant the end of the Campus Health Promotion program, which had operated to help students, staff and faculty get more exercise, eat more roughage and that sort of thing. (And don't sleep under bridges, I added to myself in January of 1986, when the flakes kept falling and the grounds crew reported that their whole snow removal budget for the year was already used up, so heavy had the winter been.)

Other developments in 1986? Oh, there were a few. A statistician named Jim Kalbfleisch was chosen to be dean of mathematics. The faculty association and the administration finally reached agreement on a "binding" procedure for setting professors' annual salaries. The government announced that the controversial "computer service fee" was being banned, but that the university could absorb most of it into tuition fees. A committee headed by Tom Brzustowski issued a draft of a "Fourth Decade Report", talking about a future in which students would do much more of their work independently and spend less time in lectures. Doug Wright and some of the computer science people talked enthusiastically, if vaguely, about Waterloo connections with the Japanese "fifth generation computer" project, which was going to change the world any day now. The provincial government introduced pay equity for women employees in the public sector (yes, and provided some money for it). The University of Waterloo Press published its splashiest book of all time, the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. And the Waterloo Centre for Integrated Manufacturing got going in temporary space, awaiting its permanent wing of the new Davis Centre

That's right: through all these things, construction went on at the east side of campus. Some human beings may have been surprised, but none of the trolls were, when it was announced that the Davis Centre wouldn't be ready for occupancy in the fall of 1986 after all -- and, oh yes, that it was going to be over budget.

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