Beyond the Villages

Mila and Brian Mulroney hold up their University of Waterloo sweatshirts

Mila and Brian Mulroney (he was prime minister of Canada) went home from UW with some souvenirs.

A helicopter touched down on campus on March 4, 1987, bringing the prime minister for a short visit. As a native inhabitant of these rolling acres, unlike you human beings with your noisy machinery and your urgency to get from place to place, I'm not fond of helicopters; my sympathies were much more with the unidentified student who lobbed a snowball at the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney at one point while he was here. What the protester was protesting, I'm not quite sure -- maybe nuclear missiles, since the Star Wars defence system was one of the big political issues that year -- but in all likelihood it wasn't the use of helicopters per se. However, I'll take his support for what it was worth. During the afternoon visit, Mulroney visited several laboratories and the new Dictionary Centre, had a chat with president Doug Wright (whom Mulroney had just named to his new "advisory board on science and technology"), and gave a speech in the Engineering Lecture Hall.

I didn't go to the prime minister's speech, it being winter, but I did get out for other activities a fair amount that year. Leaving my lair under the bridge to stroll across the campus was made significantly more pleasant by the development of not one but two gardens, although I'd say the word is used a bit loosely in one case. That would be the "rock garden" south of the Math and Computer building -- an effort to make the place look something like a cross between a mineralogical museum and a back road in Sudbury. As the greenery has grown up, though, and the pergola casts shade over the lovers with their bag lunches, it's not a bad place to beguile a little time. The other garden is even more welcome: the back-to-nature area along the north wall of Environmental Studies, developed and named in honour of faculty member Robert Dorney, who died in July 1987.

Other things were being developed on campus that year too, of course, most famously the Davis Centre, which it sometimes had seemed would never be finished. The "envelope" of the structure was complete, people from plant operations said bravely as the year began, and work inside went on with urgency. The Engineering, Math and Science Library had hoped to close in August to move its books into Davis in an orderly way, but the space just wasn't ready. The job was finally done by contractors in a rush in late September, and students and faculty made their way into the new library space through a plywood tunnel on the ring road side of Davis, while work was finished up elsewhere in the new building. Less spectacularly, other parts of the campus were also being developed; the dance and fine arts departments moved into East Campus Hall (a new name for the Waterloo Manufacturing building on Phillip Street), and work started on a complex of townhouses north of Columbia -- somewhere near the Arctic Circle, it seemed to most people in those days.

The townhouse construction reflected, I'd say, the beginnings of a new kind of relationship between your university and its students. It was one of the first gestures, and there would be many more, towards providing services that would attract and support and cosset students, rather than the university presenting a "take it or leave it" attitude to everything. A lot of them had been taken the Village and left it, with its double bedrooms and its dinner-at-dinnertime meal scheduling, and the idea was that townhouse living would suit them better.

The year also saw the creation of a new position, dean of students, for Ernie Lucy, previously "director of employee and student services". One of his first unpleasant chores was to announce the cancellation, for financial reasons, of the university's professional performing arts series, which for many years had brought travelling plays, concerts and other shows into the two theatres. And rather along the same lines - not performing arts, I mean, but somebody to administer student affairs -- the faculty of engineering named a director of first-year studies for the first time. He faced a large job in implementing a committee's recommendations about an extensive overhaul of the first-year program, including the introduction of studies in computer graphics. In the same general category came the work of a committee assessing whether students should be advised or required to buy microcomputers, and if so, which kind. Among other fine choices, the Macintosh SE was introduced that spring; the Mac 512K had just gone out of production.

Other developments in student life: well, there was a new, permanent "writing clinic", successor to the rather ad hoc arrangements that had followed the introduction of the English Language Proficiency Program some years earlier. A group of young men proudly announced that they'd been accepted as a chapter of the world's best-known fraternity, Sigma Chi. And for a while it looked as though the Warrior football team had played its last game. Bob McKillop left his job as coach, and what with the inevitable budget squeeze, it was seriously suggested that Waterloo give up football entirely. Eventually the athletics director -- after receiving, I suspect, many earnest and irate letters on both sides of the issue -- announced that the team was being kept and a new coach would be hired.

It was, need I tell you, a pretty good year for research, especially with the creation of the first Ontario "centres of excellence". Waterloo had a part in five of the seven centres set up that year, in fields of study as diverse as information technology (that means computers) and "space and terrestrial science". People were startled at the idea that your university played a part in the space program, but the word didn't really mean Apollo 2, then on its way from Uranus to Neptune; chiefly it meant remote sensing from satellites, a technology of great value for farmers, sailors and geologists alike. There's a reason, you know, why I live under a bridge, where the spy cameras can't see what I'm reading.

Besides the centres of excellence, your university added a Solar Thermal Energy Centre, and three faculty members teamed up with an entrepreneur (that means a man with money) to start a business developing and making cryptography chips. The biggest research excitement of the year, though, had to do with "superconductors", materials that could - or couldn't, depending on who was talking about it -- conduct electricity at very low temperatures but not in, say, the balmy conditions of a typical Waterloo County winter.

Lots of other things happened in 1987, of course, such as a decision to ban smoking inside all your university's buildings. I don't suppose the people who made that decision foresaw the miserable huddles of smokers who would gather in every doorway during the aforesaid Waterloo County winter, or the litter of butts that would accumulate. Also in 1987, former faculty and staff members organized a Retirees' Association; the alumni mascot was given a name (Pounce de Lion); a merit pay program was introduced for staff; the school of accountancy rejoiced when one of its graduates got the top scores in all of Canada in the professional examination. (Less realistically, the school of accountancy announced an ambition to put up its own building. Not in this decade, I remember thinking.)

In administrative circles, Jim Gardner became dean of graduate studies. Tom Brzustowski, the vice-president (academic) was given the new title of "provost", meaning that he was running the place -- a delayed effect, I gather, of the rumoured "deans' rebellion" in which many of the university's senior executives got together and told Doug Wright that if he wasn't going to be on campus enough to keep all the administrative details at his fingertips, then somebody else had to have the authority to make the decisions. Only a few weeks after getting the "provost" title, though, Brzustowski was gone, taking the bait of a deputy ministership at Queen's Park. Robin Banks moved into the VP's office on an acting basis while a search committee got to work. I don't suppose I'm telling any secrets if I say that a couple of members of the committee approached me to see whether I was interested, but in the end they wanted someone with more of a quantitative background than most trolls can boast. Increasingly, the job of the VP involved calculations, even after the province introduced a "corridor" formula that year to give each university more latitude in raising or lowering enrolment without losing funds.

There's one other thing from 1987 that I really must mention, and that's the arrival of "employment equity" -- I think of it as Son of Pay Equity. The latter -- which came first, you understand -- was also described as "equal pay for work of equal value", and was the special interest of the provincial government. The former, which came second, arrived compliments of the federal government, and required the university to survey all the faculty and staff with some tough questions: Are you female? Do you have a disability? Are you a member of a visible minority? Answering that last one was a particular toughie for me, I have to tell you. No, I finally decided, I'm a member of an invisible minority. Truthfully, now, have you ever seen a troll?

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