A revolting year

Students pose in the Davis Centre

Shortly after the Davis Centre opened, this crowd of students posed for a photo to be used on a UW recruitment poster. The safety office got excited about all those dangerously dangling legs, and the photo had to be reshot.

The faculty are revolting, I told one of my colleagues as we shared a congenial drink under the bridge one evening in the summer of 1988. "They certainly are," he agreed, and I hastened to tell him that I meant the participle, not the adjective. The faculty were, in fact, revolting that year, directing their frustration and disapproval against two of the university's senior officials in particular: Doug Wright, the president, and Jon Dellandrea, the vice-president (university development).

Where it began was -- well, I'm not a historian, only a troll, observing the slings and catcalls from my waterside home, and relishing the realization that faculty association presidents may come and go, but the creek goes on forever. The president that year was Len Guelke, of the department of geography, who was elected at the end of March and within a few months was getting a huge amount of newspaper ink for his questioning of Wright's priorities. I don't, however, suggest that Guelke created the conflict deliberately, like an education minister manufacturing a crisis. He was merely in the right place at the right time, or perhaps I should say the Wright place, a university dominated just then by its high-flying president.

Doug Wright was one of the leaders of a Toronto conference in late January at which prime minister Brian Mulroney announced a billion-dollar national plan for science and technology, including the creation of federal "centres of excellence". Good news, but "short of what the country as a whole needs", Wright responded. That was the sort of thing to which the president was giving his attention in 1988, just as he'd been doing since he took office six years earlier. Not all faculty members liked it, and there had been rumblings for a while.

More than a year previously, in fact, professors had had an opportunity to say what they thought of Wright, when they were polled over whether he should be appointed to a second term. The results of that survey were never made public -- even I don't know them, and, as you're aware, there isn't much at your university that doesn't come to my notice in one way or another. Persistent rumours, though, said that faculty members had voted strongly against Wright, and that their opinion had been ignored by the nominating committee, the senate and the board of governors. It may well not be true, but the murmurings contributed to a feeling of distrust. Early in 1988, a study by two deans (Robin Banks of arts, who by now was acting provost) and Jim Kalbfleisch of mathematics (who would later become provost in turn), said that faculty members needed more "recognition and appreciation", and suggested some measures for providing it, including enriched funding for sabbaticals. "The message must be clearly communicated," they wrote, "that the University appreciates and rewards high-quality work in all areas of endeavour," including the non-technical fields.

Many people frankly didn't believe that Doug Wright shared that view. At least, he put his foot in his mouth on the subject a few times, most dramatically in the spring of 1988 when he was interviewed by somebody for a magazine called Challenges. Involvement with business and industry through consulting and spinoff companies is "a kind of duty" for professors at Waterloo, Wright said in that interview. "In most universities, it's a publish-or-perish-type thing that decides how successful a professor is. Here, to a degree, it's how many businesses you own or are tied to." To a degree, okay; but many professors read that and thought the president was, to use a phrase popular just then among trolls, dissing the hard-working faculty in the humanities and other fields that don't lend themselves to fat consulting contracts. "Wright is doing a double disservice to the University and its faculty members," said Guelke in a letter to the Gazette, and he made similar comments in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, which happily took up the controversy. Wright of course defended himself: "I am acutely aware that some areas of faculty expertise, equally important culturally, intellectually or in terms of the quality of scholarship involved, do not readily lend themselves to the kind of entrepreneurial tie-ins that are available to others." He might have mentioned, but didn't bother, his own far from casual interest in the achievements of the humanities, everything from serious fiction to popular film. (He regularly recommended "The Gods Must Be Crazy", for instance, and once I heard him gleefully describing some Terminator movie in which the climactic car chase scene involves giant semi-trailer trucks.)

Even by human standards, it was all a tempest in a teapot, I suppose, and the excitement was pretty well over by the end of the summer, although people still alluded to it now and then. Wright, officially beginning his second term as president, took time for a Gazette interview in which he tried to identify "the Waterloo vision" and compare the university of 1988 with the university he'd found when he arrived in 1958, less than a year after the first classes had been held. "From the early days," he said, "my own concerns were with academic excellence and with teaching and research. I'm a little surprised that people thought it was otherwise." But he emphasized the discovery of the 1950s that a co-op program, involving close links with industry, was "not antithetical" to academic quality, and said the same point was still valid. "Industry," he said, "is attracted by excellence, and not by the opportunity to manipulate us. We don't have to be apprehensive."

Some people clearly were apprehensive, though, and some perhaps were resentful of Wright's travel budget and the car-phone style of the other figure people loved to hate, Jon Dellandrea. There was no doubt that Dellandrea was bringing in the cash -- the Watfund had been a success, and late in 1988 the VP was talking about "dramatic results" in alumni fund-raising, as Waterloo now ranked second in Canada (behind Queen's) in the percentage of alumni who gave money to their alma mater. More money was still needed, he kept saying -- "the only way we can balance our books is with outrageous class sizes" -- and people on campus were happy to believe that, but still sceptical about how much of the money they were ever going to see, especially if they didn't work in the new Davis Centre. Somehow it didn't help much when it was announced that the vice-president was now "Dr." Dellandrea, having earned his doctorate in education with a thesis on university-industry cooperation. At the end of the year, having directly or indirectly raised some $75 million for Waterloo in nine years, he announced that he was leaving, off to bring in more millions for a hospital in Toronto.

The day-to-day work of the university was being managed by the acting provost, Robin Banks, who got a slap in the face in mid-March when the senate turned down his proposed budget. The issue was an increase in the student co-op fee, which stood at $250 and would have gone up to $320 a term. Waterloo officials calculated that co-op was costing the university $16 million a year, some 10 per cent of its budget, in everything from direct job placement expenses to the inefficiency of having to teach the same course two or three times a year instead of just once. Those were hard times for administrators in general, and I admit I wondered why anybody would want to be provost, but early in the year it was announced that Alan George, formerly dean of math and currently at the University of Tennessee, was coming back to Waterloo in July to take the "chief operating officer" job. Banks, who had already served longer as dean of a faculty than anybody else in Waterloo's history, must have been hugely grateful that he'd soon be back in the Modern Languages building where he belonged.

He was well out of the way by the time the next big controversy arrived near the end of the year. That was the kerfuffle about the design of the new Davis Centre, which had its dedication ceremony (starring William G. Davis, Brampton Bill, himself) on November 10. The new building was spectacular, all right, and the architect preened considerably at a seminar, held the same day as the ceremony, discussing its design. The exterior reflects the building's function, said the architect; think of those huge glass curtain walls as computer screens. Think of the garish inside colours as screen-savers or something, I responded, but somehow nobody heard me over the whir of the noisy ventilation fans. Then users of the building started chiming in with grumbles about thin walls, badly located wiring, awkwardly shaped offices, and a shortage of washrooms. The chair of the computer science department actually wrote to the Gazette complaining that nobody involved with designing the building had paid the slightest attention to the opinions, needs and wishes of those who would have to use it. But within a few days after the opening, somebody organized the first paper airplane contest from the Davis mezzanine -- the first of many -- and it quickly was clear that whether people liked the place or not, they were going to use it; the Davis Centre great hall was the new centre of the whole campus. And so it has been ever since. (If anything, though, it made it easier, not harder, for people to go off campus to eat, crossing the railway line to the plaza. The staff association began a study of whether on-campus jobs were being threatened by the success of the restaurants on the other side of the tracks.)

You mustn't think that everything in 1988 was controversial. Much of it was, undoubtedly; I haven't even mentioned the complaints early in the year when a blanket rule was introduced against smoking inside campus buildings, or the grumbling over an attempt to write the first "computing directions statement" for the university. Oh, and 1988 was also the year of the first great Internet controversy at Waterloo, a brief excitement about nasty jokes that appeared on the moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. The one that really went beyond people's level of tolerance was something about a Jewish ventriloquist. I didn't have a Net connection here under the bridge in those days -- that didn't come until Watstar was introduced the following year, if I remember correctly -- but people told and retold the joke, with a smirk on their face. The authorities in Needles Hall weren't smirking, and cut off the university's access to r.h.f for a while, restoring it only after a modest amount of self-censorship was promised.

As I was starting to say, though, not everything in 1988 was controversy. There were all sorts of achievements, from the opening of the Centre for Contact Lens Research to the introduction of courses in the Croatian language, with six-digit support from some wealthy Croatian-Canadians. The correspondence program offered Computer Science 100 for the first time, and did some small-scale experiments with lectures on videotape, which proved to be nowhere near as flexible as the audiotaped lectures that had been in use for more than twenty years. The English department introduced a PhD program (in "rhetoric and professional writing", not in literature) and Conrad Grebel College got its first degree program, in theology. The library introduced a computerized catalogue of sorts, calling it Watcat, and the university police switched from green uniforms, with their connotation of nonprofessional security guards, to professional blue ones. The Employee Assistance Program was introduced. And speaking of smirks, the university got a new football coach, name of Tuffy Knight, and told people to wipe the smirks off their face: the Warriors were soon going to be worth watching from now on, and might even win a game now and then.

As for construction, which you human beings always seem to consider the real measure of progress, there wasn't much once the Davis Centre was done. Guys with hammers arrived in the Math and Computer building to construct some 24 classrooms where the library had formerly been, and Judy McCrae in the athletics department started talking about a recreational facility on the north campus, but there was no progress whatever on building proper space for the earth sciences department. "Let's get cracking," said buttons that the earth scientists started distributing, with a sketch of the building that haunted their dreams, but nobody was coming up with the money.

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