The end of history

Kim Campbell holding up Waterloo sweatshirt and Catherine Coleman

Prime minister Kim Campbell got into the Waterloo mode during a brief summer visit to the campus. Catherine Coleman, president of the Federation of Students, beamed.

I’ve decided to end this megillah about your university’s history with the year 1993, because anything more recent than that would count as current events. Besides, the Daily Bulletin began in that year, and so you have a handy source of information about anything that happened since then. Apart from those reasons, though, I could hardly find a better year than 1993 to wind up my story; there can hardly have been a year since Waterloo’s founding, now 41 years ago, when more things happened in so short a space of time. In the course of 1993 Waterloo replaced both the president and the provost, dealt with layoffs, budget cuts, and salary rollbacks, acquired the Alzheimer research centre, voted to leave the Canadian Federation of Students, weathered a storm over the closing of the department of dance, saw the prime minister come to visit, and even experienced a murder. In short, while some years are hardly worth the effort of dragging myself yawning out of my Laurel Creek lair to see what’s going on, and other years provide nothing but reasons for us trolls to marvel at human stupidity, the events of 1993 were actually pretty interesting.

I had best begin with the murder, not only because of its horror—even the trolls were affected, I can tell you—but because the year began with it, quite literally. It was 2:15 in the morning on New Year’s Day when David Zaharchuk, a graduate student in chemical engineering, stepped out of his laboratory to see who or what was making all that noise, and was beaten to death in the hallway. He was, as the police said later, in the wrong place at the wrong time: working frantically to finish the details of his PhD thesis, alone in Engineering I when a very drunk, angry young man came through on a vandalism spree. It took about a month before the killer was identified; he turned out to be an undergraduate, also in chemical engineering, who came back from a co-op work term in Alberta to turn himself in. Later in the year, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Meanwhile, besides mourning the victim, who left a widow and a circle of grieving friends and colleagues, the university had gone through weeks of fear, disillusionment, and self-scrutiny.

An interesting, and unexpected, effect of the murder was felt on the third floor of Needles Hall, by the way. At nine o’clock on the first morning back to work after New Year’s—I think it was January 4—the provost called a meeting up there: deans, Federation officials, the president of the staff association, indeed the whole leadership of the university—to have them briefed by the police and discuss what needed to be done to assist the investigation, help the mourning process, and maintain calm. Was I in the meeting room that rainy morning? Of course I was; the whole leadership of the university was there, I’ve already told you. No such gathering had ever been held before. And not only did that meeting do a great deal to help the university deal with the horror that had struck, it was also the first time, so far as I can recall, that I heard anyone speak of the “stakeholders” in the university. That word would get heavy use before 1993 was over, I can tell you.

There was a memorial service in the Theatre of the Arts, there were police vans on campus for a while, and eventually the case was solved and life on campus returned to normal, though we’d lost a little of our innocence. Interestingly, the rest of the year was also busy for the university police. Among other things it included a series of knife robberies in the parking lots on the east side of campus, and a grotesque incident in June in which someone living in the Married Student Apartments started advertising the Black Orchid Escort Service, in effect a prostitution business. Within about 36 hours he’d been evicted, but the aroma lingered on for a while. (Off campus—speaking of the collective loss of innocence—that was the year Karla Homolka was sent to prison, and the details of the Paul Bernardo murders were made public. Waterloo provided a sidebar to the story with the creation of an “alt.fan” newsgroup for Homolka, followed by the provost’s controversial action to block that particular bitstream from computers on this campus, and even to censor articles from American newspapers that might be seen as violating a court order.)

I must not let you think that everything was a police matter in 1993, though it seemed that way for a while. It was a year that saw many technical and academic innovations at your university, including the print journalism option (introduced in cooperation with Conestoga College), the environmental engineering program, and direct first-year admissions to computer science—until then, students had entered general math, and applied to move into CS at the end of first year. The bookstore, having made some arrangements with an organization of copyright owners, began printing and selling “course notes,” the co-op department began its “continuous placement” process to look after students who didn’t find jobs at the end of the formal round of interviews, and the library began to speak about reinventing itself as a “client-centred” operation. Oh, and the staff training and development folks introduced the “Working” program of seminars.

While things were being started, though, things were also being ended. It was clearly going to be a tough year financially, with the NDP government of Ontario squeezing its grants to what was merrily called the “MUSH sector” of municipalities, universities, schools, and hospitals. In February, amid tears and protests, the UW senate approved an operating budget for the coming year that implied—without precisely saying so—that the department of dance would be closed. Holding their heads high, dance students gave their best-ever end-of-term concert that spring, and resentful dance alumni wrote letters of protest about the dean who was blamed for the decision, but there didn’t seem to be much that could be done. Other cuts, just as painful if less well publicized, were being made across campus. Engineering lost its off-campus teaching program, for instance; the university press was closed down. The provost tallied up the damage and announced that 15 staff members were being laid off, while another 75 jobs would be lost through attrition as the new budget year began.

The misery was just beginning. In early April the premier of Ontario called in representatives of the “broader public sector”—what a wonderful euphemism that is!—and announced a three-year program called the Social Contract to accompany government cuts in expenditures. Some contract, said the people who worked in the civil service and in government-funded organizations, including those at Waterloo. A contract is usually a two-sided deal; the Social Contract was essentially a freeze in salaries. Employers and employee groups were to negotiate the details; that was where the talk of “stakeholders” became ubiquitous. Vice-presidents started cancelling their summer vacations.

Ten days after the announcement of the Social Contract, Doug Wright finished his term as president of the university, and James Downey, late of New Brunswick, took office. He said he’d begun it with a Sunday evening stroll around the campus, during which he started to feel that he belonged to the place. I don’t remember seeing him stroll past my portion of the creek, but my recollection is that it was raining that evening, so I probably was keeping safe and dry inside, unlike some reckless folk.

I dare say the poor man had no idea, when he’d agreed a few months earlier to come to Waterloo, that he was going to spend his presidency struggling with funding cuts. He must have known, though, that one of his first tasks would be to find a new provost to succeed Alan George, who had said the previous year that he wasn’t available for another term. The nominating committee, headed by the president, announced a few days later that it had three candidates for the position and would like to present them to the campus in a series of bear-baiting sessions. Early May, then, brought what Downey came to call Town Hall Meeting Orgy Week. People grilled the candidates, they sent their comments in to the committee, and eventually Downey announced the choice: Jim Kalbfleisch, hitherto an associate provost, would move across the hallway into the provost’s office as of July 1.

There wasn’t much surprise, at least not down here by the creek, where we could see that if Needles Hall needed anything right now it was continuity. (And more continuity: Robin Banks, former dean of arts, had his arm twisted to move into Kalbfleisch’s old job.)

All the same, there was a sense of a new beginning that spring, as Downey brought his poised and erudite oratory to bear on the task of building trust and providing leadership. My word, I remember thinking, that fellow has a real Newfoundland polish on top of his rude University of London humour. He drew a capacity crowd to the Theatre of the Arts on May 11—that would be 503 humans and one troll—for a noon-hour talk entitled “A Humanist Meets His Waterloo,” and people were just beaming afterwards: must be the year of jubilee, some of them said, to get a president who promises so startling a change in the climate.

Did you notice the date of that event, May 11? That was also the day that the Daily Bulletin was published for the first time. It was a brief, pale shadow of its future self, and yet there was plenty of news on that Tuesday, quite apart from Downey’s speech and the search for a provost. For instance: “There is simply no news—plenty of rumours, but no news—about how the government's deficit-cutting and social contract will affect universities and the people who work in them. Negotiations are tentatively scheduled to resume Friday. Top UW officials are meeting regularly (next session is tomorrow morning) with leaders of the faculty association, staff association, and CUPE local, to share information in both directions.… A memo from the provost, issued today (too late to be reflected in tomorrow’s Gazette), says that ‘Effective today, the appointment of individuals not now on the UW payroll to faculty or staff positions will require my approval. For the time being, such appointments will be made only when they are essential’.”

That provost was still Alan George. Jim Kalbfleisch kept the same policy when he took office, of course, though he did approve an appointment here and there. Mostly, as I recall it, he spent the summer in Social Contract negotiations, working out rules and salary formulas with the various employee groups. Pay had already been frozen (much to the disgust of those who were within two weeks of their promised May 1 increases when the word came down from on high) and now it was actually reduced for the three years mandated by the government, with the pay cuts representing “unpaid days” that everyone would have to take off work. People felt stressed and discouraged, and it was hard to feel optimistic even after the Social Contract agreements were signed, or even after a bigger-than-expected first-year class showed up in September. They put on bright smiles, though, for a fast public relations visit in mid-August by Kim Campbell, prime minister for a few brief weeks before her Tories were thrown out of office in an October election. And the smiles were sincere, if weary, when it was announced that the university and Jack Edmonds had signed an agreement ending their messy two-year dispute over his resignation, or dismissal, or whatever it had been; he was back on the payroll in mathematics, now as a research professor.

The year brought other good news and bad news, naturally. Bad news for your university: the Fields Institute, which had been temporarily based at Waterloo, chose the University of Toronto for its permanent home instead. Good news: work was under way on the Columbia Recreation Facility and starting, at long last, on the Campus Centre expansion (the Student Life Centre, it would later be called). Bad news: a fire in the Needles Hall parking lot one March afternoon that destroyed somebody’s car and forced everybody out of the building with choking chemical fumes. Good news, if you can call it that: a team of students sorting by hand through all the garbage from the environmental studies coffee shop, seeing what could be done to improve recycling and composting efforts. Bad news: a number of faculty and staff deaths—your university mourned Ken Ledbetter of English, Sally Weaver of anthropology, Diane Black of the graduate office, and others.

Last of all, and without saying whether I considered it good news or bad, I have to mention that in 1993 your university acquired voice-mail. For the first time it was possible to phone the campus 24 hours a day, and to leave messages in the small hours of the morning, or on a weekend, for just about all offices and teachers. The sound of the tone became ubiquitous. Did I, myself, get voice mail? Certainly not. There are some human activities to which a troll of pride—myself, say—would never stoop.

And yet it seems I’ve stooped to telling you the long story of your university’s birth and growth and maturity, which is absolutely a human story, in which trolls played no part except as amazed spectators. By your standards it’s more than half a lifetime since Gerry Hagey’s vision began to come true, and even by the standards of my own longer-lived species it’s been a considerable while. I’ve grown almost reconciled (you’ll notice that I say “almost”) to the loss of trees, pastures, and wildlife in my back yard, and their replacement by buildings, manicured bushes, research equipment, and strolling students. It’s hard, in fact, for me not to take some pride in the development of Waterloo into a great university. Certainly I’m waiting with interest to see what on earth you’re going to do to top what you and your predecessors have already done.

“In harmony with truth,” your institution’s motto says: “Concordia cum veritate.” I’d like to suggest a small amendment, next time you’re updating your symbolism: make it “Concordia cum pumilione”. Which means what? “In harmony with trolls,” of course. So may it be—as it has been for more than forty years already.

<< Previous page                    Home