My Canada, 63/150: The innovation engine

While it can be confusing when a university has the same name as the city where it’s located, in Waterloo’s case, on a profound level, the confusion doesn’t matter.

The University of Waterloo, with 35,000 students, and the City of Waterloo that surrounds it, with 110,000 residents (many of whom are those students and university faculty and staff), present to the world — even to the New York Times — as one: the little innovation engine that could.

The university was founded in 1957 to solve a city and business problem: industries needed more engineers. This new university would provide them. From the beginning, students learned in a co-operative education model, alternating paid work terms with in-class learning.

The gap between what’s commonly labelled “town” and “gown” is smaller in Waterloo than it is in other places. As more professors were hired, and the university expanded to offer courses in the humanities and sciences as well as in engineering and math, the wild start-up settled into a long-term academic enterprise, bureaucracy included. But while all universities now are actively seeking industry and corporate partnerships, Waterloo started that way and never felt apologetic about it: its first president spent most of his career as a businessman before becoming an academic leader.

It’s also attracted professors with an entrepreneurial bent: as the New York Times wrote in 2013, “Waterloo does not require its faculty or students to give it any ownership stake in products or inventions they create there. For faculty members, control of that intellectual property can potentially be far more valuable than any university salary.”

The details of the founding and university’s history are far more complex than this, of course, and I recommend historian Kenneth McLaughlin’s books The Unconventional Founding of an Unconventional University (1997) and Out of the Shadows of Orthodoxy: Waterloo @ 50 (2007) for the full background.

Waterloo was just one of many universities in Canada that began in the 1950s and 1960s to respond to the need for more higher education in a more-complex world and also to cope with the increased population of post-Second-World-War baby boomers.

Higher education institutions in Canada founded in the 19th century — McGill (1821), Toronto (1827), Queen’s (1841), and Western (1878) — have the kind of stock-photo old-building charm one associates with universities. When I worked at Waterloo, I remember one portrait company took pictures of graduates as they left the stage at convocation and had them stand against a backdrop banner with a photo of a neo-Gothic arched doorway festooned with ivy: no such spot exists at Waterloo.

It is, instead, a place of restless reinvention. Sure, there is a 60-year history, traditions, legends; a few spots on campus — such as the original farmhouse on the 1,000-acre main campus, used now as a graduate students club — have remained constant. The Dana Porter Library, shown in the main photo and nicknamed “the sugar cube”, continues to dominate the campus at 10 storeys tall, although it’s being challenged these days by new and snazzy homes for expanded engineering, nanotechnology, and quantum computing. There are now more than 100 buildings on the university’s main campus, plus three satellite campuses in Kitchener (School of Pharmacy), Cambridge (School of Architecture) and Stratford (Digital Media).

The university’s influence spreads throughout the community: there’s a research park; a multi-site student start-up incubator; and a now-independent accelerator centre for new businesses. Professsors and graduates’ inventions spawn companies, which hire eager co-op students. One donor even supported a research institute on aging joined to a long-term care home on the university’s north campus.

Waterloo is woven throughout my life history, as I wrote when I was the newly minted Editor of Waterloo Magazine: “In my life, the University of Waterloo was never not there. My older brother came to study history and English. He met a beautiful science student who later became his wife: They married at Notre Dame Chapel on Campus, and had their reception at the Faculty Club (now the University Club).”

UW'”Red Room” for computers, circa 1970s.

My first non-family encounter with Waterloo was as a high-school math student, off to the now-legendary “red room” that hosted massive computer banks. We had painstakingly marked stacks of rectangular cards to run through the computers, in aid of solving complex mathematical problems. Classmates who had older siblings studying math showed up with card stacks that, when run, produced images of cartoon characters.

Later I became a student at the university via St. Jerome’s, one of four affiliated colleges and universities, living in residence for three years and earning an Honours BA in English with a minor in music. I was an “artsie” at the “tech” university although, then, Arts was actually the largest of the six faculties. I was also a first-generation university student, as were most of my classmates; people my parents’ age who had gone to older Canadian universities sent their kids on the neo-Gothic route, too.

When I returned 20 years later to work at Waterloo, much had changed, even the birds. In my student days, the campus and its creek were overrun by mallard ducks, who were quite inured to people: once, one walked over my shoe while I was talking to someone as we stood on a campus path. The ducks have been crowded out by aggressive Canada Geese who, in spring, terrorize the campus: the student office now maintains an online “Goose Watch” map that locates nesting geese who are likely to attack if you get near their eggs.

What hasn’t changed is Waterloo’s enduring practicality and its vibe as a place where school’s more important than cool: terms such as “nerd”, “geek” and “wonk” are compliments, not insults. Waterloo’s not a typical university. Long may it consider that its biggest strength.

Photos: courtesy University of Waterloo







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