When the University of Lethbridge was first hiring in the late 1960s, it was a period of rapid expansion of universities all over North America. By the end of the ’70s, most jurisdictions were retrenching, and academic jobs were rare in most disciplines.

In 1977, I was the first person hired in the Department of Chemistry in a decade, and then only because Dr. Loren Hepler (DSc ’89) was seconded to be a full-time researcher for AOSTRA (Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority). Other departments had very similar experiences and the slow hiring continued throughout most of the 1980s, which is why there are very few people who can complain about the accuracy of this account, based as it is on my very fallible memory.

By 1980, it was clear that the University had fallen on harder economic times. Academic salaries at the University had fallen behind noticeably, to the point where an external panel, the Birkhoff-MacDonald panel, was appointed to make university-wide salary adjustments. This was very timely, since inflation was exploding and mortgage rates were rising from around 10 per cent to around 20 per cent. The collapse of oil prices (the second, or is it third, last time it happened) in the early 1980s, coupled with a major recession, meant that, although funding was rising to combat inflation, it was not enough to relieve serious budget pressures. Enrolment was down, relationships between “town and gown” were strained and public confidence was slipping. It was fairly commonly believed that the public thought of the U of L as “a good place to start” before transferring to a “real university.”

Notwithstanding the outside stresses, the University continued to be an upbeat place. Students, in the pre-internet age, seemed less worldly and world-weary than they are claimed to be at present. Most came from small towns and rural areas and were often children of families with no history of post-secondary education, so that they arrived somewhat intimidated but thrilled to be in this exotic place. The multinational faculty were very different from the students’ high school teachers. After the social turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s many had adopted social styles and manners that set them apart from the local communities, and they were happy to introduce their students to new and sometimes provocative ideas and ways of thinking.

Because the total enrolment was small and the range of programs reasonably large, relatively few students majored in most disciplines. Even at the introductory-level, class sizes were small, with section sizes less than 100, and many senior classes had only a handful of students. With extended direct access to their professors, it was a great environment for students who were interested in exploring ideas, and it was also a great opportunity for professors to test ideas on smart and critical newcomers. Many students took the opportunity to have independent study (personalized) courses on topics not normally offered, and some even had individualized programs, through colloquium studies.

In the late 1970s the University undertook a major review of its programs and orientation, resulting in a rededication to liberal education and to the indissolubility of Arts & Science. A critical component of this revitalization was a thorough review of curriculum. The programs had been very unstructured, as was more common in those days, and many professors favoured a more prescriptive approach, both those who wanted to ensure the quality and depth of the majors, and those who wanted to ensure that liberal education was a reality for all students. The creation of the GLER (General Liberal Education Requirement) demonstrated once again that academic curriculum is more contentious than biblical interpretation. General Faculties Council (GFC), the senior academic decision body, was the scene of epic confrontations where decisions passed up from Faculty councils were refought, often by the same people, using GFC as a second arena.

"The Worm" connected University Hall to the upper campus from 1972 to 1985.

“The Worm” connected University Hall to the upper campus from 1972 to 1985.

Two major retreats were held (in Waterton and Fernie) and a group of dedicated volunteers worked hard to find an acceptable model. In particular, one proposal, “The Tagg-Yoshida Report,” tried to crystallize a basis for a new approach to degree programs and liberal education. Too radical for most, a softened (eviscerated?) version was developed and legislated so that every major was rethought and re-implemented. The 40-course program was divided into three equal parts: one third for general, liberal education, one third dedicated to the disciplinary (professional) major and one third allocated at the discretion of the student. The last third usually ended up split so that graduating majors had roughly half their courses in the major and half in unrelated or less immediately related areas.  A specified program of liberal education (“the GLER”) was mandated for all programs beginning in 1982. As the product of a very focused, technical undergraduate program (chemistry, physics and mathematics), I found that the discussions around formalizing the curriculum created an amazingly broadening educational experience for me, one of the best of my life. The idea that students might spend some time preparing for the non-working part of their lives was almost as liberating as the idea that they could shape the curriculum to their interests. Many of the students who provided the cannon-fodder for this experiment were not pleased in the moment, but a surprisingly high proportion value it in retrospect as one of the most rewarding parts of their education.

Around 1979 or 1980, the government agreed to fund the construction of the
Centre for the Arts. Faculty members in the fine arts, whose contributions were undervalued by the faculty in less refined disciplines, campaigned for a separate School of Arts, and so the indissoluble was dissolved. As an aftershock, the rest of the Faculty of Arts & Science was split into three sub-faculties, Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences for a year, but the experiment was quickly abandoned. Management Arts courses began to be offered through a unit in Arts & Science in 1975, and a School of Management was established in 1982, with the irrepressible Dr. George Lermer as dean. Discussions began about a Nursing program, leading to the launch of the BN in the new School of Nursing in 1980. There followed a Faculty of Professional Studies, consisting of Schools of Management and Nursing in 1984, and the School of Fine Arts in 1985. Eventually, in 1989, the Faculty of Professional Studies was scrapped, and the separate Schools of Management, Nursing and Fine Arts were promoted to Faculties at various later times. It was a dizzying period of structural churn, driven largely by the pressure to legitimize university education in fields focused on professional practice
or employment.

The Faculty of Education, the other founding Faculty in 1967, took an unprecedented step of restructuring its undergraduate offerings so that the default program was the combined degree BA/BEd or BSc/BEd. The arguments for this move, at their simplest, were that future teachers should both know something well enough to teach competently (three-year BA/BSc) and know how to teach well (two-year BEd). The provincial government was not impressed at first, because of the extra costs; school boards (in spite of having to pay more to more highly qualified starting teachers) were very supportive and willing to provide the needed training placements. Within a few years, the excellent performance of the graduates won the day, and the combined degree program continues to be the gold standard in teacher preparation in Alberta.

In the mid-1980s, the Faculty of Education argued for and was given the authority to award the first graduate degrees of the University of Lethbridge through the Master of Education program. The Faculty argued cogently and successfully that teachers needed a graduate degree that provided professional growth as teachers, rather than preparation for careers in administration. In spite of being more rigorous and demanding than other MEd programs available from other Western Canadian and US graduate Education programs, the MEd program has prospered over the years.

The defining characteristic of the Faculty of Education has been its emphasis on the quality of teaching and the professional practice of its graduates. The basis for its success, besides hiring faculty very selectively, is the emphasis on school placements and supervised practice teaching, and that is enabled through the Faculty’s close working relationship with the school districts, Alberta Education and the ATA.

In the 1980s, as now, the non-academic staff of the University were an integral part of the life of the institution. Relationships between staff and faculty and students were friendly, informal and often personal. The challenges of budget and space could not have been met without the creativity and dedication of those who implemented and supplied the services that students and faculty alike needed to keep teaching and research programs going on a day-to-day basis. Although the focus of the University has always been on the academic programs and those participating in them, the staff have provided essential fibre that binds the University together and provides continuity over time. Beyond their duties, non-academic volunteers were active in scholarship campaigns, student exchanges, athletic programs and more. The U of L has been well served by people who are deeply committed to the University’s objectives.

In 1986, the U of L made a splash with the opening of the $5.3 million Max Bell Regional Aquatic Centre.

In 1986, the U of L made a splash with the opening of the $5.3 million Max Bell Regional Aquatic Centre.

As is common in universities, space is a perennial issue. A highlight of the 1980s is another great urban myth, the creation myth of the Max Bell Regional Aquatic Centre. The University was arguing that it needed a proper library. One section of University Hall had been built especially reinforced to support the weight of the library collection, but this quickly proved inadequate for longer-term needs. The province demurred and countered with the offer of a regional aquatic facility, which the Board accepted. Faculty members were incensed, arguing that the University didn’t need another continuing hole in the budget, especially one that did not support a single program offered here. Fortunately for the University and community at large, the Board pressed ahead and the Max Bell centre has been a tremendous asset, having served well over a million users to date. The Board’s interest in starting a University hockey team drew heavy criticism from academics who claimed it was a hobby for the Board at the expense of academic programs. All of that was forgotten when the Pronghorns men’s hockey team won the national title in 1994.

Throughout this turbulent period, while programs and Faculties underwent massive change and budgets and administrations withered, researchers at the University struggled to establish themselves at home and abroad. Some of the founding faculty members felt that they had come to establish in Lethbridge a true liberal arts college such as, say, Reed College, where the emphasis was to be primarily on teaching. Consequently, for example, University Hall was not really designed as a building for housing contemporary scientific research. Other founding members, and most of the subsequent hires, were of the opinion that research is an integral and indispensable part of being a university and so they set up research programs in disciplines across the University. The tension between the different worldviews and issues related to the use of scarce resources for research purposes were part of the day-to-day institutional climate for many years.

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences worked in relative isolation, at least in part because that was the style of the times, but they maintained an informal community of scholars united by a shared enthusiasm for scholarship across every discipline represented at the University

When President Dr. John Woods (DA ’03) joined the U of L he became a member of the Department of Philosophy, and continued his distinguished career with a series of very well received publications. The professional Faculties, having faculty members who were senior practitioners or PhD researchers, occasionally both, generally focused on research on professional practice, for example related to teaching or nursing practice in the area. As time went by, the importance of research grew here as it did elsewhere in Canada.

In the sciences, where research teams are the norm, creativity was the order of the day in terms of getting the space and research workers needed. Teaching labs, never under heavy pressure from large classes, were sometimes cannibalized to create small research areas; in other cases, empty offices were repurposed and kludged to fit the research needs (the tar from a less successful tar-sands experiment by a previous occupant provided the main wall decoration in my office for years). The chemistry and biological science departments were lucky in that they had some technically adequate space that could, in the summer, provide decent working space.

Dr. Loren Hepler (DSc ’89), a senior chemist who left the US as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, was a gifted teacher and mentor to students and faculty alike, a fact that is memorialized in the naming of Hepler Hall. He established a large group working on both fundamental science and on applications aimed at reducing water pollution in the oil-sands developments and encouraged and assisted others to establish research programs involving undergraduate research assistants. Federal and provincial programs to support hiring summer students were supplemented by University scholarships, so the summer was a time of great activity on levels 7 and 8 of U-Hall, where physics, chemistry and biological sciences had their labs.

The psychologists, especially the neuroscientists, faced much greater challenges in terms of housing and managing animals, and experimental spaces. They began by converting a few small rooms with no services into workable spaces, and a few years later, around 1982, the University renovated a suite of rooms and put in essential air handling and plumbing to meet the standards for housing animals. Their work was groundbreaking and they attracted a group of very able and energized students who performed experimental studies as the basis for independent studies courses and got their names on peer reviewed scientific papers. Because of the esprit de corps and in spite of the inadequate facilities, the researchers attracted excellent students and post-docs and ever larger grants, especially after the publication of Drs. Bryan Kolb (DSc ’15) and Ian Whishaw’s (DSc ’08) groundbreaking text, Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, now in its 7th edition. Eventually, the University put together a plan to combine federal and provincial support to create the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, which was opened in 2001.

The fortunes of research in Canada were at a low ebb in the 1980s. The federal government believed we were too small to make a significant research contribution and that we should just buy the state of the art from outside. The provincial government was more sanguine, but the early 1980s brought a major economic downturn. Overall, funding was low and competition for funds was keen. Nevertheless, U of L researchers did well and were able to provide essential research equipment that, by doubling as teaching equipment in term time, enabled us to deliver competitive programs. As the decade went on, the infrastructure problem worsened and space needs grew more and more pressing. The rise of computers and the increasing cost of meeting the University’s needs for teaching and administration added to the drain on capital funds.

The internal political climate through the 1980s was very unsettled. The faculty were well imbued with rebellious spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, and they were suspicious that any maladroit move the administration or Board made was nefarious. A generally combative attitude prevailed in dealings between the faculty and administration, and a succession of expensive legal wranglings kept the fires stoked. Over time, as a result of a combination of budget, grievance-related disputes and a planning process that seemed out of touch with the difficult budgetary situation, things came to head. The faculty became increasingly vocal in their criticism and President Woods resigned. Following an extensive search, the Board appointed Dr. Howard Tennant (LLD ’05) as president, just in time for him to lead a major overhaul of the administration in preparation for facing the next round of budgetary crises.

President Tennant recruited Dr. William Sibley (LLD ’00), a very experienced and recently retired senior academic administrator, to act as interim vice-president (academic) and assist him in creating a strong plan (Access to Excellence) to restore the credibility of the University and persuade the province to adjust the base budget to create a stable base. “Access to Excellence” had a major positive effect on morale that was strongly reinforced by a round of hiring that brought bright, enthusiastic new members to all academic units. It was a turning point in the fortunes of the University. Despite continuing difficulties, morale improved at the end of the 1980s with the growing sense that the U of L had regained some control over its fortunes.

This account of the late 1970s and 1980s seems to suggest the University was a very tense and contentious place. True, but it was a lively place where creative and enthusiastic people pursued their education and careers. Relationships between students and faculty were friendly and informal, and controversial ideas were discussed with great energy and verve. The old restrictions were giving way to a more free-flowing approach to life and the world, occasionally a bit too free perhaps. Intramural sports were constantly oversubscribed and included many faculty members. Student life was animated, with lots of clubs and sports activities — those who witnessed it will never forget the contribution of the Trolls Rugby club. The Students’ Union went through the turmoil common to its species. The SU ran a pub every Friday afternoon in one of the temporary buildings — temporary since 1967 — that was used as the University daycare for the rest of the week, and this at a time when smoking was acceptable everywhere! The Fine Arts were prominent, with lots of student participation, especially after the Centre for the Arts opened with its greatly expanded studios and theatre facilities. The University Theatre was the venue for major visiting productions and concerts, while intervarsity sports enjoyed strong support, especially basketball and hockey.

Those who worked and studied here in the 1980s would agree that it was many things, but not dull.

Story by  Séamus O’Shea, Vice-President (Academic) and Provost Emeritus.