Waterloo - Vision and Innovation, or Mediocrity?


Ray Butterworth - 2011 October 28

President Hamdullahpur is currently having discussions with people all over campus, soliciting ideas on how Waterloo can improve its word-wide image and position. When someone is referred to as a Harvard graduate, people instantly think of intelligence, money, connections, and power. There should be a similar reaction, though with possibly different attributes, when one hears the name Waterloo.

At the academic level we already seem to be doing quite well. Professors at Waterloo have been awarded the Killam Prize two years in a row. That's an amazing feat for one university, but the average person at Waterloo, and more so the average person on the street, doesn't even know what that award is.

If Waterloo is to succeed with its goal, it's these average people that we need to impress, not only the relatively small academic community. And no, an education campaign to teach the world about the Killam prize is not the solution; we need to impress the public in completely different ways. And that is exactly where Waterloo has been failing miserably.

I'd like to present a few examples of this failure.

I recently attended several Warriors Soccer games, both home and away. McMaster has an artificial turf field, much like Waterloo's, but unlike ours it has a football-field sized year-round parking garage under it. McMaster had the foresight to make efficient use of their land, going beyond the scope of their immediate need by providing an additional service and generating additional revenue, while Waterloo settled for good enough. As an added touch, their scoreboard displayed the names McMaster and Waterloo in lights, while Waterloo doesn't bother to use its scoreboard for soccer games. It's things like this that leave lasting impressions on visitors.

Waterloo doesn't provide parking under our field; we don't provide any nearby parking at all. Last week, people had to walk a considerable distance in the rain to get to Waterloo's home game, a game that wasn't even played on our new artificial turf. Instead they had to sit on wet grass as the teams competed on a very muddy field with no spectator seating. And why was that? Because our glorious Warrior Field was booked by five students playing Frisbee. Really. It's experiences like this that leave a bad impression on visitors, something that Waterloo sadly provides in abundance.

While in Guelph I visited the University's athletic complex. Like ours it has a year-round ice rink. Unlike ours it has an upstairs bar and restaurant where people can sit in comfort eating and drinking while watching through windows overlooking the rink. Guelph had the foresight to do things right, while once again Waterloo settled for good enough. In Guelph spectators enjoy themselves and the university makes real money. In Waterloo we shiver and put up with the situation while the university makes small change from the vending machines.

Some things that McMaster and Guelph did impressed me. Many things that Waterloo does depress me. World-class means going all the way. Does Waterloo want to impress its visitors, or leave them with memories of mediocrity?

Waterloo talks of a master plan for the Campus with a backbone walkway linking it all together. Once again we've come up with a good-enough vision, something that makes it look like we're progressing when in fact we're barely standing still.

Why can't we have real vision, be innovative, and do things the right way? Why not have a backbone walkway completely underground? Instead of a daunting flight of stairs, there would be an inviting ground-level main entrance at South Campus Hall. The backbone would continue underground following the current backbone path, connecting all the buildings it passes. People would be able to conveniently move from one building to the next without going outside or up and down dingy stairwells to use the good-enough mish-mash of unaligned bridges that we have been creating lately. Just think of the savings in heating and cooling from not having outside doors continually opening and closing. Or the savings in cleaning and maintenance from the sand and salt that gets tracked into buildings each winter.

A side path could go to a huge food court under the Arts Quadrangle. These paths would be wide and spacious, and all along them could be retail outlets and administrative service offices. The lower floor of the Student Life Centre is already like this and would fit quite naturally with the rest of the path. Precious space would be freed up in our existing buildings, which could then be used for teaching and research.

Since its beginnings over 50 years ago, Waterloo's campus has changed from a bucolic setting to a highly urbanized community. But meanwhile, our infrastructure has failed to keep pace. We could have a campus-wide complex, modeled on the PATH system in downtown Toronto. Instead, Waterloo settles for a good-enough brick walkway with a coloured line on it. Does Waterloo want to impress its visitors with its innovation and foresight, or leave them with memories of mediocrity?

It's said that poor leaders say Do that!, good leaders say Do that, so that we can accomplish this!, and great leaders need only say Accomplish this!.

Waterloo used to have large goals, and its staff and faculty worked toward achieving those goals through a sort of unspoken conspiracy. But for some time now we've received specific orders from the top. We no longer get direction, but directions: This is what we want and this is how we'll do it.. There's no room for suggestions or discussion beforehand. Criticism and improvement is out of the question. It seems that the administration must be perfect, so to suggest any changes, much less backtracking, is pointless and shows poor reasoning on the part of anyone that tries.

Large projects such as the JobMine replacement are often seen as doomed to failure by many people long before Administration is willing to admit even the possibility of defeat. So much time, effort, and money is wasted continuing with something that, to everyone but the Administration, is so obviously broken. Other decisions, such as the assignment of a non-purple colour to the Engineering faculty, are so blatantly wrong that it's difficult to imagine that Administration did any research at all on the matter. Yet criticism, such as about last year's ridiculous crest change, is answered by attacking those that dare criticize. For the last nine months Waterloo has had a home web page that almost everyone considers even more useless than the one that preceded it. But instead of rejecting it immediately, Administration has been compelled to keep it in place long enough that it can now be improved without making it so apparent that a mistake had been made. Other examples of bad ideas introduced with lots of fanfare and then quietly dropped are the incorporation of a chiropractic school and the switch to nothing but rechargeable alkaline batteries at all Waterloo retail outlets.

These ideas should all have been criticized and then changed or rejected long before they became public announcements, embarrassingly subjecting Waterloo to well-deserved ridicule from the rest of the world. Instead Administration had an idea, and staff were told to shut up and do it.

To make things worse, most of Waterloo's middle management have achieved their positions by promotion through the ranks. Many have become fine managers, but others have no management training and exhibit very poor management skills. The inconsistency of management from one department to the next is amazing. Unfortunately it also makes for very poor morale among the staff.

Many years ago, when I began working here, the University operated quite differently. Waterloo was a desirable place to work, and as a result was well staffed with excellent employees. At a time when jobs were plentiful, it was still an honour to be accepted for employment at Waterloo.

We all had our list of tasks that had to be performed each day or week, but we were also in a situation where that still left extra time for other, non-essential work. We could develop solutions that made our other work easier and more efficient. We could help people in other departments to do their work. We could ask people in other departments for help and suggestions. All of this was accomplished without having to fill in forms or requiring departments to charge each other for their services. We all simply did what would make the University run better. Inter-departmental cooperation and collaboration and large groups of similarly minded people produced the critical mass and synergy that led to the kind of environment that Waterloo was famous for.

Out of this came innovations that at the time helped to make Waterloo's world-wide reputation. Long before Microsoft and Apple came along, IBM, Honeywell, and others were the big names in computing. This in-house productivity at Waterloo produced teaching software such as WatFor, a fast and convenient Fortran compiler that made the teaching of computer programming so much easier at universities around the world. And everyone knew that the Wat stood for Waterloo. Similarly, Waterloo played a large role in maintaining Honeywell's GCOS operating system, TSS time sharing, and B compiler. Companies around the world using Honeywell computers all knew that they needed Waterloo's products to make them much more efficient and easy to use. Not only did this do wonders for our reputation, it gave Waterloo millions of dollars in extra operating revenue, which in turn funded further development.

But our golden age ended with cutbacks and specialization. Suddenly every department was expected to account for everything it did. No longer could one have a feature on a telephone unless the department was willing to pay extra for it. The extra feature would improve productivity across campus and would actually cost nothing to provide, but departments were required to be self-financing, so Telephone Services had to charge for it, and departments had to consider not using it. Similarly, no longer could maintenance workers, as part of their regular duties, simply fix something because it was broken. Instead someone had to do all the paperwork to report it and have the cost charged to the appropriate department. Preventive maintenance all but disappeared as we entered a mode of waiting until something was broken badly enough that someone was willing to pay to get it repaired. Staff in high USG categories are still spending paid time oiling their chair casters and emptying their own garbage cans, all because Waterloo can't afford to pay people in low USG categories to do it.

That was many years ago, but Waterloo is still stuck in that mode. Staff are so overloaded with the tasks that have to be done that there is no time left over for the innovation and improvement that originally made Waterloo famous.

Due to lack of upkeep, our old in-house systems get too old and we no longer have the expertise or time to do anything about it. So we end up spending millions of dollars on commercial products that, when we're lucky, are almost as good as what we had already developed ourselves, and when we're not, are embarrassing disasters. Just ask anyone involved with class scheduling how much functionality was lost by the conversion to the PeopleSoft system, or anyone involved with admissions how much extra work was required to use the GAP system after it was forced on them. What makes the situation especially bad is that such changes are often announced as a surprise to large numbers of people that could easily have pointed out what was wrong long before Waterloo committed us to them.

Many staff that have been here for decades find ourselves doing nothing but the necessary daily drudgery, with no time to make use of the talent and skills that we were originally hired for. It feels like we're overpaid for what we do, but underpaid for what we're capable of doing. And it's in the name of efficiency that Waterloo is wasting these valuable staff resources.

A colleague recently attended a conference in Toronto and made the mistake of saying he worked in IT support at Waterloo. He was jumped on for the awful mess that the JobMine disaster had presented to the world. (Since that incident, he's now very careful to qualify his position with a specific department and avoids mentioning Waterloo.) Some of these employers said that as a result of their experience they are now choosing to hire their co-op students outside of Waterloo's system; it's just not worth their bother to use the mechanism we provide.

He tells me that expressions like incompetent bozos were used. I've interacted with staff in IST for many years, and no, I definitely don't think that description applies to them. Individually they are very competent and knowledgeable people. As the head of IST said of this: cancelling the project is no reflection whatsoever on their professional competence.

It's while operating as a collective organization that things go wrong, almost the exact opposite of synergy, the total ending up far less that the sum of the individual parts. Amazingly, he added: I believe they did everything that was expected of them. Pause now, and think of the implications of that statement from Waterloo's Administration.

Such projects often start at the top, from the perspective of Waterloo's Administration. Since Management has the responsibility of satisfying that perceived need, it's hardly surprising that the result doesn't meet the actual needs and wishes of the end-users.

One might think that after over 50 years of co-op education, Waterloo would have perfected our co-op hiring infrastructure. But instead we've gone from our original amazing innovation to something that turns employers off. Our students are equally unimpressed with it, but they have little choice in the matter. Is this really the way Waterloo wants the world to see us?

Two years ago, the Information Technology Task Force presented a report recommending that more services be centralized. Generally such a change can be a good idea that can lead to greater efficiencies across campus. But the Task Force failed to recognize the reality of life outside of the Administrative Tower.

A look at the report's Appendix C should have alerted the Task Force that there was something obviously wrong with their view of the situation. This list of successful IT developments at UW covers a period of over six years, yet contains only four examples: one is the establishment of a new policy, one is the establishment of a new advisory committee, one is the purchase of an external product (which we've since decided to drop), and one is a real development, but originating in a small department, not from the centralized support group.

Compiling a list of failed projects would have been far easier. It must have been difficult for the authors to have come up with even that depressingly poor and short list of successful developments, yet somehow Administration feels that we need to proceed with this idea.

Even where everyone agrees that centralization of a service really would be beneficial, it often doesn't go right. Replacing our collection of multiple types of photocopying equipment with a small unified set maintained by a central unit could have provided us with a lot of efficiency and reduced the overhead in every department on campus. But once again Waterloo settled for good enough. Yes, we now have the same equipment everywhere, but the efficiency of having it maintained by a few highly experienced staff was dropped. Most of the maintenance still has to be done by individual departments, and within them by inexperienced staff that often have to spend significant time learning to do the work each time.

A few years ago we were preparing to move to a common Web maintenance system, and most faculties were already using, or willing to use, one known as Drupal. Waterloo then spent a fortune in research, committees, and reports and eventually decided to pick a far less popular system. After spending another fortune in equipment and training, the deal for that system fell through, and then guess what? Waterloo decided that Drupal would be a suitable system. All that time, effort, and money that could have been used on something productive had been wasted, and all because of political pressure from the top, not because of any real need. The end-users knew what they wanted all along, but instead of allowing the natural progression of events to proceed, somehow Waterloo's Administration got in the way.

Where is the vision and innovation that would allow Waterloo to occasionally say that something that initially seemed like a good idea actually isn't? Instead, like a person with borderline personality disorder, Waterloo often builds on its mistakes rather than backtracking and doing it over. And as with someone with sociopathic personality disorder, it often appears that making decisions is more important than what the actual decisions are.

As long as centralized services are driven by what the Administration perceives as service, they are not going to be successful. A one-size-fits-all solution provided by centralized services often doesn't fit very well. If we were to centralize within Waterloo's current environment, it wouldn't be long before individual departments were again building their own support groups. That would not be the result of a political power struggle, but of actual need. Services must be driven by the clients, not by Administration.

Over the last few decades Waterloo might have maintained its academic excellence, but internally it has deteriorated very badly. (That is perhaps best symbolized by a parallel change that has taken place: Waterloo used to be famous for the amusing ducks bobbing about on Laurel Creek and Sick Bay; now it's famous for the goose droppings on its sidewalks.)

If Waterloo can't reverse this deterioration, can't regain its internal strengths and public reputation, it's never going to achieve the external goals our President has set forth. Like a mansion built on sand, Waterloo's foundational pillars will be impressive for a while, but they won't stand up to the test of time.