Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Dear Colleague:  2

Ah! Those good old days! I remember pushing myself into a meeting of the Dawson Board of Governors held on the first floor of the Selby Campus. That must have been back in 1971 or so. The narrow spaces between the governors' chairs and the room's cardboard walls were packed with people wrapped in rags, sweat and smoke. Human warmth had a concrete quality in those days of humanity before efficiency.  3

Paul Gallagher, Dawson's first Director General, breached the din with sonorous cadenzas. "Having said this," he would advance another point after many lengthy, and by his audience mostly forgotten, preambles. The Board's Chairman took it all in his stride as he methodically recognized speaker after speaker with no visible preference for rank or rankness. Just once I heard him raise his voice. That was when a lanky student entered, head slightly aslant to offer his shoulder as a comfy perch to a scurvy, but adorable feline. "The pussy-cat's got to go," the Chair interrupted the proceedings, thereby staking out a limit for decorum.  4

We don't have Board meetings like that anymore. At the ones I attended, in 1988, even improprieties wore a decent dress of niceties and stale witticisms.  5

You may remember me mentioning that year's January 11 meeting. I then presented six cases of a management style that commands neither respect nor trust. I had learned about them without much attempt at gathering office scuttlebutt and I should think there must have been plenty more where those had come from.  6

First there was the story of a technician who suspected that a payslip would be her last because of some unusual scribble. Upon enquiry she learned that, indeed, she had been laid off. I don't even know her, but I thought that was pretty bad and ought be brought to the Board's attention. I must have misjudged for when I had done with my examples I met with a silence that I can still hear. You tell me, would you not rather have a pussy-cat mar the decorum of your deliberations.  7

* * *

Why bring this up again, this old hash? Well, I would not if not for some lessons that derive from my observations.  7

We all know that serving on our Board is a sacrifice. Without remuneration, Dawson directors play an important role that demand time and attention. We must be thankful to them and treat them accordingly. Nevertheless, sometimes things happen, things are said or laughed about that seem of minor significance at the time, but which are disturbing when considered in a larger context. Maybe they occur because committee standards tend to dissolve personal standards; groups tend to subjugate individual responsibility—a subject, incidentally, that is a major thread in this letter's weave and in the next's.  8

It is important to wonder, I believe, how ostensibly innocent improprieties that creep into mutual understandings at the top may stirr things down the line. Especially when they are sanctified with a knwing chuckle by "men of the world." They can pop up at meetings everywhere. I have observed this phenomenon at annual meetings of corporate boards and I have seen it at departmental meetings. Informal things that lead to informal structures, structures that can conduct a view of things faster than official hierarchies of responsiblity. They can suggest modes of behavior down the line that are undesirable and undesired. They can lead to hurting people well away from the Board's sight, or make employees avert their gaze from, and clam up about what they feel can't be changed anyway.  9

* * *

I hoped that things would go better after the 1988 move to the new campus and the relief of pressure on those at the top, who, let's recognize it have worked hard under unusual circumstances. And they probably have. But unforunately, for some of us the odor is still strong and we long for a fresher environment.  10

This time I, too, have to breathe it, endure what to me is a blend of juvenile and destructive interference, and threats in the air. It seems to me there is something quite wrong here. Something insidious. Some understanding somewhere, maybe, or a suspicion that I occupy a special place in the brass's spittoon. To show that this is no trifle I put in this letter's right-hand space words, alleged to have been spoken all of three years ago, but words of a timely quality, and which I only recently learned about. How does it feel to live and work under such a threat? How often has this kind of poison been administered, in private so that the principal evidence of its existence is me trusting the veracity of colleague's words? How many people think such a verbal dagger, used entre-nous, is an acceptable tool of management?  11

* * *

I gave an earlier version of this letter to Gerrard Kelly* before sending it off to print. Good man he is. He can tell it like it is, but in a softer, gentler way. In our big college it will take time for all to get to know him. I am confident, though, we shall discover he is a fine builder, but one who works from a different plan. I shouldn't be surprised if the foundation, the invisible part underground, is nearly complete.*  12

Do not think that my letters are censored by the D.G. They are not. What I write is my business, not his. In this one instance I had asked him to look at a page or two to help avoid injustice in a place where I found it hard, but important to judge.  13

He didn't like what I had written. He thought it was written to hurt. I didn't feel good about it myself even though the letter seemed to make sense in the context of what I am doing.  14

Seemed not seems. He put his finger on a sore spot. My writing conflicted with a vital principle, that we must seek to foster: a climate of respect and trust. Hence, the letter needed more thought, more time. As many letters about people do.  15

* * *

This still isn't good reading, but I can't escape the scenery. As for myself, I view my problems as a source of aggravation more than a matter of life and death. Of greater interest to me is Fleabyte, the pocket computer. It is important and fascinating and I love to devote more attention to it, even though it probably demands greater intellect and range of skills than I can muster.  16

At first I perceived the 2000-byte pocket computer as an aid for improving insight in arithmetic, but soon it became clear that such a truly personal computer can help gather and interpret information, help us learn and think. With this in mind I applied three years ago for a grant under Québec's Programme d'Aide à la Recherche sur la Pédagogie et l'Apprensitage.  17

I never did receive the grant, nor am I now looking for it. The reason for bringing it up here is that the grant hearing and its aftermath proved quite enlightening.  18

That hearing was held at the Collège André Laurendeau on April 23, 1987 and here is a shortened version of a record I made:  19

I had been assured that the interview would be held in English, but just before entering the room I was told that questions would be posed in French, but that I could answer in English. Although I do not consider this unfair in a setting of goodwill, it did not allow me to adequately deal with the defence of my application.  20

I had to guess at the gist of the questions by trying to catch a word here and a phrase there and just hope that my responses would be germane. Inevitably a linguistic blunder on my part caused some merriment which does not add to one's feeling of comfort. In all fairness, I believe that some people around the table were uncomfortable with English and I acknowlege the occasional help of one gentleman. But on the whole, the interview was unpleasant and demeaning and made me feel if the sins of Westmount* were on my shoulders.  21

It became evident that the members were not asking questions about the project per se, but instead paid an inordinate amount of attention to peripheral issues such as the number of courses a student must take, cost of pocket computers, a possible requirement of computer literacy—concerns about secondary consequences of a successful project. I took it at first that the project was well understood and that this was just polite conversation, but comments in a subsequent note of rejection confirm a discrepanct between my written proposal and the interview. It showed that (some) of my interviewers were not up to their task—or had not read my submission.  22

An added problem was that the committee members had not been properly introduced to me and their affiliations and areas of expertise not made known. How could I address anonymous people on a rather complex subject? In my mind, the treatment reflected a degree of either contempt or uncouthness by government bureaucrats.  23

These quotes are from a letter to my MNA, The Hon. Clause Ryan, who also is the Minister of Education. What followed gave me a clearer view of the way things are done in the corridors of power. I found the Minister's trust abused by his staff and that dispersed responsibility quite readily gets one a place in the spittoon.  20

Henry K van Eyken  21

Footnotes, added in 2017

Gerrard Kelly was Director General at the time. He had been brought in from outside Dawson College.  fn1  *

It turned out that he did not last long. I believe that his experience at Dawson soured on him.  fn2  *

July 31, 2018. Westmount is, or was, primarily an upper-class English neighborhood in an overwhelming French-speaking environment and there was a time, now long ago, that many Quebec Anglophones would express disparaging views of their Francophone fellow Quebeckers. Half a century of social and political reaction has put an end to this.  fn3  *

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To the Dawson Community:

"... the Board of Governors reviewed and gave formal support to ... the establishment of a climate of respect and trust between the administration and other groups within the College."

A junior administrator to a colleague:

"I put [one] in the hospital. You will be next."  00