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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2016

Research and reform

W.P. Thompson at the University of Saskatchewan

Review by William Bruneau

Richard Rempel. Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013; 340 pp; ISBN: 978-0-77354-174-0, $49.95 Cad.

All indicators suggest biography is as popular in the 21st as in the late 19th century. No one is sure why, but students of the history and politics of univer­sities are grateful, since bios of professors and presidents are not just about university teachers and students, but about the aims of higher education as well.

Richard Rempel’s welcome biography of Walter P. Thompson (1889­–1970), president of the University of Saskatchewan in the 1950s, joins a too-short list of reliable biographies of Canadian university presidents of the post-Confederation period.

Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, top administrators matter. Rempel’s book shows this was true of Thompson — and says much about the larger aims of post-secondary education in Canada.

Presidential and professorial biographers face a three-part problem: whether to adopt a grand explanation for their subjects’ lives (a psychological or social theory, perhaps); how much context to include (can you write the biography of a rector of the Université Laval without simultaneously writing the history of Quebec?); and how sympathetic (or nasty) to be. Rempel’s book tackles these biographical conundrums explicitly.

In dealing with context, Rempel is something of a star performer. To explain Thompson’s long career as a geneticist at the U of S, particularly in the development of rust-resistant wheat hybrids, Rempel takes us on a trip through the economies and communities of the prairie provinces from 1913 (date of Thompson’s appointment as professor and head of biology) to the 1950s. We learn about grain farming — both the perils and pleasures — and why it was possible for a professor-scientist to be “useful” to his province, yet do basic biological science.

When Rempel describes Thompson’s later administrative careers (first as dean of arts and sciences from 1939 to 1949, and then as president from 1949 until 1959), the reader sees why Thompson insisted new departments in the humanities and social sciences should fulfill broadly utilitarian objectives, yet enable fundamental research. Always, Thompson wanted research and publication, long before university ranking systems or annual page-counts.

It is something of a surprise to see an Ontario farm boy, albeit with the benefit of undergraduate and graduate science degrees from Toronto and Harvard, take up such diverse causes. Nearing the end of his presidency, Thompson supported the creation (1957) of a Centre for Community Studies at the U of S, perhaps unexpected from a natural scientist convinced that only research-heavy fields deserved a home in the university.

One wonders if Thompson-the-administrator might have put up some resistance to the provincial government’s mostly, but not always, discreet insistence on making the university “useful.” In the 21st century, one might say Thompson was listening too much to “the demands of the economy.” But Rempel argues Thompson was primarily concerned with doing solid science, getting his professors to do the same, and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s an intriguing balancing act. Like Rempel, I would like to see more presidents like Thompson in presidential suites — and fewer who simply manage, however well, but without a strong sense of what it is to educate.

Thompson was perhaps most impressive at the tail end of his career, particularly in the groundwork (pp. 188–211, in the first year of his “retirement”) for provincial and national medicare legislation. As chair of the advisory committee that gave form to medicare in Saskatchewan, Thompson gave at least as much to Canada as he did in his scientific work. And his success in this social experiment was of a piece with his earlier educational and administrative work at the U of S: Thompson could not have led the committee to a conclusion, but for his long educational career. Rempel’s discussion of this capstone in Thompson’s life incidentally offers a handy compressed history of the provincial and federal health care systems and their fractious beginnings.

The question remains whether hard-headed realists will “buy” arguments of the sort Rempel makes, given Rempel’s sympathy for his subject.

It is a bit unnerving to read at p. 78 that Thompson was “an open-minded leader, he never attempted or, apparently, desired to thrust his own views upon others.” Much of the book allows a contrary conclusion. Sometimes one is glad Thompson was stubborn and agnostic in ideology and outlook, but Rempel may have gone too far.

Then at p. 91, Rempel praises Thompson’s administrative helpers, whose “fine administrative capacity” was so impressive that all Thompson “knew about business is what I have picked incidentally from them.” To my ears this is a description of a capable, generally collaborative person, but no fool — a detail man, very much in charge of his university. Here Thompson was seriocomic, making revealing fun of himself.

One of Thompson’s reforms was to institute a policy on appointments and promotions that took power out of his hands and gave it to departmental and faculty committees. (pp. 86­–7) This made Thompson a “due-process man,” convinced that collective decision making was sometimes the best way forward. Yet when the U of S faculty association pressed for an elected contingent on the board of governors (pp. 126–31), despite Thompson’s fondness for collective action and bargaining, he was at least partly of the “other side.”

Although the discoveries Thompson made working with wheat chromosomes spread across the country and brought him considerable renown within the scientific community, he asserted he was no academic “star” (see his self-assessment at p. 55). Rempel here confronts his own fondness for Thompson, rearguing the case for his scientific competence: there are lists of Thompson’s publilications, showing how he kept up with ge­netic research; and assessments of Thompson’s methods of staying afloat as teacher, researcher, administrator, and of course father and grandfather.

Rempel has no grand biographical theory, instead relying on straightforward inference from written and oral evidence. Still, without the help of a theory, it is hard to see why Thompson put up with the two presidents before him (Walter Murray and James Thomson).

When the U of S dismissed four professors in 1919, mainly because president Murray wanted them gone, was Thompson too young, and too caught up in his own research, to stand up for academic freedom? Or was he convinced the Famous Four deserved their fate (for making fatuous charges of financial malfeasance)? Rempel deserves credit for exploring all sides of this important and mostly forgotten crisis, but still leaves us wondering, was Thompson too much the team player to oppose Murray in 1919?

On the other hand, Rempel’s sympathy helps the reader to understand the roots of Thompson’s growing commitment to social democracy as the Depression ground on. One sees how he came to agree with the priorities of Tommy Douglas’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government in education and social policy. It’s not so much that Thompson liked Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd, successive CCF premiers of Saskatchewan, but rather he was driven by acute awareness of conditions in small communities across the region.

Rempel is a capable writer and historian, unusually aware of the physical and social circumstances that shaped Thompson’s life work. Rempel is a Saskatchewan product, son of a University of Saskatchewan biology professor, and knew personally many of the people who figure in his biography of Thompson. The author’s knowledge of Thompson’s life and context is well deployed.

The book kept this reviewer’s attention throughout. Its layout and its first-class index help. A few typos escaped the copy editor’s eye, but overall it’s a good and persuasive read.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. He served as CAUT president from 1996–1998. In 2011 he received the CAUT Milner Award for distinguished contributions to the cause of academic freedom.