Western University Computer ScienceWestern Science

    The Elcock Years

    by Ted Elcock (1994)

    This installment of departmental history takes up where the previous installment by Dr. John Hart leaves off. Edward W. Elcock served as the Department Chair during the turbulent years from 1973 to 1983. After his retirement in 1990, Ted Elcock and his wife Marjorie emigrated to British Columbia where they lived on Vancouver Island overlooking the Georgia Strait. Ted passed away in 2008.



    Ted Elcock

    My history, like Gaul, may be divided into three parts; technical items, emotional items and that useful catch-all, "other".

    technical items

    There were several important technical decisions which had a major impact on both the department (as perceived by the students) and on the university as a whole in determining the evolution of the campus computing environment. The first decision was taken when John Hart was department Head. Against strong opposition, Hart persuaded the powers that be that IBM paternalism was no substitute for DEC technology. The Computing Centre (now called Computing and Communications Services) installed a DEC-10 in 1968 with major benefits for the university computing community at large and for the Department of Computer Science (CSD) in particular.

    The second important decision came during my first term as Chair. The Social Science Computing Laboratory (SSCL), initiated a leveraged takeover of first year computer science courses for Social Science students. We reached an uneasy but typically Western compromise that gave the SSCL initial responsibility for a number of the first year tutorial laboratories. The arrangement was to run for three years with a review and a decision about the future of Social Science computing at the end of this period.

    Unfortunately, it was hardly a level playing field. The SSCL and CSD had quite different student computing environments. Thanks to generous grants from the Ivey Foundation, the SSCL had a state-of-the-art, time-shared, twenty-five terminal laboratory while the CSD still ran under an antiquated I/O system in which students prepared programs, queued to submit them, and, sometime later, queued to learn that they hadn't compiled due to bugs. My pitch to Dr. Scott, then Dean of Science, was that we did indeed stand to lose Social Science computing with, in my opinion, unfortunate educational and financial consequences. All this despite the fact that under just these considerations the UWO Senate had just passed a motion that all introductory courses for the Computer Science program should be taught by our department and our department alone.

    I managed to convince Dean Scott that the only remedy was to upgrade our own computing environment to a level comparable to that of the Social Sciences. Fortunately, money wasn't the issue then that it is now. We received financing to install a 25-terminal laboratory with servers, printers and so on. The incredible thing, however, was that we succeeded in convincing ourselves that the changeover was important enough to implement immediately, namely during the Christmas break! DEC assured Lori McHardy, our system manager at the time, that it could be and would be done. Lori therefore assured me and I, in turn, assured the Dean. It was done. But I can't recall a more nerve-wracking Christmas!

    I should also put on record that the three year period of the agreement with Social Science was a major stress factor during my early days as Chair. For those of you who have never negotiated with Ed Hannis, you will simply have to take my word for it. The final review was in our favour and, I still think, appropriate. We continue to offer the only introductory courses in computer science.

    Another technical item of major importance surfaced shortly after the arrival of President George Connell in 1977. Since the installation of the DEC-10, the CSD had become and remained the dominant user of the facility. This was especially true in connection with courses and their sometimes extremely heavy demands during assignment and project due dates. The budget charging algorithm used by the University Computing Centre (UCC) was, to say the least, archaic. But it presented the Department with no insuperable problems. However, the time came when the UCC made the case for a major upgrade of its computing facility and this coincided with the arrival of the new president.

    Quite understandably, Connell wanted reassurance that any money spent on the upgrade would be well spent. A committee nominated by Connell sat for a year or so and eventually came up with a charging algorithm. Briefly, it was "grandfather based": All the major players were given budgets commensurate with what they had spent in the past. Some had even anticipated this situation by artificially inflating their spending! As the major user of the facility, the CSD kept a reasonable budget share but there was no recognition that this had to be spent during critical teaching periods. Fortunately, I was a member of SCUP, the Senate Committee on University Planning, chaired (again) by Connell. I argued that there was little use to give the Department "computer dollars" if they could not, because of a lack of priorities, be spent when needed. The discussions in SCUP became quite heated to the point where the late (and very respected) Sarah Shorten claimed that George was abusing the privileges of the chair in arguing against me. At this point, George stepped down from the chair to continue the "discussion" free from such charges! Despite the President's obvious debating skills, sanity finally prevailed and the CSD was given a special spending profile related to assignment requirements. I took this to mean that not all bureaucracy is totally insensitive all the time.

    In any event, the attitudes that surfaced during this period indicated to me that perhaps we ought to be seeking a greater degree of independence from the UCC. Over the second term of my chairmanship, with considerable help from Dean Bancroft, we set up an in-house computing environment that met the essential needs of all years of the Computer Science program, as well as the administrative and research needs of faculty and staff. This service was the forerunner of the environment that everyone now enjoys.

    emotional items

    When I first came to UWO in 1972, my role, as defined by then Head John Hart, was to help focus an artificial intelligence (AI) group consisting of Don Kuehner, Kee Dewdney and Zenon Pylyshyn. AI was then, and possibly still is, like being Canadian - in search of an identity. This ambivalence was apparent in the attitudes of group members. Despite their undoubted individual talents, a coherent research plan evaded us and I found the consequent lack of progress discouraging.

    Then, a year after my arrival at UWO, John Hart resigned as Head. So, after a short inter-regnum and after some blackmail, I changed from enthusiastic colleague to reluctant manager. I am sure that any person who goes through such a change would agree that relations with your friends are forever altered.

    For example, departmental funding from the National Research Council (now the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council - NSERC) was then minimal. Several faculty members were either unfunded or stood in imminent danger of being so. Merely as their colleague, I would consider that to be their problem. But as the Chairman, I realized that the viability of the graduate program and the status of the Department within the Faculty of Science depended almost entirely on this funding.

    In an attempt to reverse this trend, I sent out a memo that now, with hindsight, seems a bit pompous. In the memo I reminded my colleagues of the need for research viability and asked them how they intended to spend their summer. Some didn't answer. One member (probably my closest friend at the time) replied through the Departmental secretary just to make sure it was an open response. "Oh, I expect to do some sailing, have lots of sex and, possibly, get to know myself better." To be fair, this person was not among the faculty that I worried about most. I never made the same mistake again but Chairman since my tenure certainly have.

    A related problem came up in the matter of promotion and tenure. Again, a good friend and even an excellent teacher could be an embarrassing tenure candidate because of the emphasis on published research and associated peer review by the research councils that held the purse-strings. More stress! I became aware, in the process, that many of the tenured departmental committee members making the decision would themselves probably not qualify if put forward at that time. Even more stress! But who said life was fair?

    Of all the emotional hurdles I had to cross, none was worse than the deaths of two very respected faculty members during my second term of office. Both died of cancer.

    Julian Davies whom I was largely responsible for inviting to join us from the University of Edinburgh, was a keen researcher in communication systems and in developing systems for handicapped people. Julian was deaf. He was also a Quaker and a very gentle person.

    Don Kuehner and his wife were supportive from the moment of our arrival at Western. Don was already known to me through his work on computational logic, my own research interest. It will be hard to forget the Kuehners since Martha's monochrome print of her cat, Edward, hangs on a prominent living room wall in our Courtenay, B.C. home.

    Don and Julian both faced their death with great courage and dignity. I will never forget their respective, distinctive ways of defeating what defeat many others.

    other matters

    In my first term as Chairman, students entering the honours program had to do so at the beginning of their second year. I think that one of my major contributions to the Department was to simplify this aspect of the progression by setting up a common second year for all programs. I achieved this despite considerable opposition from diehards like Andrew Szilard and Mike Bennett. In order to accomplish this with two such formidable colleagues, I had to employ the same tactic that President Connell would later use on me! I stepped down from the chair of the curriculum committee in order to argue my case (still with the vague powers of the Departmental Chair behind me) without conflict of interest. The tactic was ultimately successful and second year courses were redesigned to be common to all computer science programs. I still believe this to be a major strengthening of our overall program.

    Incidentally, at this time it was considered somewhat akin to deportation to Siberia for a faculty member to be assigned to teach an introductory course. I deliberately taught Computer Science 20 (and 24) for three years so that faculty members could not claim discrimination when so assigned. This does not mean, of course, that senior academics, including me with my difficult Yorkshire/Scottish accent, automatically improved the introductory ambience. Still, I think the net result was a positive improvement.

    In 1981 the CSD threatened to become so popular with UWO students that there was no way we could accommodate the potential enrollments in first and second year without some limiting regulations. We adopted the enrollment limit of 200 students entering second year and 60 entering the third year honours program.

    Burgeoning enrollments in computer science were not limited to Western but constituted a continent-wide phenomenon. Hiring salaries jumped well beyond the salaries of established academics. We clearly needed a totally unusual salary review system. Using guidelines established by the Faculty of Science, I built in a fairly substantial "market upgrade" to the normal, post-PhD curve. We were the first, and possibly, the only department in the Faculty of Science to do this and have it implemented. Curiously, the exercise turned up more than one rather dramatic bias in salary. The biases were corrected, interestingly, without any acknowledgement from the individuals involved. Ah, well. So much for good intentions.

    After ten years I realized that Trudeau notwithstanding, Barbara Streisand was not going to ask me out for dinner then over to her place later for coffee and brandy. It was time to let someone else have a go!