Remembering the ‘father of the modern Western’

With the death of Grant Reuber, the Western community mourns the loss of a vital force in the university’s progress over a half century. Those who called him friend are stunned by the disappearance of a truly remarkable man who had seemed indestructible.

The obituary in the Western News (Western mourns death of former Chancellor, economist, July 9) summed up well Reuber’s extraordinary career in academia, finance and public service. And Western president Amit Chakma was right in saying that Reuber’s large contributions in so many roles at Western were unrivalled.

But for those who knew him only slightly or by reputation, I want to try to go beyond the bare outline of his achievement with a remembrance of the quality of his leadership.

I was privileged to have worked closely with Grant when he was Dean of Social Science and then Provost and Vice-President (Academic). In fact, it was he who persuaded me to integrate a lengthy administrative stint into my academic career.

REUBER

When he, with no forewarning or prior interaction, asked me to serve as Assistant Dean, I was hesitant to veer away from the career of teacher and historian that had given me so much joy. Calmly, he assured me he hoped to make sure I could do both. And he stuck by his promise.

Our background, age, temperaments, style and academic emphasis differed, but these divergences never imperiled our working easily and productively together. I learned much from him – and maybe he learned a little from me. He was not pleased with the affirmative-action-for-women agenda that emerged from the Educational Policy Committee under my chairmanship. But he let the resolutions go to the floor of Faculty Council. When they passed, he bought me a drink at the Faculty Club.

If the undistinguished architecture of the new Social Science Centre evoked the epithet of “Grant’s Tomb,” his retort was that the quality of the activities inside the building were more important than the exterior. And, as if to prove his point, he staged the most impressive conference of local and international scholars ever to accompany the dedication of a building on Western’s campus. (The principal papers were published in a book we co-edited, Perspectives on the Social Sciences in Canada.)

Every department in the Faculty of Social Science gained stature under Grant’s leadership, especially the Economics Department, whose foundations he had built as chair. Criteria for tenure, promotion, and merit pay were strengthened. Though he personally never fully embraced the advent of the computer culture, he very early had the vision to create the Social Science Computing Lab, with untold dividends to the scholars who made creative use of it.

His ethos in Social Science carried over to the university, at large, when he was appointed to the Provost’s position (and persuaded me to accompany him in the newly created position of Vice Provost).

Hoping, as he once put it, to make Western “the Harvard of Canada,” Grant set ambitious standards in everything he did, using budgetary incentives to award academic excellence and innovation.

Reuber had a reputation for being overly concerned with the research activity of academia, as opposed to excellence in undergraduate teaching. In this, as in many dimensions, he grew. At a time before the Senate committee structure was elaborated, it was the Provost who weighed promotion and tenure cases where recommendations of departments, faculties and deans were controverted. He sought my advice on such cases, and I can personally attest to Grant’s acceding to argument for granting tenure to truly exemplary teachers with more modest research records, many of whom went on to become outstanding members of Western’s academic community.

While successfully promoting research, and the need to obtain greater outside funding for such, he was receptive to ideas for enhanced student services, establishment of a Provost’s Advisory Committee on Teaching and Learning and, even more important, expanding Western’s role in providing adult learners with opportunities for continuing their education, whether for degrees or for professional and personal development.

This is just the briefest sketch of highlights of what Grant Reuber’s energy, intellect and capacity for growth achieved during the five years I worked so closely with him. There are dozens of vignettes I could muster to illustrate the strength and sensitivity of his leadership, but as I know from personal signals later in his life, he was not fully comfortable in having too many encomiums heaped upon him. Besides, many of these matters more properly belong in the treasure trove of private memory.

Others will no doubt have different remembrances. Yet none who knew Grant well will gainsay the immensity of his commitment and contribution to Western, and not just during his terms of active service.

Years later, as Chancellor, his dedication and, of course, knowledge made him exemplary. In our last phone call, only a few weeks ago, a prime focus, as ever, was “How are things going at the university?”

This son of Western was also in important ways father of the modern Western. If it has not yet become the Harvard of Canada, its progress in that direction owes much to Grant Reuber.

And so do I.

Thomas Guinsburg is a History Professor Emeritus at Western.