Reflections On My Career At The University Of Toronto

January 2019

Tenure is essential for a university dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. That is the principal conclusion I draw from my experience as a member of the University of Toronto’s (U of T) Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) from 1965 until retirement in 2003. By tenure I mean that faculty are not subject to periodic reappointment even at intervals as long as a decade, and with dismissal for cause being possible only after an appropriately balanced formal process.

In this account I explain why I hold this opinion, focusing particularly on my variegated research career and the lessons I learned from it. I also comment on other matters arising from my experience that may be of long term value for university life. These include: problems associated with the evaluation of teaching; the corrosive nature of close research cooperation with industry in the hard sciences; and the rise of questionable scholarship in certain disciplines. I conclude by suggesting that SAFS might wish to engage more forcefully with this issue.

When I joined UTIAS my research interests were largely a consequence of my youthful passion for space flight, namely in the mechanics of hypersonic fluid flows. As that term suggests, these are flows at speeds much greater than the local speed of sound; they are encountered by spacecraft passing through the upper atmosphere. I established a research programme based on a hypersonic wind-tunnel. There were some achievements leading to the necessary archive journal publications; for example, my first doctoral student, the late Walter Koziak, proved feasible an idea I proposed for the difficult task of measuring fluid densities in such flows. Also—germane to a major theme of this essay—I published, a “pencil-and-paper” solution to the flow about a simple geometry then seen to be of marginal interest. A quarter century later, this solution, which relied on physical insights of a type now often glossed over or ignored by digital computer methods, played a key role in validating a difficult-to-interpret experiment.

But, its romantic nature notwithstanding, even at that time, the subject was becoming unfashionable, leading to funding difficulties. Furthermore, other circumstances prevented me from fully exploiting the prospects opened up by Koziak’s development, causing a dearth of the publications desirable for both senior promotion and obtaining continued research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Influenced by UTIAS’s strong tradition of intellectual versatility, I sought other areas. Imbued with the idea that academic engineering researchers should seek projects that might foster development of Canadian industry, I accepted a challenge to develop a programme investigating the dynamics of air cushion vehicles (ACV), also known as hovercraft. At the time certain Federal Government agencies responsible for promoting transportation and industrial development saw promise in these vehicles, especially for sparsely populated Northern regions of Canada. Our work focussed on the flexible elastomer skirts that are a characteristic feature of the modern ACV. Inflated by the pressure of the cushion air, they enable ACVs to traverse a variety of overland and marine environments inaccessible to conventional vehicles or ships.

The object of our research was to develop, as a design aid, mathematical models of the dynamics of these skirt systems. For those not familiar with the “hard” sciences, it is essential to understand that one cannot proceed by directly expressing the applicable laws of physics in appropriate mathematical form, and then by solving the equations. Modern computer developments notwithstanding, this is not now feasible, nor is it likely even in the distant future. To obtain a tractable model one must use both past experience and physical insights to simplify the problem, with the insights often obtained from theoretical and experimental investigations of simplified configurations. This is a key point often lost on those promoting university-industry collaboration.

At first my decision to embark on the air cushion dynamics programme seemed wise: given a Federal Government agency’s interest in ACVs, I was able to secure substantial funding enabling construction of test facilities, the most prominent of which was a 43 meter diameter circular test track enclosed in a mushroom-shaped dome that is a feature of the UTIAS campus. My research group was awarded research contracts having sufficient funds to enable us to investigate air cushion systems then under development.

Absent tenure I would not have had the courage to embark on the air cushion dynamics project. Given the protracted period involved in bringing it from conception to production of results having lasting value, and given its later history, it is clear that, without tenure, such a move would indeed have been foolhardy.

At times the problems seemed endless. For example, it was not a traditional aerospace field so that I had difficulty recruiting graduate students having the requisite talents. Also there were difficulties in finding high quality journals that would accept papers on ACV projects. For these and other reasons, even with an employment contract lasting a decade, my continued employment might have been at the whim of an ambitious administrator who saw new funding prospects for another topic.

Adding to these problems are those arising from close collaboration with industry. Perhaps the most serious is related to the crucial distinction to be made between investigations of configurations proposed for industrial development, on the one hand, and those chosen to provide insight into the physics involved, on the other. The complexity of the former usually makes them extremely difficult to interpret. Eventually the work that turned out to be publishable—and thus of lasting value—was based on data obtained from simplified configurations that one government official dismissed as suitable only for undergraduate demonstrations.

Not least among the difficulties arising from industrial collaboration were attempts by contract liaison officials to impose management techniques suitable to industry but completely out of place in thesis-based research. These caused me much personal stress; not having an established reputation in the field, I could not tell them where they should file their prescriptions. An amusing incident illustrates the point; it occurred during a review of progress in a project involving electrical engineering developments. One official asserted that he would manage a doctoral candidate by having the student, at an early stage, compile a list of thesis chapter titles, and then hand in the completed chapters at suitable intervals. The principal electrical engineering collaborating researcher, U of T’s respected Gordon Slemon, responded “That is the definition of a project too simple for a doctoral thesis.”

The 1984 election of the Mulroney Government led to effective termination of our support. Among other things we were unable to complete the experiments based on the 43 metre circular test track, obtaining in the process only one journal publication. One project, however, continued for a few years: it investigated a novel Canadian invention that held promise for materials handling and warehouse storage. We collaborated with the inventor’s company, but the inventor died suddenly, following which the new management terminated support. Thus my air cushion vehicle research terminated long before it could achieve its full potential.

I initially thought that the problems I encountered in these industrial collaboration projects were peculiar to the nascent air cushion technology industry, but for all the reasons I cite, I have since learned that almost all industrial collaboration projects involve these difficulties, even to the point of being counterproductive. As a former director of UTIAS familiar with such projects observed, it is “fitting a square peg into a round hole.” The recent Harper Government’s emphasis on promoting such arrangements is a prescription for descent into mediocrity.

My concern about the usefulness of student rating of teaching effectiveness initially arose as a result of a UTIAS policy of periodically rotating the teaching of basic undergraduate courses such as introductory mechanics amongst faculty. In a three or four year cycle, one would have expected ratings to improve with practice at presenting the material. But this was often not the case, both for me and other colleagues. For one course, introductory fluid mechanics, I spent considerable effort preparing handouts in form giving explanatory text, with the students expected to write in mathematical developments I presented on the blackboard. Given that writing out mathematical expressions is an effective way of inculcating understanding, I considered this to be an advance in my technique. Besides, it allowed a more relaxed mode of presentation, giving among other things, more time for both appropriate lecturer-student interaction and the presentation of interesting background material. Preparing such notes was very time-consuming and, to my dismay, it had little effect on my ratings. Out of curiosity I devised my own diagnostic questionnaire, which I asked the students to fill out at the time when they were expected to fill out the standard Faculty instrument. The student responses to mine were bimodal; many students liked it, but there was usually a large fraction who disliked it. Needless to say I discontinued the practice.

My concern about the dubious value of the faculty questionnaire was heightened as a result of work I performed as chair of the Faculty’s Teaching Methods and Resources Committee. I prepared a report which surveyed the psychological and related literature on teaching evaluation through questionnaires (Sullivan, 1975).

In sum, this literature indicated that—to use the appropriate psychological terms—student questionnaires are reliable but not valid. That is, they were measuring something about the personality of the lecturer or the psychodynamics of the particular classroom presentation, but not anything related to student learning. Although I prepared this essay in 1975, and have not followed the literature since, I believe that this disturbing conclusion remains correct. For example, a colleague recently informed me of evidence showing that the results of questionnaires administered at the end of a term-long course differed little from those obtained near the commencement. My concern is that, at a time of increasing government demands for accountability, use of these questionnaires by ill-informed administrators could affect morale and, possibly, harm careers.

My encounter with questionable scholarship was precipitated by the 1989 Montreal Massacre, in which a male refused admission to the École Polytechnique murdered fourteen women students. In the ensuing outcry, because—in marked contrast with other disciplines—female engineering school enrolment seemed stuck at traditionally low levels, engineering schools were subject to extensive criticism. As a member of a Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering committee established to find ways of making our student experience more hospitable to women, I sought a deeper understanding by reading certain feminist critiques. To my dismay, much of this literature seemed both technically incompetent and corrupted by advocacy. Further reading led me to similar concerns about the quality of the scholarship in related disciplines, such as the sociology of science and anthropology. Much of this literature seems to be suffused with notions of postmodernism which, inter alia, rejects “the picture of knowledge as accurate representation [and of] truth as correspondence to reality” (Magnus, 1999).

For me, a key related question revolves around the issue of whether social values contaminate scientific knowledge. It seems to me that a convincing demonstration of the presence of social values in the content of such knowledge requires showing that it occurs in disciplines where the knowledge has become stable, or has a record of accurate prediction. In an anthology expressing concerns about the postmodernist project, I described two studies of this type: a feminist critique of fluid mechanics, and an analysis by a prominent Edinburgh sociologist of an early 20th Century dispute between two prominent statisticians on ways to interpret the effectiveness of vaccination data (Sullivan, 1998). I argued that both studies are fatally flawed. The first is riddled with elementary technical errors, making its subsequent case for male bias meaningless. The second ignores fundamental mathematical questions at issue in the dispute, leading its author to cast about for implausible sociological explanations. In a second essay (Sullivan, 2005), I expressed further concerns about related broader issues.

To conclude, as a SAFS member since 1992, I continue to admire and support its work on academic freedom. Nevertheless I have occasionally felt that SAFS pays insufficient attention to the scholarship aspect. In this respect, a recent op-ed piece in the National Post (December 7, 2018) suggests that, especially for the humanities, it could become a political issue. A 2003 conference at the University of Toronto organized by former SAFS president John Furedy and entitled “Excellence through equity: Confronting tensions in universities” provides an example of activities that SAFS might wish to repeat.


  • Magnus, B. 1999. Postmodern. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Robert Audi, general editor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 725-726.

  • Sullivan, P. 1975. An Essay on Student Evaluation of Teaching. Unpublished report.

  • —. 1998. An Engineer Dissects Two case Studies: Hayles on Fluid Mechanics and MacKenzie on Statistics. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. Noretta Koertge, editor. New York: Oxford University Press, 71-98.

  • —. 2005. Are Postmodernist Universities and Scholarship Undermining Modern Democracy? Scientific Values and Civic Virtues. Noretta Koertge, editor. New York: Oxford University Press, 172-190. (Originally presented at the 2003 SAFS conference noted above.)