With the death of Dr. Robert C. Wallace on January 29th, Canada lost one of its outstanding educators of the past generation. He was a university president for close to a quarter-century, first at Alberta and then at Queens, and in that time he left a strong mark on Canadian higher education.
Dr. Wallace was trained in science, and in his younger days was a noted field geologist; he is given much of the credit for uncovering the mineral wealth of northern Manitoba. Unlike many practical scientists, however, he had a deep and lifelong interest in liberal studies such as literature, languages, history and philosophy, and considered that they were an essential part of all true education, no matter what profession the student ultimately intended to enter. He fought hard to retain for these studies their proper place in the Canadian university curriculum and prevent them being crowded out by practical and vocational courses. His influence was a powerful factor in checking the trend to excessive specialization in Canadian universities.
His ability as a university administrator was perhaps most strikingly shown by his work in this province. His term of office at the University of Alberta, from 1928 to 1936, came at the close of the first great period of expansion in the universitys history and extended through the worst years of the depression. This was a time of extreme difficulty. Funds were low, rigid economy had to be practised, and there was constant danger that a drastic reorganization would become necessary, eliminating many departments and destroying much of the work of the founders. It was largely due to Dr. Wallaces wise leadership, and the influence he established with the government and with the public, that this disaster was avoided and the university came through the lean years with its structure intact, ready for a second period of growth.
Dr. Wallaces conception of a universitys function was perhaps best summed up in a speech he delivered in Edmonton in 1934:
"The university is the training ground for clear, consecutive, courageous thinking... It is the place for untrammelled thinking in the fundamentals of human life and conduct and for unbiased appreciation of the values in the aesthetic and moral spheres. It is probably the only place where thinking is free in the deepest sense of the word. At the university men examine the things that have been handed down from the past in the light of their applicability to the present and the future."
To that ideal of education he was always faithful, and no one fought harder to keep it alive in Canada.
Reprinted from Edmonton Journal
Published Winter 1954.