Felicitation Ceremony for Vidya Jothi Professor Willie Mendis

Vidya Jothi Professor Willie Mendis was Felicitated by the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka, at a grand ceremony held at the Institute's Quarterly General Meeting. It was held on July 8, 2017, at the Kingsbury Hotel, Colombo.

Mahamendige Wilfred Joseph Gerrard Mendis, more popularly known as Professor Willie Mendis, is a pioneer Urban Planner in Sri Lanka. He graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Engineering. He began his career in 1967 as an Engineer in the Department of Town and Country Planning of the Ministry of Local Government. It is therin that he was inspired by the disciplines of Town Planning and of Local Government, and of the nexus between the two. His contribution to Sri Lanka’s first ever Urban Re-development Scheme at Maligawatte, had all the hallmarks of a promising career as an Urban Planner.

In 1969, he was awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship to undertake a post-graduate programme in Urban Planning at the University of Strathclyde in the UK. He successfully completed it and graduated with a Master of Science Degree. He was accepted to undertake further research towards a Ph.D., but was required to return to resume duties in Sri Lanka. His commitment to Urban Panning in Sri Lanka, was reflected in his undertaking research for his Master’s Degree on the “ Planning Implications of the Mahaweli Development Project in Sri Lanka”. This work was published in 1972 as the first ever text on this giant project covering nearly 1/3rd of the country’s land mass, and to voluntarily resettle of about a million persons.

The most severe constraint in Sri Lanka to undertake Urban Planning and Development, was the lack of qualified human resources in same, and the reliance on overseas training for a meager one person per year. Hence, in his research dissertation, he strongly recommended the establishment in a Sri Lanka University of a Post-graduate Course in the discipline. Its aim being to create the threshold of a mature converted catchment of persons already having an allied discipline, and who can also be promising teaching Faculty. Thus in 1973 the first – ever post graduate program in Town and County Planning commenced at the then Katubedde Campus of the University of Sri Lanka. The demand for its Graduates peaked in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the creation of the New Capital City of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, and of Urban Housing Development in modernizing the City of Colombo.

The embarking of the practice of Urban Planning mandated the parallel effort to Professionalize the discipline. Accordingly, Professor Mendis was actively associated with the founding of the Institute of Town Planners, Sri Lanka, and of its incorporation by an Act of Parliament No. 23 of 1986.

Its further consolidation was enabled in the same year by the Sri Lanka Institute hosting the first-ever session of the Commonwealth Association of Planners, wherein Planners from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean gathered in Colombo.

In Sri Lanka, the Urban Planning Graduates passing out from the then University of Moratuwa, became the backbone of the Urban Development Authority in Sri Lanka. Their outreach encompassed the development of urban centers other than Colombo City and of its metropolitan area, and also included Tourism development in the Coastal Belt.

In 1983, Professor Mendis was elected as the University Vice-Chancellor, becoming the youngest ever in Sri Lanka to hold that post. He oversaw the affairs of the University during the critical social upheavals which followed thereafter in the country. During his tenure of nearly six-years, the Degree programs in Computer Science and Engineering, Building Economics (Quantity Surveying), and Textile Technology, were established. These are providing the much-needed graduates for the knowledge economy. In addition, the University acquired its first-ever Corporate Plan to embark upon its path as a Centre of Excellence in Technology. The complementary development of Sports facilities enlightened the University’s role as a place of broadened Higher Education.

In 1989, Professor Mendis was seconded to serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as its Minister, Deputy Chief of Mission in our Missions in USA and Canada to integrate Technology Transfer in foreign policy.

In 1997, upon returning to Sri Lanka Professor Mendis was released by the University to be appointed as the Director-General of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, wherein he pioneered its first ever TVEC Plan.

In 1993, Professor Mendis assumed duties as the Chairman of the Urban Development Authority. Thereafter, he assumed duties at the University to mentor the commencement in 2003 of the Undergraduate Programme leading to the 4- year Honours Degree Couse in Town and Country Planning. It’s Graduates were expected to be absorbed into the Local Authorities and Provincial Councils as per the expectations of these Institutions.

In 2007, Professor Mendis retired from University Service. It’s Council conferred the Award of the title of Professor Emeritus. It also bestowed the Honorary Doctorate at 2008, University Convocation.

In 2010, the Institute of Town Planners, Sri Lanka, bestowed its first ever Lifetime Achievement Award to Professor Mendis.

In his research work, Professor Mendis has 07 Books, (including that of Local Government in Sri Lanka) and over 60 Publications in Journals and others.

The construction made in the 1960’s by Professor Mendis towards the planning and development of Sri Lanka’s pioneering Urban Re-development Scheme at Maligawatte has been a landmark in Urban Planning.

In addition, the contribution made in the 1970’s by Professor Mendis to plan and develop the Mahiyangana Sacred Area Scheme and its New Town Development, paved the way for change therein.

Professor Mendis’ footprint was evident in the contributions made by him in the 1970’s to plan and develop small townships such as Hasalaka, Divulapitiya, and in Sri Lanka’s North.

The most significant contribution made by Professor Mendis was in the period 1983 to 1989, when he served as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa. His “baptism of fire” was the massive destruction which took place in Colombo and its suburbs, two days after he assumed duties on 21 July 1983. He ensured the safety of nearly 450 Tamil students at the University by caring for them within the University premises, and thereafter at the Ratmalana Airport Hangers, with the co-operation of  the armed services at the KotelawalaDefence Academy. Furthermore, within a week, with the approval of HE the President all these students were transported to Jaffna. All the Sinhala University Students co-operated in this major humanitarian exercise.

The Tamil speaking Staff were also ensured safety, and their families were personally visited by Professor Mendis although several had their homes destroyed.

The affairs of the University were gradually brought to normalcy, including the accommodation of Sri Lankan Undergraduates who were in probable danger to their safety in Indian Universities.

Meanwhile, a Corporate Plan was drafted to create the pathway to develop the University as a Center for Technological Excellence. It was the first for a Sri Lankan University.As per same, three Degree programs were established. These being in Computer Science and Engineering, Textile Technology, and in Building Economics (Quantity Surveying). These have formed the foundation for the technological and human resource transformation for the benefit of Sri Lanka’s economic growth.

The complementary contribution of Professor Mendis was in the establishment of the Arthur.C.Clarke Center for Modern Technologies in the vicinity of the University, for which its Chancellor Dr. Arthur C. Clarke agreed to donate the complete cost of the Center’s inaugural building. It’s commencement introduced the TV receiving Disc Antenna donated by DrArthur.C.Clarke’s admirers in the USA.

The technological leap which enabled the University to the front in Sri Lanka was further accelerated by the successful negotiation by Professor Mendis to access a massive grant from JICA to Sri Lanka. It enabled modern technology based plant, machinery and lab equipment (including computer and communication facilities), to be installed in the various Departments of Study. Its outcome was a major change in technology upgrading in teaching facilities.

Yet another technology introduced by Professor Menids in the 1980’s for the first time in Sri Lanka was that of Solar Power. Its research project installed PVC Panels at Sinhagama in Kantale as a substitute for Kerosene Lamps to deter/detect Elephants from the village homes. Regrettably, the project was abandoned after a few months, as  Sinhagama was attacked by Terrorists. On the other hand, a “Solar Farm” was installed within the University to light up a limited section of the street near the Department of Civil Engineering.

In his own discipline of Town Planning, Professor Mendis was the lead promoter who founded the compact of the Profession (by the establishment of the incorporated Institute of Town Planners, Sri Lanka), its Education (by being associated with the establishment of the Post-Graduate and Undergraduate Degree Programmes), and of its Global Outreach (by establishing the Institute Membership in the SAARC Association and in the Commonwealth Association of Planners). This has ensured the backbone of the Profession for the country to benefit from the trend in urbanization engulfing Sri Lanka. Its benefit to the GDP growth has huge promise.

Professor Mendis during his tenure at the Missions in USA and Canada brought Sri Lanka’s Universities and its qualification standards to the forefront in the corresponding institutions thereat. Consequently, during the long period of closure at Sri Lankan Universities in the late 1980’s, many Sri Lankan Undergraduates were able to complete their Degree Programs at the overseas Universities. Even collaboration arrangements were promoted.

The contribution made by Professor Mendis to formulate the first Development Plan of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC, enabled the compilation into a single database the multitude of courses being conducted by the State, and the Private Sectors in Sri Lanka. He also initiated the Registration of these Institutes, thereby bringing confidence in standards and facilities to the Sri Lankan students enrolling in Technical and Vocational education programs.

Professor Mendis has brought much repute to Sri Lanka through his representation of the Country at many international for a throughout the world.

by Plnr. Deshabandu Surath Wickramasinghe