The UBC Advantage

What makes a good university great? What distinguishing features speak to excellence? These questions face any university that is vying for the best talent and resources in an increasingly competitive global post-secondary landscape.

In the continuing process of creating a new Strategic Plan, it is important to have a clear understanding of UBC’s research and teaching advantages. Can – should – UBC concentrate on these advantages? What do we risk losing if we do? What do we risk not achieving if we choose not to?

In fact, I don’t believe the answer is a binary one; a university like ours is necessarily complex and wonderfully diverse. However, it is worth thinking about what we do that is truly outstanding. It helps us to celebrate our achievements, and helps us determine how much greater yet they might be if we choose to concentrate in certain areas. A Strategic Plan that considers these questions will likely be more successful in pointing the way forward.

I’d like to discuss just some of the hallmarks that distinguish UBC from its peer institutions. These are the characteristics that provide an edge when individuals around the world are considering whether to lend their talent and support to the university.

One of the first things that comes to mind is an evident commitment to sustainability. We inhabit two of the most beautiful university campuses in the world. In a time of global climate change, we have an even greater responsibility to sustainably steward their development.

For example, UBC Okanagan is in an enviable position to take advantage of building sustainability into everything – from the ground up. Actually it starts under the ground: all new UBCO buildings are designed to use geo-exchange technology for heating and cooling; by 2010, all existing buildings will be retrofitted for geo-exchange. We expect to reduce energy costs by about $100,000 a year. From state- of-the-art irrigation systems to enhanced recycling and composting methods, all new buildings are being built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold standards.

In Vancouver, the innovative EcoTrek energy and water campus retrofit, completed in 2006, continues to save the university approximately $2.6 million annually in energy and water costs.

The U-Pass Program, a tribute to the foresight of our students, has reduced the number of cars coming to the Vancouver campus by 22 per cent during a period where the number of students grew by 27 per cent. A similar program is also available at the Okanagan campus.

Our global leadership is being recognized. In 2008, UBC was the only Canadian university, and one of only 15 in North America to earn an A-, the highest grade designated that year, from the Sustainable Endowments Institute of Cambridge Massachusetts.

Academically, the new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) on the Vancouver campus will be one of the two most sustainable buildings on the planet when complete in 2010. What you will see from the outside is the very latest building technology; inside, highly innovative teaching and research will make this a world leader in sustainability scholarship.

UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre uses a multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration with industry, government and other academic institutions to discover and implement environmentally friendly solutions. UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning was Canada’s first dedicated planning school. Our Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability enjoys a superb reputation for fostering sustainable futures through integrated research and learning.

Our highly-cited research in many fields contributes to UBC’s high standing in international rankings. This research excellence is very much a globally distinguishing characteristic of UBC. It may seem unusual, therefore, that when Carl Wieman, the 2001 Nobel Laureate for Physics, chose to come to UBC in 2007, the story wasn’t about research as much as it was about a bold vision for undergraduate teaching.

The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative is already affecting how thousands of UBC Science students learn their disciplines. His new standards to measure teaching effectiveness are the subject of intense international attention. I look forward to his methods serving other disciplines.

Allied to Professor Wieman’s work in Science, the LEAD Initiative (Lasting Education Achieved and Demonstrated), which encourages instructors to identify and share best practices in undergraduate teaching and provides resources that foster development of new methods. Likewise the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth (TAG) is a Canadian pioneer with instructional skills workshops, certificate, e-Learning and mentoring programs to help graduate students and faculty members get the latest information in teaching and learning.

Scientific research in the life sciences at UBC is solving fundamental problems. For example, Francois Jean’s FINDER project is accelerating research on infectomics through international collaboration with leading work on influenza A. Joerg Bohlmann is exploring natural defense mechanisms to protect against destructive insect pests such as the mountain pine beetle. Kishor Wasan’s treatment for blood-borne infections is being used to combat parasitic infections in the developing world.

UBC is already a national leader in Community Service Learning, and expansion plans will place us among the best in North America in offering experiential learning opportunities to our undergraduate students. The combination of volunteer service with academic work has been shown to instill in students a powerful sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Service learning has benefited the B.C. community at large through programs working with the disenfranchised in Vancouver and the elderly in Kelowna.
First Nations culture is another hallmark of UBC. Situated on the respective traditional territories of the Musqueam and Okanagan peoples, UBC is an honoured custodian of a magnificent First Nations cultural heritage.

With programs across a spectrum of faculties on both campuses, including Education, Science, Law, Medicine, Arts, the Sauder School of Business, and the world-renowned Museum of Anthropology, UBC has an outstanding commitment to Aboriginal education.

But we can do more. UBC’s first Aboriginal Strategic Plan is now in its final draft. Designed as a living document, it provides a framework for Aboriginal programs and initiatives, and identifies priorities for additional work. It is the first of a number of such plans that will inform and provide detail for the overall Strategic Plan when it is delivered this fall.

Interdisciplinarity is another distinguishing feature of our university. The College for Interdisciplinary Studies (CFIS) supports faculty members to carry out advanced research in 16 schools and institutes and teach more than 600 students in 12 graduate programs. CFIS helps scholars to find solutions to problems that span multiple disciplines.

UBC’s Faculty of Medicine is providing undergraduate education through a distributed delivery model that is the envy of other jurisdictions in North America. The UBC MD undergraduate program, which has doubled the number of graduates in the last five years, trains students in communities throughout the province, thereby impacting the shortage of rural practitioners. UBC Okanagan will soon join programs in Victoria, Prince George and the Lower Mainland.

The university’s overall research prowess – in the humanities, the social sciences, in medicine and the sciences – is remarkable for such a young university by world standards. Our Faculty of Arts is a global research powerhouse, ranking first in Canada and fourth in the world outside the US in the Social Sciences in the Shanghai Jiao Tong and Times Higher Education rankings, after Cambridge, Oxford and LSE. UBC has long taken advantage of its Asia Pacific gateway location. Founded in1961, the Department of Asian Studies is the Canadian leader, and widely acknowledged as one of the finest in North America.

The presence of globally recognized researchers at UBC is helping to attract other talented scholars, graduate students and undergrads as well as the highly qualified personnel whom governments value as engines of social innovation and economic prosperity.

UBC’s record of successfully transferring the fruits of research to the marketplace of ideas and goods is exceptional. In the field of biotechnology, for example, UBC ranks among the 10 best in North America, having generated more U.S. patents than any other Canadian university.

At the beginning of this article I asked a rhetorical question. This brief survey of just some of the things UBC does extremely well may help us to focus on what we sort of university we want to be in the year 2020.

Prof. Stephen J. Toope
President and Vice Chancellor
The University of British Columbia

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The University of British Columbia
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