Where Does UBC Stand?

A Letter to the UBC Community from President Stephen J. Toope

In the latter half of the 20th century Canada emerged as one of the world’s most successful societies, noted for its broadly shared commitment to social inclusion, its embracing of cultural diversity, its robust economy, and its strong public finances. Yet these successes are fragile, and could be undermined in the short term by Canada’s under-performance in social, economic, scientific and cultural innovation. Already, Canada’s performance on the measures of social development and productivity is falling in comparison to OECD leaders.

All around the world, ambitious peoples and governments are recognizing that future social success will depend upon the education of highly qualified people and upon the production of new ideas and innovation through research. The global sites of creativity today are places such as Boston, Tokyo, London, and the Silicon Valley. What distinguishes each of those places is the presence of one or more great world universities. Today, Canada has no university in the top rank of global intellectual powerhouses. It has only two or three universities capable of vaulting into that league. One of them is UBC.

If UBC were to emerge as a global leader there would be important internal and external effects. The university would be able to attract even stronger students, faculty and staff in a virtuous circle of achievement and recognition. The alumni’s pride in the university would increase. It would be even easier to make the case for increased public and philanthropic support. The university would also contribute fundamentally to the diversification and transformation of the BC economy and would serve as an idea-engine, a catalyst to social health and cultural attainment.

The BC Premier’s Technology Council recently argued that BC must ensure that one of the province’s universities becomes a “top 20” global university. Currently only UBC consistently ranks in the top 40 of a variety of world ranking scales. Although I am reluctant to measure our achievements on what are rather misleading scales, I do agree that UBC can and should aspire to global influence.

This will not happen unless we do an even better job than we have done in the past of setting and maintaining priorities in each of our Faculties. No university, not even the wealthiest, can be equally good at everything. And UBC is not the wealthiest; on a per student basis, we can currently spend roughly 50 per cent of what the best public universities in the United States of America can spend. Aside from focusing our resources, UBC will also have to attract significant sources of new revenue if we are to succeed in creating a globally influential university across a range of disciplines.

Over the last 20 years or so, UBC has changed dramatically. What was a university with a modest, and primarily provincial, aspiration to influence has become a player on the world stage in fields as diverse as genomics, opera, infectious disease, fisheries conservation, and Japanese philosophy and religion.

This has been achieved first by a raising of sights, then by a clear articulation of values, and then by the hard work of excellent students, a devoted and talented staff, alumni volunteers, and superb faculty members.

Since arriving at UBC, I have been struck again and again by the high standards that so many amongst us set and achieve. This is an ambitious place, filled with smart people with heart who really want to make a difference in the world. I am deeply inspired by the zest and zeal in Vancouver and Kelowna. I firmly believe that our sights are already set high. This is the first step in making UBC even more influential than it is today.

I also believe that the values of our university are sound; the discussions that led to the creation of Trek 2010 galvanized our community to pursue a commitment to:

– The free, open, respectful, and challenging exchange of knowledge, ideas and perspectives.
– Transformative undergraduate, professional school and graduate student experiences, enabling students to become exceptional global citizens.
– Outstanding research that addresses the fundamental cultural, social, economic, ethical, scientific, and health challenges facing B.C., Canada and the world.
– Sharing the results of our work as freely and widely as possible.

Over the next decade, if UBC is to achieve global influence, it must aspire to greater achievement in teaching and research. It must focus its energies and ambitions. It must engage more deeply with the communities that send us their children and that generate the issues that our researchers are inspired to address. It must convince our society that new investments in UBC will create generations of leaders and social, scientific, cultural, and economic innovation.

As we reflect on and discuss our exciting possibilities, it is important to remind ourselves that universities have existed for more than a thousand years; they are one of the few social institutions to survive the vagaries of medieval and early modern history into the contemporary world. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. Nor should we imagine that success is to be found only in that which is new.

Like all major public universities, UBC exists to provide diverse learning opportunities for students, a rich environment for research and its effective dissemination, and a base for service to the alumni and wider community. If we find ways to do these rather traditional things more effectively, with greater focus and impact, UBC will become a better university. But we must also be open to new opportunities and alive to new challenges that arise through broad social evolution, technological innovation, environmental change, and advances that we ourselves create.


In the Installation Address I gave over a year ago, I asserted the following:

At its heart, every institution is people. When I first arrived in Vancouver, a radio host asked me whether I was a Mayor or a CEO. Too often when citizens think of this great university, they think of the physical beauty of our campuses on Point Grey and in the Okanagan, they think of big construction projects, they think of the scope of UBC and of its $1.7 billion budget. Let’s change that. In all our public discourse, let’s talk about the people who make up UBC: The dedicated staff, the incredibly accomplished faculty members who are the intellectual heart of all our research and teaching endeavors, the wonderfully supportive alumni. Above all, let’s talk about the students who are, after all, the very reason that each of us is here.

The last year has only strengthened my view that UBC is often best known for things that are not actually central to the success of a university. We need to do a better job in focusing on our greatest riches: our people. Attracting and retaining the very best faculty members, staff and students is the primary job for any university aspiring to global influence.

The “very best” requires that we commit ourselves to greater diversity throughout the university. Despite past public commitments, the number of aboriginal faculty members is still under 20. As the recent climate survey in the Science Faculty demonstrated, there appears to be a lag in the appointment of women to full professorships. As one surveys the stage at Congregation ceremonies, and compares the faculty members to the students who sit in the hall, a discontinuity is readily apparent. More and more, our graduate, professional and undergraduate students are drawn from the full cross-section of Canadian society. Our faculty is not.

Although significant efforts have been made in recent years to address the challenges to university access for potential students, increased attention is still required. UBC can further expand work with the secondary school system to improve scientific and mathematical literacy, and language skills. As identified in the Campus 2020 report, the entire BC system must work hard to address the special needs of aboriginal and first-generation learners. More generally, UBC must take a leadership role in focusing the attention of all student aid schemes (federal, provincial and internal) upon targeted non-repayable student support (scholarship and bursary) options at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Canadian system of student aid has focused too heavily upon loans over the last three decades. This has the effect of discouraging risk-averse students (often first-generation learners) who have not internalized the benefits of a university education. UBC must also lead in advocacy for greater support for graduate students, including the creation of a national scheme to attract foreign graduate students. Canada is not attracting a reasonable share of the best graduate students from around the world, in large measure because we are not financially competitive.

The economic conditions in Vancouver and Kelowna create real challenges in attracting and retaining the very best students, faculty and staff. Given the weakness of our public policy on early childhood education and development, our commitment to people means that we will have to invest more to ensure that the children of our community are cared for safely and creatively. That process began this year and will continue with a commitment to opening up new daycare spaces over the next three years. Our commitment to people also means finding new and innovative ways to address the housing cost pressures faced by many people in our community. A report on housing is currently being considered by the Executive. It means declaring and concretely acting upon our commitment to make this university a place that staff and faculty members alike choose to join and where they want to stay. I commend to you the new “Focus on People: Workplace Practices at UBC” plan (www.hr.ubc.ca/peopleplan) that sets concrete targets for improved workplace standards and practices. Fundamentally, our commitment to people means ensuring that our students benefit from a transformative university experience.

Teaching and Learning

Universities exist because there are generations of students who want to learn. For most of its history, UBC was primarily an undergraduate teaching institution. The first two UBC doctoral degrees were not awarded until 1950. Over the last 20 or so years, UBC has been transformed into a major research university. This development must be further encouraged. But we now have an opportunity to refresh the strong tradition of teaching and learning that marks the history of UBC. Modern society needs more and more creative, thoughtful and literate graduates, and it is our duty to help our students on the way.

At UBC we must continue to commit ourselves to define and support the very best practices in undergraduate, professional and graduate teaching and co-curricular experiences. We began this process in Trek 2010 and in the UBCO Academic Plan. UBC should benchmark itself against world leaders, and should commit more time, talent and resources to initiatives such as the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, the new Arts Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow program, the reformed History and Pharmacy curricula, and our Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth. Indeed, I have encouraged the creation of a university-wide coalition to support innovation in teaching and learning, innovation rooted in new research that helps us better understand how people learn. This initiative is called UBC LEAD, and you will hear much more about it in the months ahead.

Enhancing the engagement of our students is central to the mission of UBC. In Vancouver we must find more and more ways to “make the big small”. At UBC Okanagan we have to ensure that the vision of an engaged, residentially-based and intimate learning environment succeeds. On both campuses we should help our students experience the excitement of research as part of their educational experience. If we truly believe that good teaching and first-rate research are mutually reinforcing, our students have to experience that excitement. Many of the Faculties are trying to find ways to create more robust opportunities for undergraduate students to experience the rewards of research; these efforts need to be supported and properly resourced. In so doing, we will have to link together resources that are now dispersed in the university. For example, despite UBC’s extraordinary leadership in campus sustainability and in research concerning all environmental challenges, we lack coordinated effort; there is duplication and not enough cooperation amongst Faculties. Our undergraduate and graduate programs do not benefit enough from our research strength.

Our students tell us consistently that they learn a great deal when they can link their classroom, library and lab work to experience in the wider world. Our co-op programs in Applied Science and elsewhere are over-subscribed. The Learning Exchange is a national leader in community-service learning, so successful that it cannot accommodate student demand. Our opportunities for international student engagement through You Lead and Go Global are growing, but only modestly. In each of these areas, UBC will have to attract new resources to support expansion of learning opportunities for our students.

In addition, UBC needs to address the full student experience in creative ways. UBC has the largest stock of on-campus housing in the country. Yet, we must produce more variety and definition in student housing options, and we must anticipate the different needs of commuter students. Perhaps we could create environments that more closely approximate “colleges” within the existing and new dorms. Recent initiatives to build student housing that appeals to upper year and graduate students can be extended. Efforts to improve academic advising, and to clarify “central” and Faculty-based advising can be strengthened. UBC will also have to find ways to invest in better formal and informal student spaces – both indoor and outdoor. Our current athletic facilities are over-stretched; some facilities are woefully inadequate. Although some of our cultural spaces are distinguished, others need renovation and restoration. We need to replicate informal spaces such as the new Abdul Ladha Science Student Centre, and to preserve and expand outdoor gathering spaces.


UBC is one of only two or three Canadian universities that can aspire to significant global influence. Given its scope, its existing quality and its profound ambition, UBC is well placed to move into the top tier of global research powerhouses. As I emphasized at the outset of this letter, world-leading universities produce immense economic, social and cultural benefits for their surrounding communities. To achieve the goal of enhanced global influence, UBC must continue to attract top ranking students, faculty and staff. We must attract more research funding from a wider variety of sources inside and outside Canada. We will also have to focus our efforts where the greatest achievement is possible. “Achievement” should be defined broadly: addressing the fundamental cultural, social, economic, ethical, scientific, and health challenges facing our generation. Finally, as I have already suggested, we must find ways to marshal existing resources across Faculties to avoid duplication and to promote fruitful collaborative work.

UBC must build support for basic and applied research. This will require committed work to engage support for research amongst our alumni, in the wider community and within government. It is essential to UBC’s future health that we work in partnership with sister BC research universities to create a strong provincial program of research support comparable to that in other provinces. In addition, working in conjunction with other leading Canadian research universities, UBC must articulate the need for further federal investment in research and growth in tri-council funding to match the growth in the full-time professoriate. It is fundamental that in both federal and provincial research support schemes, the full costs of research be covered. We cannot continue to pay for basic research needs such as ethics reviews, animal care, and lab and library overhead by cross-subsidization from our teaching endeavors. That is a recipe for mediocrity in everything we do.

UBC must also invest in efforts to diversify our sources of research funding. We have begun to explore ways for our scientists to gain greater access to National Institutes of Health funds from the US. We must look more carefully at the major US foundations for support in wide areas of research, especially in subjects with a strong comparative, international focus. Local philanthropists should be encouraged and inspired by us to follow the examples of the Tula Foundation and Stewart and Marilyn Blusson – investing not only in bricks and mortar but in the people who generate the ideas that can improve our world. We may also want to create more internal, matching programs of support to seed promising work, especially interdisciplinary team work. The Martha Piper Fund created last year is a beginning; so far, 10 teams of researchers from across the university have benefitted from peer-reviewed seed grants from that fund.

UBC already has the best record in Canada, and one of the best in North America, in facilitating the translation of fundamental research into applied knowledge, including public policy and commercial applications. But we can do better still. We need to better publicize our new intellectual property policies and our recent ground-breaking work on global access to UBC-created innovation. We need to financially stabilize the work of the UILO. I believe that UBC would be better off not seeking immediate benefit from relatively small royalty and licensing payments, but instead furthering long-term partnerships with UBC- inspired start-ups that have the capacity to grow and provide much greater support to the university in the long term. We should explore the option of partnering in the creation of a major research hub/incubator campus. One option might be to work through the existing Great Northern Way consortium.

Our university is known across Canada as a leader in interdisciplinary studies. However, much of our interdisciplinary work has suffered from unstable funding and highly decentralized administrative support. Communication with and links to Faculties and Departments are not as strong or productive as they could be. Moreover, faculty members in interdisciplinary programs often have little access to undergraduate teaching even when they desire to contribute to undergraduate programs. Finally, financial incentives for sharing resources have not been properly constructed. We need to support the evolution of the College for Interdisciplinary Studies (CFIS) at UBC Vancouver and encourage programs across both campuses that seed and support undergraduate interdisciplinary research.

I encourage us to explore ways to better facilitate interaction between the Institutes and Centres in CFIS and similar units and departments in Faculties so that all are strengthened. Joint appointments and shared seminars or colloquia offer promising avenues for building such interaction. Interdisciplinary work usually occurs at the unstable interface of new problems and established bodies of knowledge; it is inherently programmatic. This implies that interdisciplinary units may have to change focus over the years, or even wind up, as problems evolve or are actually solved. Given the reality of tenure, we must ensure that faculty members are not marooned outside Faculty or College structures.

A Richer, More Diverse Community; National and International Roles

UBC can further enhance opportunities for students, staff and faculty to experience and navigate through cultural diversity. Our research efforts are already national and international in scope; we must build on those strengths. In Trek 2010, the university established targets for international students. These targets should be understood primarily as attempts to “internally internationalize” the university, thereby enriching the experience of all students, especially those who have stayed at home to study and have not themselves had the opportunity to travel. In fact, more of our students should also have the opportunity to study abroad; it is morally unacceptable that such opportunities are denied to students who do not come from well-off backgrounds. We need to work hard to find private (and perhaps public) support for international exchange opportunities for UBC students.

As I mentioned in my installation address, UBC also has a stronger role to play as a “national” institution: it is surprising how few of our undergraduate students come from other provinces. Yet many BC students are studying in other Canadian jurisdictions. A new national enrollment strategy should help to broaden the base of students from across Canada as long as it is properly funded. We might also consider the creation of robust faculty and student exchange options with another Canadian university. We have more than 300 agreements with foreign universities yet none with sister institutions in our own country.

As I noted above, UBC has pioneered community service learning in Canada. It is time to scale up such opportunities locally and to expand internationally, working with interested partner universities. It is also time to elaborate and implement a detailed aboriginal strategy, including an increase in and attainment of targets for aboriginal faculty, staff and students at UBC’s Vancouver and Kelowna campuses. In addition, the university might finally elaborate a strategy for recruitment of visible minority faculty and staff, with clear goals and concrete steps for implementation.

Community Service and Outreach

Since the dawn of university education, our forebears have imagined that part of their role was in “service” to external constituencies. At first in Paris, Bologna and Oxbridge, the service was to the church or crown, primarily in the preparation of generations of leaders. In the German Humboldtian tradition, the service of fundamental research was to the emerging nation state. The apex of the service vocation was reached with the creation of land grant colleges in the US, and with the “Wisconsin idea” of 1904. In Lafollette’s Wisconsin, the university was to help structure all public policy and further democracy; “extension” courses were to make knowledge available across the State.

All public universities now espouse what has been called a “multiversity” approach where the vocations of teaching, research and service are completely intertwined. UBC’s Trek 2010 mission statement certainly promotes this view. We are trying to foster “global citizenship,” reaching out to local and global communities while ensuring that our research is “in service to the people of British Columbia, Canada and the world”. The connection needs to be wide-ranging: with the business community, with civil society, with ethnic communities (especially those traditionally excluded from university education), with aboriginal communities and First Nations, with community and economic development organizations in Canada and abroad, and with sports associations.

We could benefit from taking service even more seriously. In promotion and tenure, the “service” component is not well articulated at UBC. “Service” is often limited to the traditional measures of departmental committee membership and work with “professional” or academic societies. I have spoken with many of our colleagues who feel that their work with business leaders, in public policy, in community service learning initiatives, and in educational outreach directly related to their research is undervalued. We should begin a conversation as to how to assess and support the community service undertaken by our faculty and staff. Similarly, many of our students are excited by the possibilities of community service learning, not mere volunteerism (which is good in itself), but reflective volunteerism linked to academic studies. Our opportunities for such engagement are still very limited, both locally and internationally, but I detect great willingness to broaden them.

UBC should also come to be seen as a primary source of information and intellectual challenge for our local communities in Vancouver and in the Okanagan. The Mini-Med program has attracted thousands of community participants over the last few years. Last year more than 1,800 local residents showed up at the Life Sciences Centre for a session on memory loss sponsored by our Brain Research Centre. In Kelowna, 800 people came out to hear Gwyn Dyer speak at the Distinguished Speaker series. The Chan Centre is a cultural hub for Vancouver. But we can do more. There is an appetite for more public events that connect our cutting edge research to the problems faced by our generation. The media need UBC faculty members to step up to offer insights on the challenges of our time. It would be marvelous if UBC Robson Square could expand its mandate to become a vital centre for the creative arts with wide-ranging opportunities for public expression by our faculty members and students. As the Olympics approach, we should work hard to ensure that the “cultural precinct” that includes the Belkin Gallery, the Freddy Wood Theatre, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Chan becomes a hub for stimulating artistic engagement, as a cultural destination in Vancouver.

Enhanced community engagement must start with our own alumni. Many alumni have told me that they want to feel connected to their alma mater for reasons of nostalgia, networking and a continuing desire for intellectual challenge. Alumni can assist with student mentoring, with political and policy engagement on behalf of the university, and with our own critical reflections on our strategic goals.

This process begins before graduation, with greater attention to the quality of the student experience, and it must continue with the promotion of life-long linkages between alums and the university. Alumni benefit directly from an increasingly prominent university, and they benefit from the intellectual engagement with a vital community. The benefits of university-alumni links are mutual.

We must also be clear that our alumni will play an increasing important role in UBC’s future financial health – in our ability to fulfill our teaching, research and service vocations. Over the next generation, it is likely that Canadian universities will have to fundamentally alter their funding model, especially the few who aspire to global influence. If the US experience is any guide, and if current Canadian trends continue, the proportion of university funding coming from direct government grants is not likely to increase. UBC will need to generate much greater support from our alumni than has been the case in the past.

UBC will have to work hard to strengthen the bonds between alumni and the university. For too many alums, these bonds are almost non-existent. We should promote the construction of an “Alumni/Welcome Centre” on the Vancouver campus to re-orient our alumni back to campus and to house exciting programs for student-staff-faculty-alumni interaction. On both campuses, we should set and meet targets for alumni engagement on advisory boards, in student mentoring, in advocacy, and in event participation. We should aim to quickly double the participation of alumni in annual giving and to develop a strong cohort of alumni volunteers for university fundraising.

Thanks to You

UBC is now firmly established as one of the very best universities in Canada. That transformation has occurred over the last 20 or so years thanks to you. It is the students, staff and faculty who make a university strong. Yes, we require good facilities and proper support, but the real currency of any university is ambition matched with brainpower and heart. At UBC we are blessed with all three. In fact, I am well aware of examples of success at UBC despite gaps in material support. Our psychology department is not great because it is housed in the best facilities in the world – it isn’t. Michael Smith didn’t have access to the Michael Smith Labs to support his brilliant work. Our innovative and creative School of Community and Regional Planning is housed in what could be a pleasant but modest motel.

One of the Faculty representatives on our Board of Governors told me last year that my job was “to put chalk on the ledges of the chalkboards.” I found the image chastening, but not entirely inaccurate. One of my main tasks is to struggle as hard as possible to bring to the university the resources needed to attract and retain the ambitious brains and hearts who do the real work. But I think that I have at least one other role: to encourage an open and challenging conversation about where we stand and where we can realistically aspire to go in the next few years. I have benefitted greatly from many interactions with the UBC community over the last year-and-a-half. This rather long letter is an attempt to continue that conversation. I hope that the conversation will blossom across the university as we discuss the next iteration of Trek 2010 (or whatever we choose to call it). I do not pretend that I have hit all the right notes; I imagine that there will be debate over the themes that I am encouraging us to explore. So be it. That is what universities are for: to continue the conversation of the generations, and to serve as a locus for discovery and robust contention.

I am so proud to be a part of this university with all its ambition, and all its brain and heart. I hope that all of us will work together to ensure that every member of this community can feel the sense of pride that marks truly great universities. I know that we have it in us . . . thanks to you.

Prof. Stephen J. Toope
UBC President and Vice Chancellor

November 2007

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