More Than Acceptable: UBC during the presidency of Stephen Toope, Vol. 1

Today, the University of British Columbia begins a new school year under new leadership. Arvind Gupta will be speaking to some 8,000 incoming UBC students today in his first major speech as President. Where UBC goes under his leadership in the years to come will be fascinating. Naturally, I’m taking the opportunity to look back at the last President, Stephen Toope, in a series of essays.

Why? Well, Toope was one of the most important people in B.C. for eight years. He led a top-40 global university, was de facto mayor of a fast-growing city, and was regularly B.C.’s highest paid public servant. His decisions will help shape not only higher education, but the Metro Vancouver area for years to come. I interviewed him more than anybody else, and figured it might be a story worth telling.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what’s a university?”

It was 2006, and UBC cast a wide net when searching for someone to replace departing president Martha Piper.

Over 150 people were recruited—including Canadian John Bell, the Chair of Medicine of Oxford, who ultimately declined the overtures—but for many members of the search committee, a Béla Bartók expert halfway around the world stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Malcolm Gillies, the deputy vice-chancellor at Australia National University, certainly ticked off the requisite qualifications for the job. And he began his interview by asking what, exactly, a university was.

“It’s not a business, although it’s business-like,” said Gillies to the committee. “And it’s not a public service, even though ostensibly it exists to serve the public. I put to you that a university is a collegium of students and masters coming together seeking truth.”

It’s not a bad opening line. Especially when convincing people to hand you the keys of a billion-dollar university. After interviews were done with the five people on the committee’s short list, around two-thirds of them were ready to make Gillies president.

One-third, for a variety of reasons, did not, so the consultants asked the committee to look further down the list.

One name that impressed was Stephen Toope. A Quebec academic, Toope was CEO of the ‪Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation‬, a non-profit that promoted emerging Canadian academics in the humanities. Prior to that, he was McGill University’s youngest ever Law Dean. He also had international stripes as a human rights expert, just finishing a job as an independent fact-finder in the Maher Arar inquiry.

Toope certainly had sterling credentials. He also had no real drawbacks.

The committee asked a simple question – would Toope be acceptable? When nobody could disagree with that assessment, the consultants turned to Chancellor Allan McEachern, and suddenly, UBC had their 12th President.

How did Stephen Toope become President? Because he was the guy who everyone agreed would be OK.

Gillies may have defined UBC in the utopian way universities like to be seen. It would be up to Stephen Toope, the acceptable president, suddenly the highest paid public servant in the province, to oversee the billion-dollar university as it was.

Courtesy UBC.

Over seven years into his presidency, in his last major international address, Toope spoke to his fellow university presidents at the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

And he mostly vented about how challenging it is to run a major university in the 21st century.

“I love you, you’re perfect, now change,” is his running theme, and it served as the introduction to a series of laments.

“We’re not commercial enough, not pure research enough, not practical enough, not academic enough, not local enough, not national enough, not digital enough, not real world enough,” he said.

“Governments ask us to tweak our research agendas to speed up commercialization, industry questions our ability to meet the need for skill workers, granters place geographical limits on eligibility for funding, students wonder why our entire calendar isn’t online yet,” he added.

“We’re changing only to please. We’re tap-dancing like crazy, only someone else is in control of the music, and no matter how fast or well we furiously dance, we still might not get a part in the show.”

It spoke to a constant tension of Toope’s presidency: How do you serve the masters of industry and government while continuing to do what you’ve done well for decades? How do you grow for future faculty and students you hope to recruit without alienating those presently around you?

These are challenges virtually all universities with amibtion face, but they’re especially acute in Canada. The UBCs, the McGills, the Torontos have the size and mandate of a large “state” school, but the desire to be associated with brand name universities in the U.S. and abroad. Unlike their competition, they lack a giant endowment funds or unlimited caps on tuition or generous and stable government funding

With increasing demands from all stakeholders and increasing disruption to what is primarily a content-based industry, many believe big changes are coming to the ivory tower.

It doesn’t have to be the case, Toope argued.

“We have to be really clear about what our fundamental mission is. We don’t need to radically transform ourselves, we need to try and improve our optimal organization to deliver what we’ve always done, which is great knowledge translation, great research and inspiring teaching.”

It was also a good mission statement of his presidency. There were no big transformations of UBC during Toope’s time, no Grade-A landmarks or crises.

Instead, the university moved along the same path it had been on the past 20 years, while putting a renewed focus on the student experience.

Not exactly a sexy play in the world of elite universities, but Toope made it his priority from day one, and he calls “a bit of a rebalancing in our attention to undergraduate education” one of his biggest accomplishments.

“When I came to UBC I was quite convinced that major research intensive universities in Canada and elsewhere had begun to lose the plot a little bit on undergraduate education, you could understand why that happened,” he said earlier this year.

“All the international rankings are about research, a lot of the extra money that comes into universities comes from research prowess, the reputation in the media is almost all about what’s the research you’re doing. So there was a lot of driving in that direction, but I was concerned that we had to make sure we were paying as much attention as we needed to teaching and learning, and providing the appropriate supports for undergraduate success.”

It was a course correction 20 years in the making. UBC’s growth came as a direct result of focusing on research and internationalization, but it meant it had been quite some time since the university had put executive focus on the average student.

“I don’t think the word ‘students’ came up very often at the table,” said Piper in 2011.

“At that level, you’re dealing with macro-issues, often financial, but strategic issues. Do you build this building or not? Offer this program or not? These are fairly significant issues. Often times there is crisis management. And rarely did we have a discussion where someone came to me saying, ‘Well, you shouldn’t do that because students won’t benefit from it.’”

One solution? Hiring University of Guelph executive Brian Sullivan as VP Students, putting all non-academic student services in one portfolio.

Sullivan was a tremendously popular executive, overseeing the creation and improvement of a number of student services, influential in getting student leaders to buy into’s UBC’s overall vision.

This didn’t change the fact that the classroom experience often lagged on the priority chart. UBC’s position in the National Survey and Student Engagement (NSSE), a highly regarded survey of undergraduates across North America, consistently lagged behind McGill, the University of Toronto, and Queen’s.

Those rankings didn’t concern Piper’s regime as much, but the annual Maclean’s University Rankings, which played an outsized role in people’s perceptions of all schools in Canada, did.

Or so claimed the National Post, in a 2004 story “UBC Rigs Class Size to Boost Rank”, alleging that departments were pressured to manipulate enrolment numbers and class sizes to goose the rankings.

So there was a built-in hope that Toope would sand off some of UBC’s rough edges and restore faculty confidence.

Of course, some hoped Piper would be a balance, but in the end the elites applauded while the masses grumbled. When Toope became President in July of 2006, would things be different?

The trite segue is “time would tell.”

But change in UBC’s philosophy became clear pretty quickly.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 4.48.24 AM
Courtesy Geoff Lister.

The title “President” conjures so much and confers so little. Every academic decision is approved by the Senate; a diverse group of faculty elected by a relatively small and idiosyncratic group of voters. Every large administrative decision is made by the Board of Governors; who balance their different expertise with the wishes of the government that appointed them.

Tenure and academic freedom mean hiring and firing is sort of a pain. Funding is micro-targeted and it’s hard to move dollars around.

“A big place like UBC doesn’t turn on a dime overnight,” said Toope, who understood that one of the few powers he had at his disposal, at least early on, was telegraphing the things he would be pushing for in the coming years.

“Evolution came from encouragement, persuasion, and sometimes a little bit greasing of the wheels,” he said.

“It’s all you have, and not much greasing of the wheels.”

It meant that in his first year, he would persuade and encourage by emphasizing over and over again what he cared about.

To wit, his first speech as President, where he used the word “pledge” once:

“In all our planning and in our financial decision making while I am President, the question of impact upon teaching and learning opportunities for students will be foremost in my thoughts. That will mean making some hard, hard choices. No university can do everything well…So a real commitment to enhancing the teaching and learning opportunities for our students will mean focusing our efforts.”

Once speech does not a priority make. What about his first substantive interview? Speaking to The Tyee in 2006, he said UBC’s greatest challenge was “Finding a very healthy balance between our commitment to research and our commitment to teaching.”

His first interview with the campus newspaper The Ubyssey? He talked at length about his undergraduate days at Harvard and the learning opportunities given to him.

“I feel pretty strongly…we should be trying to help our undergraduate experience,” he said. “If you come to school and it’s just going to a bunch of classes and you’re just getting through so that you can do something later, I would see that as a failure.”

And so it went. In speech after speech, Toope brought up improving the undergraduate experience, often without prompting, and always spoken of as a priority. He made clear he wanted an increased priority on teaching, and he would bring it up until changes happened or he was thoroughly covered in his own hypocrisy.

Action would follow words within months. During the summer of 2006, he joined 10 other Presidents in pulling out of the Maclean’s rankings, quickly giving his tenure a symbolic break from the past. In September, UBC set up a $3 million fund to match post-doctoral Teaching Fellows, top university researchers, and undergraduate classrooms. This, he claimed, would create “between 40 and 50 new courses…to enhance undergraduate students’ learning experience.”

Later that semester, a new round of NSSE results came in. As in previous years, UBC lagged behind other research-oriented Canadian universities in academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, and a supportive campus environment.

This time around, UBC publicized the data and said it wasn’t good enough. Weeks later, Vice-President Academic and Provost Lorne Whitehead resigned. While he stepped down to become “UBC’s Leader of Education Innovation”, it was a clear signal UBC would chart a new path.

While Toope persuaded, there were already exciting changes being planned in the Faculty of Science. Three days before his hiring, UBC announced they had plucked Carl Wieman, he of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, from the University of Colorado to do a very particular type of research.

In essence, they gave him five years and $12 million dollars to study how science education could be improved, and then to implement it on campus. UBC had never hired a Nobel Laureate before, and received plenty of laudatory press coverage.

Toope had the perfect inauguration present, someone he could point to who would be working on the ground floor to improve undergraduate education in sciences from Day 1. Years later, he would call Wieman “the beginning”.

And Wieman, who had become more and more interested in “approaching the teaching of science as a science”, definitely thought things could improve.

“We require a paradigm shift,” he said. “The question is can you make that paradigm shift incrementally or do people have to be pushed off a cliff?”

“You’re trying to convince people that the way they’ve been teaching for the last thirty years and the way that science professors have been teaching for the last three hundred years, you’re trying to convince them that that’s just obsolete and that there’s a better way to do it.

“It’d be crazy to think you wouldn’t get resistance.”

Some departments—Physics, Earth and Ocean Sciences—saw many changes under Wieman’s initiative, some didn’t. For most students, Wieman’s innovations were synonymous with “clickers”, simple remote controls with five buttons. It allowed professors to conduct simple quizzes throughout class, keeping students engaged and focused on critical thinking during the lecture.

Wieman cautioned in a handout to professors that clickers “were not a magic bullet – they are not necessarily useful as an end in themselves.”

Implementation was slow; they were often seen as gimmicky when first rolled out. An experiment published in Science Magazine showed their true potential however.

One introductory physics class for engineering students had a traditional lecture by a popular professor with over 30 years experience. The other class was taught by postdoc students using Wieman’s “deliberate practice” technique, which forced students to be constantly engaged with their clickers, solving quizzes and figuring out puzzles during the class.

Students in the class with clickers learned more and were more engaged, with attendance rising by 20%.

The experiments certainly put Wieman—and consequently UBC—on the map when it came to academic innovation. One person noticing? Barack Obama, who appointed him as his associate director for science for the White House in 2010. The Wieman experiment ended 18 months early.

His legacy? Well, between 2006 and 2011, NSSE rankings at UBC improved across all five benchmarks. The majority of students use clickers in one class or another. UBC  established a culture of being innovative in linking technology to learning, one they would try and cultivate across several disciplines.

There were some improvements, to be sure. But I’m pretty sure Wieman would frown upon conflating correlation and causality.

Courtesy Don Erhardt.

Toope’s lasting mark on UBC’s academic future lay with Place and Promise, the strategic vision plan formally enacted in 2009 after years of consultation.

Like most of his moves, it was designed to continue the university’s growth while subtly changing the focus slightly inward.

Piper’s final plan, Trek 2010, began with the mission statement “The University of British Columbia, aspiring to be one of the world’s best universities, will prepare students to become exceptional global citizens, promote the values of a civil and sustainable society, and conduct outstanding research to serve the people of British Columbia, Canada, and the world.”

While Trek 2010 looked outward and to research, Place and Promise looked inward and to learning. “The University’s core commitments are to student learning, research excellence and community engagement,” it reads, and in the second half of Toope’s term a series of moves small and large were made to make those value statements become reality.

“In the past, people in administration might have had a commitment to a person, or a portfolio, or a feeling. But with respect to the Executive team’s commitment to Place and Promise, Stephen was quite unwavering with it, he kept coming back to it, and I think it contributed to the trajectory of the place,” said Brian Sullivan.

“It’s not often that people stick with a plan so diligently.”

For years, in Senate meetings and conversations with student leaders, Toope had been musing about some fundamental shifts. What if, he wondered, students could take a class outside their discipline under a pass/fail marking rubric, without having to worry about it affecting their GPA? What if you tied granting tenure to undergraduate teaching? What if teacher evaluations were more transparent and open to student viewing?

Put together, these thoughts represented a fairly dramatic overhaul of the relationship between tenured faculty and the layman student. Over the course of Toope’s tenure, they all became policy.

Outside the classroom, there was a focus on the type of student UBC admitted, and how they would navigate their degree once they arrived. Every single incoming student now gets an “enrolment service professional“, helping them sift through the morass of UBC’s bureaucracy from day one to degree.

That same month, UBC announced that virtually all incoming students would be subject to “broad-based admissions“, becoming the largest university in Canada to assess potential students by not just grades, but their personal makeup.

Like most top universities, UBC had seen incoming average minimums skyrocket in the past decade, from the low 80s to low 90s in most faculties. Call it grade inflation, or pressure from parents to succeed in a globalized world, but it meant incoming students were arguably more multicultural and monolithic at the same time, and the university noticed.

As Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail wrote, “[UBC] students are unquestionably bright, but many are nerdy, high achievers consumed with one thing: marks. Consequently, the student body has become increasingly uni-dimensional, dominated by brainiacs void of any curiosity about all that university life can be.”

Broad-based admissions were the most visible way UBC told students to focus on more than grades—but it wasn’t the only one. They eliminated an entry scholarship based solely on grades. Expanded career and co-op programs. Created of an entrepreneurship program. All initiatives put in place under Toope, and all intended to make UBC less of a degree factory.

Making introductory speeches, laying out a strategic plan, moving forward as a team, implementing changes that reflect your values: mundane stuff, perhaps. And yet, in academic reforms, Toope set out what he accomplished.

Will the changes have a long-term impact? The first students admitted the broad-based admissions program are only entering their third year, so to use the parlance of Donald Rumsfeld, it’s a known unknown. But Toope is hopeful.

“I’ve talked with quite a number of the residence coordinators and people who are in residence life and I had a student group at breakfast just a couple of days ago and they said to me that they did feel that there was a difference in the kind of people they were interacting with from a residence perspective,” he told The Ubyssey in February.

“More people wanting to be part of the broader community, fewer people just keeping their head down in the library or the lab and the room. I hope that’s true. I think we’re only going to know that over the next five, probably even 10 years as we look at the NSSE scores and all the other objective measures that will tell us whether there are more people who are actively engaged.”

Now, you could argue “we’re only going to know that over the next five, probably even 10 years” isn’t exactly a winner of quote when summarizing a president’s biggest legacy. It’s a consequence of Toope focusing on the academic minutia over any large changes to UBC’s trajectory.

Nobody can judge the legacy of any president, in any field, mere months after his departure. When it comes to the central UBC experience for tens of thousands of students every year, the impact of Stephen Toope on UBC has been more than acceptable.

Categories: RantsTags: ,