More Than Acceptable: UBC during the presidency of Stephen Toope, Vol. 2

As the University of British Columbia begins life under its new president Arvind Gupta, I’m taking the opportunity to look back at the last President, Stephen Toope, in a series of essays.

Part one looked at his biggest accomplishment—refocusing the university on the undergraduate classroom experience, despite its lack of prestige or payoff in international rankings. Today, an examination on how he avoided controversy and became UBC’s most popular president since Walter Gage, 40 years prior.

If you ever emailed UBC trying to get hold of Stephen Toope when he was UBC President, you would quickly find out that he really didn’t like the honorific at all.

Instead, his staff would refer to him as “Professor Toope,” because, you know, he just another faculty member.

It was part of the overall front Toope presented — an academic first, an administrator second. Having spent nearly his entire life ensconced in the ivory tower, he was most comfortable dealing with matters related to the classroom. And he certainly had his accomplishments when it came to academic reforms.

Just as noteworthy? Getting through nine years of running a public, billion-dollar institution with no scandals to his name.

Other Canadian universities saw crippling protests over tuition raises, drastic program cuts, a president fired over academic freedom. Questions over donor influence of programs, or the rights of religious students.

In eight years as President, the only time Toope received sustained, direct criticism was over a review process that downgraded the skiing and softball teams.

There’s always an element of luck in avoiding controversy. But Toope had more than luck on his side.


Hiring a rookie university president is always a leap of faith. How will they handle everything outside the classroom? The fundraising? The political glad-handing, and the political conflicts? The organizational overhauls? The general skillset we associate less with deans and more with CEOs?

A hire that looks amazing on paper can quickly be over their head (see Summers, Lawrence), and Toope had never managed anything larger than a mid-sized charity in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

And it wasn’t as though Toope ever chomped at the bit to deal with administrative issues.

“If there’s anything that surprised me about UBC and where I had to spend more time than I expected to, it would be on what you might describe as systems: internal systems, finance, student informational systems, alumni systems,” he said in 2010.

“They weren’t as strong as I hoped they would be, and so I’ve had to spend a lot of time working with members of the executive and lots of people across the university in trying to make them more effective.”

Not exactly glamorous work, but a focus on internal systems held UBC in good stead in several instances, most notably during the subprime mortgage crisis.

That may need some explaining.

See, they invest money and handle pension and endowment funds through a wholly owned—and private—subsidiary called “UBC Investment Management Trust“. It doesn’t have to accept recommendations from the province’s own investment corporation, or make disclosures like a public corporation would.

Nobody paid much heed to this until January 2008, when UBC quietly announced its endowment was $18 million poorer. Something about an $122 million investment in “asset-backed commercial paper”, directly connected to subprime loans in the U.S.

As that generation-alterting situation in the U.S. grew, so did the losses, going from $18 million in January to $37.9 million in May. By then, UBC realized the mess they were in, as VP Finance Terry Sumner “retired” in the middle of his six-year term while his #2, treasurer Byron Braley, left in September.

Too late to avoid massive losses — and indeed, UBC ended the year down $200 million. It was, however, significantly less than most universities by percentage (Toronto, for example, ended up losing over a billion dollars) because they addressed the crisis with relative quickness.

By the end of 2008, the university had decreased its rate of endowment spending from 5% to 3.5%, a rate that allowed their endowment to recover to 2007 levels by 2011.

Screen shot 2014-09-09 at 5.22.59 AM
From IMANT’s 2014 annual report.


More crucially, the university also hired Pierre Ouillet as its new VP Finance. Ouillet had never worked in academia before, instead serving in senior roles with Best Buy, Rogers, and Mckinsey.

It created raised eyebrows when a number of people from the private sector (including a few from Best Buy) started making their way to Point Grey. For UBC, it was a case of trying to do something about its traditional bloat, which had spiralled to the point where they perpetually budgeted for a structural deficit.

“We got leadership in place…looking for talent inside and outside the university, that had a little more creativity than we previously had seen within universities,” said Toope.

“Sensible creativity, not taking risk unduly, but….we’re not expecting people who are essentially amateurs in the field, including myself, to figure this out on our own, but to get people who have experience who know how to use those resources as effectively as possible.

“Ultimately, the academic leadership will take the advice and accept it or not, but at least we’re getting much better advice.”

Advice acted upon. Partnerships increased, middle managers decreased, and over 30 million dollars in annual efficiencies were found. While other large Canadian universities have faced program eliminations, or wholesale tuition changes—to say nothing of the Quebec tuition protests—UBC has balanced its budget.

“It’s one of those classic cases where having a crisis did give us an opportunity to move more dramatically than we might have been able to do if everything was okay,” says Toope.

“I’ve been impressed that people have been willing to embrace change, and to think about doing things in new ways at UBC more than a lot of institutions I see. But I think a lot of it was, there was that moment of crisis, and we persevered. It was either make some serious moves, or look at a future in which we were going to see a continual winding down of the strength of the university.”

Toope’s trust in Ouillet on UBC’s financial restructuring was consistent with how he dealt with many issues. Find a capable executive, get in front of a topic, and don’t let it linger too long.

People are criticizing experiments on animals? Have VP Research John Hepburn speak on the topic early and often and release detailed statistics on the practice. The question of animal testing remains, but the public intrigue of what UBC may have been hiding dissipated.

Concerns alumni haven’t been engaged in recent years? Create a new executive position, start work on a building for alumni, and launch a massive fundraising campaign.

You’ve lost a class-action lawsuit and are asked to repay over $4 million in parking tickets you collected? Have cabinet minister-turned-VP External Stephen Owen work behind the scenes, and months later the provincial government will introduce legislation giving UBC the power to start issuing tickets again—and to ignore the Supreme Court decision.

The regional government suggests UBC should respect agreed-upon rules for rezoning parts of campus, and that local residents should have some local accountability? Send a community-wide email claiming Metro Vancouver is attacking academic freedom and that any changes would devastating. Months later, the provincial government strips Metro Vancouver of any responsibility, making the campus the sole approver of any new developments.

Issues that could mushroom into controversies were nipped in the bud. Structural needs—like UBC’s aging steam system, or the affordability of housing for professors—were addressed fairly comprehensively.

“No one will remember Stephen Toope as the guy who converted (the energy system from) steam to hot water,” former board member Nassif Ghoussoub told Trek Magazine in an article that analyzed Toope’s leadership style. “But it was all part of a systematic, patient and purposeful effort to prepare the campus for the next 50 years. It was surprising that this intellectual thought leader has really concentrated on the nitty gritty.”

And he was generally able to address issues in a way that left very few people sore.

“[Previous presidents David Strangway and Martha Piper] were both scientists and they both had a black and white, firm set of objectives, with the outcomes always clearly identified,” said philanthropist Ross Beaty in the same Trek article.

“With Stephen, it was more about balance, more of a discussion leading to a conclusion.”

A Ubyssey front cover from November 2008, in which Toope engages with students hoping to save the UBC Farm—and looks really excited to eat some pie in the process. All photos by Gerald Deo.
The October 31, 2008 front cover of The Ubyssey, in which Toope engages with students hoping to save the UBC Farm—and looks really excited to eat some pie. All photos by Gerald Deo.

But what of students, you rhetorically ask? Surely they would always be ready with banners and marches?

Until a well-publicized “Take Back the Night” protest last year, there hadn’t been a large student-led demonstration on campus in over four years. Neither had there been an elected student leader who criticized the president, talked openly about social justice, or advocated for lower tuition—all staples of the student movement on other campuses.

How did UBC, long a foreground of the protest movement, get there? Two incidents took place shortly before Toope took power that helped. In 2005, the government instituted a 2% cap to tuition increases after years of double-digit increases.

In the same year, the “slate” system of student politics, which created highly polarized, de facto political parties on campus, were banned. In its place was a brief era of wonkier, less explicitly political student leaders, who worked to find consensus rather than appeal to their base in preparation for the next round of elections.

All this certainly helped. More important was Toope’s decision to treat student leaders as real stakeholders rather than adversaries or impediments.

“Tonight the student senators were invited for dinner with Stephen Toope. I had attended several dinners with Martha Piper, the former president, so I was wary of another superficial, “schmoozy” conversation,” wrote student senator Gina Eom in the influential blog UBC Insiders, just over six month’s into Toope’s term.

“It was a surprise to me that out of the conversations which unfolded at the dinner table, I received the distinct impression that this new UBC President was, well, different…I have never seen the UBC administrator focus so much on the student/learning/teaching side of the institution.”

A key to Toope’s popularity was his ability to play different roles for different stakeholders. For student leaders, he committed to regular meetings, a departure from Strangway and Piper. For the campus paper The Ubyssey, he committed to a yearly in-depth interview. And for regular students, he committed to ham it up for the cameras.

Yes, that’s Toope singing “Sweet Dreams” to a sold-out Chan Centre. That preceded him doing (er, attempting) slam poetry in an orientation video. That preceded him making a phone call to Batman in a student government video.

Toope performed in a number of plays in his undergrad Harvard days, and clearly enjoyed playing the role of “Earnestly Unhip Dad/President” every once in a while to 50,000 students—not often enough to become the butt of the joke, but often enough to be humanized.

(Again, we contrast with his predecessor Martha Piper, who was well known for regularly telling a strange story about her imaginary friend “Bort”.)

Still, yutzing it up does not a successful relationship make. Of greater importance to Toope’s success was not only listening to students, but once in a while, daring to agree with them. Never so much as to deviate from core principles on development and internationalization, mind you. Those would continue unabated from the Strangway/Piper era. But if the student body rose up and the student leaders provided a reasonable argument, the university showed a willingness to bend.

Three examples from a 15 month period in 2007 and 2008 stick out in particular.

Example #1: For many years, a 24-hectare parcel of land on the outskirts of the endowment lands had been called the “UBC Farm” by most, and as “Future Housing Reserve” by the administration. In actuality, it was a working farm, used partly as a lab for the Faculty of Land and Food Systems and partly as an urban agricultural playground for all of Metro Vancouver.

But Campus and Community Planning presented three options for area in 2008, and all three reduced the Farm from 24 to 8 hectares, with two changing the farm’s physical boundaries entirely. Over 15,000 people signed a petition imploring UBC to keep the farm and Metro Vancouver aggressively backed their stance.

Then the Board of Governors met, and quickly issued a terse press release declaring “no market housing will be pursued on the 24 hectare parcel”. Toope looked the part of benevolent administrator, telling The Ubyssey he had told the board for months that “This is not a small group of pointy-headed people who have a fixation…this is a much broader set of issues.”

Example #2: For years, students had lived in a strange reality where they paid $200 in mandatory athletics fees, and then received no discounts over non-students for a semester-long gym pass ($148), or to register an intramural team ($215).

Staying fit at UBC was more expensive than any other university in Canada, something that vexed Michael Duncan when he became AMS President in early 2008.

“I think it’s absurd, Vancouver being one of the most active cities in the world, that we don’t have a free gym for the university,” he said. “We need to show Athletics how much students care.”

Standard sabre-rattling from a student politician. But in this case, the rattling was paired by effective research, done by future Insiders editor Neal Yonson, that showed just how out of whack UBC’s fees were compared to the rest of the country.

Eventually, the Athletic Department went from denying problems with the fee structure, to quieting up after the administration voiced support for changes, to reducing student prices for the main student gym by over 80%.

Example #3: For many years, the university had a grand vision for the most visible entrance on campus at University Boulevard, involving plenty of 18-storey condos and shops and office space. Under many of the plans, a popular grassy gathering spot known as “The Knoll” would be razed. It wasn’t received well.

Much like the UBC Farm, the board was convinced to override years of planning by Campus and Community Planning and put the plan on hiatus.

Meanwhile, the AMS was once again spitballing the idea of replacing the aging Student Union Building, originally built in the 1960s and intended for a much smaller student body. Spitballing gave way to actual negotiations with the university, who said they’d be open to a new SUB being the focal point of the area instead — and would even chip in part of the costs.

Students passed a referendum, and suddenly the AMS had a mandate to deliver a $120 million building, with little more than a handshake agreement and a few design sketches to go on—though the building is scheduled to come in close to on time.

“The students…have become more aware that when they get their voice together, they have a president and board very inclined to view their considered voice as the default position,” believes former VP Students Brian Sullivan. Gradually, negotiating quietly replaced protesting loudly as the dominant model for student leader-administration interaction.

(That’s not to say speaking out didn’t happen. In 2009, self-described activist Blake Frederick was elected AMS President. His tenure included plenty of criticism of the university, and culminated with a human rights complaint to the United Nations. That ended with a unanimous request for his resignation, a spectacularly silly legal battle, a campus-wide referendum…and there hasn’t been anyone close to his position on the political spectrum elected since. You may draw your own inferences.)

There would be isolated issues that the AMS would take firm stands on—lower tuition for a new degree here, development on the north side of campus there—but it was within the framework of a student government generally favourable to UBC’s priorities.

A 2013 Ubyssey editorial comic on the media-led controversy surrounding the Athletics review. Courtesy David Marino.
A 2013 Ubyssey editorial comic on the debate surrounding the Athletics review. Courtesy David Marino.

Toope’s only real public relations fumble came last year, during the first major overhaul of the Athletics department in over a decade. Several teams became financially self-sustaining (like most of UBC’s non-academic endeavours), and two programs recently made into varsity sports were once again downgraded to club status.

It resulted in over a dozen columns from The Vancouver Sun and The Province, more critical than anything the mainstream media had printed about UBC in over a decade.

UBC teams are lucky to draw more than 1,000 fans to a game, so if you’re confused what spurred such a campaign, you’re not alone.

After all, an external review of the program in 2012 noted the disconnect between the department and the university, and recommended significant changes, so the track had been laid out for some time.

But for close to 20 years, Athletics had operated as a quasi-fiefdom by a Director Bob Philip. When he retired, changes were suddenly imposed by a new Athletic Director (Ashley Howard) and new VP Students (Louise Cowin) without defence to past traditions. It was a culture change that rankled many who worked and fundraised in the department—some of whom began feeding criticism and rumours to columnists.

It didn’t matter that several columns were mocked nationally or contained erroneous facts, or that much of the tone contained “sexist, old-boys-club condescension“—the die was cast, and UBC looked like it was ungraciously gutting a proud department so hippies and ladies could play ultimate frisbee.

Privately, the university was furious. Publicly, they were forced into a more deliberate public consultation process, which resulted in several press conferences where they over explained their motives in jargony university language, allowing critics more opportunities to bash them over the head.

“I think we obviously didn’t explain well enough, so mea culpa on that, but I think we also got caught on the back foot a little bit because there was more intensity earlier in the process than we expected,” said Toope.

“I think people got more concerned than they needed to, because actually because there was misinterpretation, and I would even say some willful misleading that went on that went on in the community that got people exercised when the risk they were fearing wasn’t actually present. It goes in both directions, but that’s the one place over the time I’ve been here that I think I would have wished we had thought through more carefully at the outset what the responses might have been and tried to foreclose that earlier on.”

That it happened in Toope’s final year underlined one of the reasons he decided to leave in 2014, two years earlier than intended.

“I have a pretty strong feeling that one should leave when you’re still making a positive contribution,” he said when he made his announcement in April 2013.

“I’ve actually seen in other environments where people stay too long in these kinds of jobs and because being president is so much about encouraging people [and] bringing people along because there’s very little tangible power in a university president. I think, you know, after a while, you exhaust your ability to do that and I’d rather leave before I’ve exhausted the ability and not afterwards.”

“Whenever I leave, there will always be more to do.”

His successor, Arvind Gupta, will have plenty to do in the coming years. After all, he’s now the head of one of British Columbia’s largest job creators, CEO of a patent-producing powerhouse, overseer of a major development company, and de facto mayor of an influential quasi-municipality.

Toope handled all these many hats surprisingly well. After all, Strangway and Piper continually faced public relations challenges, protests from students, and grumbling from faculty as they grew the university into the international behemoth it is today. Under nearly any metric—campus population, international students, private donors—Toope outpaced their growth, yet faced a fraction of the criticism.

Not bad for a professor.


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