He haunts UBC still: on the death of David Strangway

strangway-7-by-martin-dee-975x505The scope of UBC’s transformation over the last 30 years is almost with precedent in North America. To wit, some numbers:

  • Annual revenues have grown from $171 million in 1984 to about $1.7 billion today
  • The endowment fund, then under $100 million and a general afterthought, is now around $1.3 billion
  • International enrollment has gone from 934 students  in 1984 (3.5% of students) to 12,117 students at the Vancouver campus today (23% of students)
  • $12.7 billion in economic impact
  • $519 million in research funding

Turning from a regional university to a world power takes a whole lot of skill and luck. It also took David Strangway.

Strangway, whose death was announced by the university on December 13th, would have been an interesting figure in Canadian history if he had never set foot between Blanca and Marine: from his years as a renowned NASA geophysicist in the 70s, to being the founding president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, to starting the innovative Quest University.


But it as UBC President from 1985 to 1997 where he made his biggest mark—and the thing I’ve spent a decade reporting on—so let’s talk about that.

Because for the last 30 years, the ideology of the biggest university in western Canada has been guided by a few key choices David Strangway made, at a time when UBC looked much different than it does today.

“I only hoped I could do no harm, I didn’t want to see it pull back. I wanted to honour what David had put in place,” said Martha Piper in 2008, who replaced Strangway as president and served for 9 years.

 “UBC has been on a really consistent upward trajectory since David Strangway’s days. David had his detractors and there were issues, but he knew quality and he pushed, and he connected internationally. So it’s really been on that same trajectory since,” said Stephen Toope, who replaced Piper as president and served for 8 years.

We’ll get to those detractors. First, let’s talk about that trajectory.

An aerial shot of UBC from 1983
An aerial shot of UBC from 1983

If you thought the headlines around UBC the past two years were the grimmest they’ve ever been, consider 1985: the government under Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett had adopted a “restraint” fiscal policy, freezing or cutting funding across departments, and UBC was not immune.

Over two years the province cut UBC’s grant by over $20 million, and in 1985 they said more cutbacks would be coming, without specifying how much. This, on the heels of a 33% tuition hike in 1983 (raising tuition to about $1100 a year), created an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.

“UBC has not decided whether it will promise students enrolled in a program they can complete that program if it is cut, UBC’s president said Tuesday” was the main headline in The Ubyssey in January of 1985, and similarly glum pronouncements dotted the paper for weeks as the provincial government refused to give any funding guarantees going forward.

Finally, on March 7, President George Pedersen, who only took the job two years earlier, resigned in protest, telling a news conference that “if my resignation does nothing more than dramatize to the general public the plight of our university system, it will an action worthy of the taking”.

There was an element of self-interest in Perdersen’s resignation — he had an offer to become President of the University of Western Ontario. But as the university fired tenured faculty in the summer and killed entire departments to make budget, there were real questions of what would happen next.

When Strangway, who had been serving as interim President at the University of Toronto, was announced as UBC’s newest leader in the summer, there was hope because of his track record. Hope, but not optimism.

“The question was, was there going to be a significant future for UBC?” he said in 2008, looking back at the crisis he inherited. “The morale was incredibly low and there was a real question of what we stood for.”

Of course, everyone knows that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.


What does UBC have that nobody else has to offer?

Any university can develop amazing departments, recruitment strategies, research labs. But in 1985, it had two things very valuable assets:

a) Lots and lots and lots of undeveloped land it could do whatever it wanted with, AND

b) Land that was right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in a city that was quickly realizing that trade with Pacific Rim countries was going to be slightly important to its future.

Recognizing UBC’s latent strengths and exploiting them — that, more than anything else, is what David Strangway did while president.

The lands surrounding UBC? For decades they had sat dormant, after the development of a planned community in the 1930s and 40s cost more than actual sales.

Strangway not only pushed the relatively novel concept that the University Endowment Lands should be used to raise money for the endowment, he did more in ten years than the previous 65.

By the end of 1988 there was a long-term strategy (lease plots of land on 99-year terms), a private company controlled by the university to manage the project (Properties Trust), and shovels in the ground (Hampton Place, an upper-class private neighbourhood of 2,000 that quickly netted UBC $90 million).

Strangway in 1993 at the opening of Green College, UBC’s first residential college for graduate students.

In a period where additional funds from government were hard to come by, you could scarily blame the board of governors — some of whom, it should be noted, had connections with the companies developing the land —  for exploiting this found money to its fullest extent.

By the time Strangway left, an ambitious Official Campus Plan had been approved, paving the way for the creation of three additional neighbourhoods.

There were many other successes in Strangway’s era. A four-year fundraising campaign raised $262 million, a record mark for a Canadian university. Provincially funded “Centres of Excellence” and a focus on niche graduate programs allowed for the recruitment of internationally-renowned faculty.

And most importantly, the university was making annual forays into Asia, years ahead of any other school in North America. Partnerships with any and all institutions were aggressively pursued, from China to North Korea, where an exchange of professors regularly happened for over 15 years.

“Nobody else was going,” said Strangway in an interview years later. “It seemed like a natural evolution of our partnerships with universities in other countries.”

Strangway’s push coincided with Vancouver becoming a truly global city. The 1986 Expo brought millions of visitors to the city, while the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration transferring Hong Kong to China sparked a steady stream of emigration to British Columbia.

Strangway takes part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the C.K. Choi Building, home to the Institute for Asian Research.

It all put UBC in a tremendous position to capitalize, with new buildings (Chan Centre for Performing Arts, C.K. Choi Building), programs (Sing Tao School of Journalism, Liu Centre for Global Issues) and exchange programs (St. Johns College, Ritsumekian-UBC House) built on the generousity of a generation of Asian philanthropists and university leaders Strangway had assiduously cultivated.

Development, internationalization, fundraising, and research — these were the four areas that UBC would now focus on, leverage for growth and promote to the world.

It was remarkably successful, by any measure you want to use, which is why the model hasn’t been strayed from in any serious way.

Walk through campus and see townhouses and academic facilities next to one another. Pick up a brochure where UBC targets prospective students from around the world, and exhorts current students to be “global citizens.” Search the UBC website for mentions of “world-class” or “global research”.

19 years after he left, UBC is still in many ways David Strangway’s university.

“He was our Robert Moses. He built the roads,” said Philip Resnick, a faculty member on the Board of Governors and one of Strangway’s most frequent public sparring partners. “When you consider where UBC was, and where it is today, he was remarkably prescient.”   

Of course, that’s one side of the narrative, the side that UBC likes to tell, and the side that is evident anytime you walk through the campus.

But in as much Strangway influenced how UBC would grow and develop, he influenced how generations of faculty, student leaders and student journalists would critique the university.


Hampton Place is illustrative of the Strangway era not only in what happened, but how it happened: through widespread, bottom-up consultation that didn’t treat any decision as a foregone conclusion. For example, if people were upset about ancient forests being logged, the project would stop until a compromise solution was reached.

Or not.

“We were happy to seek some level of consensus on the nature of [Hampton Place], and in fact included much of that advice in the final plan. But we weren’t willing to debate the fact of it,” said Strangway in 1997.

There was protest not only to literal changes to the campus landscape, but ideological ones too. The commercialization of research—the University Industry Liaison Office grew by leaps and bounds as UBC became explicit in partnering with a wide range of business groups—drew the ire of many faculty members, but it continued unabated throughout his tenure.

“If there is a polarized set of views about an issue, you can’t get consensus on many issues and those who don’t have their views necessarily upheld basically say that’s lack of consultation,” he argued.

And so it went, on issue after issue that created protest after protest: the most infamous of which happened after denying the 1990 Gay Games, held in Vancouver, the use of facilities at UBC.

“[It’s] an issue of the community identifying [homosexuality] with the University of British Columbia … one doesn’t want to have an informal identity with an issue of such controversy,” he said.

“If it’s a political statement they’re trying to make, I don’t think the University is the place to make political statements.”

Even after he left the university, his style caused divisions. In 1997, their was massive fallout over UBC hosting the APEC summit and the subsequent pepper-spraying of student protesters. Who agreed to host the world leaders before giving the Board of Governors a chance to approve it?

In the late 90s, their was outrage on campus after it was revealed that UBC started removing water fountains from campus during the same period they made an exclusivity deal with Coca-Cola, guaranteeing revenue minimums and containing privacy provisions that were later ruled illegal. Who allowed that agreement?

In the 2000s, students decried a “War on Fun“, as it became apparent what would happen when non-students in market housing outnumbered students in campus housing. Who paved the way—literally and figuratively—for that?

Strangway was not exactly beloved by The Ubyssey.
Strangway was not exactly beloved by The Ubyssey.

Find a UBC alumnus who rails against the neoliberalized world, or corporate profits and partnerships over public good. Find an alumnus who decries politicians who trample over consultation and ignore protests. Find an alumnus who things that globalization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that Vancouver was a little bit better before Expo ’86.

If one’s university experience is an incubator for how people view the world, Strangway’s ideology gave his detractors as much ammunition as his supporters.

With all that in mind, I once asked Strangway if he had any regrets about his style, or decisions he made, or things he wished he would have changed.

“I wish we would have put in a high-end hotel,” he said.  “With all the conferences on campus, we really missed out on an opportunity there. And it would make quite an impression on tourists and visiting stakeholders.”

So no, David Strangway did not have any regrets about how he defined and divided western Canada’s largest university.

And for the last three decades, neither has UBC.


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