Think about it

Think about our role in preparing the scholars and leaders of tomorrow, says President Martha Piper

Speech given by Martha C. Piper, president of UBC, Sept. 25, 1997

PictureThe University of British Columbia -- think about it.

Over the past nine months, I have often been asked, "What have you been up to?" The answer to this question is really quite simple: I have been thinking -- thinking about the University of British Columbia. It is this thinking that both humbles and excites me. It is this thinking that I acknowledge today as I assume almost certainly the greatest honour in my life, the 11th presidency of the University of British Columbia.

The University of British Columbia -- think about it.

Eighty-two years ago, almost to the day, on Sept. 30, 1915, the University of British Columbia opened its doors. On this occasion, UBC's first president, Dr. Frank Wesbrook, emphasized both the courage and wisdom of the citizens of British Columbia:

"We take occasion this morning to congratulate ourselves that, though the Empire is at war, such a good beginning of the university has been possible. The people of this province may congratulate themselves that they have seen their opportunities and their obligations in the matter of the better preparation of the next generation for their responsibilities."

As we embark upon the 21st century, 82 years later, many of the hopes and dreams of those who have gone before us have been realized. Remarkably, in less than 100 years, UBC has positioned itself as one of Canada's leading universities and one of the world's most highly respected institutions of advanced learning and research.

We have many to thank for this legacy -- academic leaders, internationally renowned scholars, outstanding students, excellent staff, leading alumni and dedicated friends both here and throughout the world. We are particularly grateful to our recent president, Dr. David Strangway, who has provided this institution with visionary leadership over the past 12 years -- propelling UBC to the forefront of Canadian universities and bringing the world to its doorstep.

As we head toward our second hundred years, our purpose is no different than that outlined by Frank Wesbrook. Yet, some things have changed -- the world in which we live and our strength and maturity. Because of two key factors -- our geographic location and our strength -- UBC is uniquely positioned, as we enter the 21st century, to be the pre-eminent university of this country, and one of a handful of outstanding publicly funded research universities in the world.

Think about it -- the University of British Columbia -- uniquely positioned -- in the right place at the right time.

Being in the right place at the right time. Growing up in a household with four children, being in the right place at the right time was not always easy. While my parents allowed us a great deal of freedom, there were events -- dinner hours, visits with my grandparents, or the need to receive important instructions -- that required all four of us to be in the right place at the right time. For these occasions, my parents relied upon a large steel dinner bell that hung on a tall wooden post in our garden. Although we were well conditioned to this stimulus, our neighbours were even more so. Upon hearing our dinner bell, they encouraged us to return home immediately -- ensuring that we would be in the right place at the right time. There was no escaping the bell -- everyone knew what it meant -- everyone responded to its ringing -- everyone understood the urgency of its sounding.

Such is the clarity of UBC's future -- we are in the right place at the right time. And, like the dinner bell, everyone around us hears it and is urging us to respond.

The University of British Columbia -- think about it.

We are mature and we are strong. We are acknowledged for our people and our research and our scholarship -- our vibrant social sciences and humanities culture; our significant international connections to the Asia Pacific; our evolving partnerships with First Nations people; our extensive participation in all 14 federal Networks of Centres of Excellence; our impressive position as number two in the country in Royal Society of Canada Fellows; our inventive leadership in technology transfer; and our enviable position in the top tier of the nation's externally sponsored research rankings. Canadian poet Earle Birney helped establish the Creative Writing Dept., George Woodcock taught English and Asian Studies, and, in 1993, Michael Smith received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. We have over 150,000 outstanding alumni throughout the world -- they are innovators in their fields and leaders in their communities.

The University of British Columbia--think about it. As we ready ourselves to enter the next century, we are keenly aware that our world is a different place than that of our ancestors. During much of the 20th century, the attention of our parents and grandparents was fixed eastward -- on Europe and its nation states. Today, our focus has expanded to include the West and South -- with important connections to the Asia Pacific and the Americas. What better city than Vancouver to serve as the gateway to North America for Asians and the bridge to Asia for Europeans? What better university than UBC to be working with the City of Vancouver, our business and industrial partners, the communities of the Lower Mainland, other colleges and universities, the province, and the nation to strengthen these global links and forge a knowledge-based society?

The University of British Columbia -- in the right place, at the right time. Young and vital, mature and excellent, geographically located in a vibrant city and province, internationally recognized for its teaching and research -- uniquely positioned to be the pre-eminent Canadian university in the 21st century.

What, then, are the challenges we face? There is probably none more important than that enunciated by Frank Wesbrook -- the preparation of the next generation of scholars and leaders. In so doing, we must define the unique learning and research environment that we will provide.

The defining of this environment can be likened to the painting of a canvas -- similar to the creativity exhibited by Emily Carr. Her greatness is based on her special relationship with the environment -- the British Columbia rain forests, the First Nations' villages and totems, the wild beaches and vast skies. Through her paintings, she celebrated the natural strengths of British Columbia and its people. We at UBC must marshal our creative talents to define a unique research and learning environment that builds upon the natural strengths of this university, this province and its people.

We will need to have a full and open discussion about the nature of this environment. Over the next several months, we will collectively engage in developing the academic vision for the University of British Columbia for the 21st century. I invite each of you to participate in this dialogue and to actively think about our future. What is the purpose of our academic and research programs? What will UBC look like five to 10 years from now? How will we get there and how will we know when we have attained our goals?

These questions and others will form the basis of our deliberations -- together we will develop the framework for the answers. To assist us, we need to consider three trends that clearly distinguish tomorrow's world from that of a century ago: internationalization, inter-disciplinarity and information technology.

First, internationalization. As we prepare the next generation, we are charged with the responsibility of educating the future citizens of the world -- persons who will be able to contribute to and benefit from an international life experience. Such an education will require an appreciation of the growing interdependence of world cultures and will demand the acquisition of global knowledge -- a background in and exposure to languages, literatures, and philosophies; cultures, history and anthropology; fiscal and monetary policies, economics and political science; and numerical and scientific literacy.

Second, inter-disciplinarity. The next generation will need to address some of the most complex questions facing the world today -- issues such as literacy, poverty, health promotion, advanced materials, sustainable development, crime and violence, entrepreneurship, the ethics of death and genetic cloning, and redefining work and leisure. These issues cannot be dealt with effectively by single academic disciplines working in isolation. Rather, the major insights in one field most likely will arise from knowledge discovery in another. Examples of such inter-disciplinary endeavours abound. History is being re-interpreted through literary and psychological analysis. Economics and meteorology are being transformed by the new mathematics of chaos theory. Fine arts is being expanded through the application of computer science and engineering. Geology is being profoundly changed by the physics of matter. Anthropology is being explained through the application of DNA sequencing.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own likened a scientific discovery to a shapely pebble, insinuating that "science" was straightforward and objective. In contrast, she described a work of art as "a spider's web, attached ever so lightly . . . to life at all four corners." Clearly, she believed that science differed significantly from art -- a pebble versus a web. Yet, 65 years later, John Polanyi, a Canadian winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, suggests that a scientific discovery is at best 10 per cent pebble and 90 per cent shimmer. He believes that scientists are indeed painters, since the pebble of fact exists only as the play of light on a partly exposed surface.

Scientists and artists merged together in a web of creation. Our challenge is to expose tomorrow's opinion makers to the humanities and the sciences so they understand that progress depends on human judgment, that action must be coupled with moral reasoning, and that comprehending how the world is depends upon appreciating how the world ought to be.

Third, information technology. As we enter the knowledge society, the use of information becomes vital. Neil Rudenstine, president of Harvard University, likens the transformation we are currently experiencing to that associated with the proliferation of books in the 18th century. He believes that just as we have learned to access large libraries, we will learn to employ information technology in our learning and research environments. Nevertheless, the distinctions between information versus knowledge, facts versus interpretation, data versus analysis must be recognized. As such, the personal contributions of faculty will remain central to a university and will never be replaced by information technology. Yet, the innovative use of such technology can reconfigure the classroom and permit faculty to devote more energy to shaping creative intellectual relationships with students. As Philip Abelson suggests in a recent editorial in Science, "Electronic communication may be the way of the future, but human dialogue conducted with friendly enthusiasm is to be treasured."

Internationalization, inter-disciplinarity, information technology -- these three concepts will help define our future academic environment. Yet, if we are really serious about the preparation of the next generation of leaders, we must re-examine the purpose of the undergraduate educational experience. The re-emphasis on undergraduate education is probably the most pressing issue that universities must address in the next decade -- clearly in light of the three concepts, but also, most importantly, in terms of research.

Universities distinguish themselves from other post-secondary institutions on the basis of their research and scholarship -- creating the foundation for human understanding and new knowledge. UBC is proud of its outstanding research record and affirms its commitment to lead in knowledge discovery across an array of disciplines and professions. This research capacity is a unique resource -- one that we must continue to defend and strengthen. We will advocate original scholarship in all fields -- not only to support our research mission but also to facilitate learning by students.

We consistently hear about the "inextricable link" between research and teaching. The challenge for UBC is to enact such a link -- to demonstrate that the learning and research environments, at the undergraduate level, are not competitive but complementary; that research will enhance, not detract from, the learning experience; that if students choose UBC, they will be exposed to a research-based learning environment -- in all fields, in an innovative manner that acknowledges the intellectual capacity of our accomplished student body and the creative energy of our distinguished faculty.

I am often confronted with various arguments as to why it is impossible to create such an environment. When responding, I am reminded of one of my favourite poems, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," by Robert Service. Perhaps it is because it reminds me of the numerous recitations over roaring campfires by my Uncle Harry, who is here with us today. Whatever the reason, I believe that the first two lines capture the notion that unconventional approaches are often necessary to secure the prize:

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold."

Truly, we are moiling for gold -- and such efforts may require strange things to be done. But such is the challenge: to create a learning environment, based upon our outstanding research and scholarship, that will prepare the next generation to think -- to think about themselves, to think about the world in which they live, and to think about the key roles they will play in the betterment of the human condition.

Toni Morrison, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has stated: "There are very few places left, other than great universities, where both the wisdom of the dead coupled with the doubt of the living are vigorously encouraged."

Our great university, the University of British Columbia, will prepare the next generation by exposing them to the wisdom of the dead and the doubt of the living through our teaching and research. Teaching and research -- inextricably linked.

Thinking . . . think about it. Personal thinking, creative thinking, philosophical thinking, strategic thinking -- everyone can do it, no one is excluded.

As powerful as thinking is, very few of us spend much time thinking about thinking. When and where should we think? How do you let others know that you are busy thinking?

Other activities, whether playing ball or playing in a orchestra, are more recognizable -- equipment is required and uniforms are worn. In contrast, the activity of thinking is less obvious.

Still, in today's world what could be more important? Where, other than a university and its community, could a team of thinkers be assembled? A team of thinkers -- students, scholars, staff, alumni and friends, working together, using their minds to live meaningful and productive lives.

And so, how might we identify ourselves as a team of thinkers? Why not do what other teams do? Why not don a uniform? Why not don our "thinking caps" -- to signal to the world that we are busy thinking. Everyone can join the team and celebrate the importance of universities to today's world. As with the ringing of the dinner bell, the message will be clear. By wearing our thinking caps -- the ones you will all receive today -- we will let others know that the University of British Columbia is serious about the power of scholarship and thought, and that we are committed to thinking deliberately and creatively about our university and our society.

And so I invite all of you to join the University of British Columbia in thinking -- in thinking about the issues that affect us all, in thinking about our past and what we have learned about ourselves, in thinking about our present and the issues we face, and in thinking about our future and what we aspire to achieve.

Let there be no mistake -- with our hats on and our wits about us --we will think about our university and our society -- and, by so doing, will chart our future together.

The University of British Columbia in the 21st century -- think about it.