Graduate college not only meets, but surpasses goals, review finds

by Sean Kelly

Staff writer

According to a recent report, Green College, UBC's first graduate college, has already exceeded both its social and academic objectives, and achieved a successful marriage of "ideas and friendship" -- the college's motto.

The report was issued by a three-person independent review team which was charged by the Faculty of Graduate Studies with the first mandatory review of the college.

According to Green College principal Prof. Richard Ericson, when the college was founded four years ago, no one expected it to offer so many events and programs to the whole university, and so many thriving study groups drawing on expertise from both within and beyond the campus.

In fact, the first group of residential scholars were themselves part of an experiment in graduate learning.

The idea was to create a community focused on interdisciplinarity, where graduate students and faculty with different interests could interact socially as well as intellectually.

It had to be large enough to accommodate a broad range of interests and small enough to maintain the kind of consensual and egalitarian organization that could respond directly to concerns. And it had to achieve the right balance with regard to gender, and local and international students.

According to the review team's report, the experiment has proved to be "an amazing success."

Ericson, who recently was reappointed to a second term as principal, cites the creativity and enthusiasm of the Dining Society as one of many examples of how the 100 residents, including graduate students, post doctoral fellows and visiting scholars, and the non-residential members that include some 40 UBC faculty, have contributed to that success.

At the inception of the college, residents decided to make their communal dining experience special. So they organized a Dining Society, hired a chef, and began to run the kitchen like a business.

Since then the college has become a gastronomic oasis, serving food which is both affordable and of gourmet calibre.

But it is the intellectual menu that residents and non-residents find most nourishing.

Between September and April last year, the college served up almost 200 separate events -- two or three a day. On any given day, Green College residents or visitors might participate in a seminar or presentation hosted by the college or one of its nine interdisciplinary study groups, listen to a lecture by a distinguished visiting professor, take in a performance by an arts group, or attend a party or reception.

The review team credited Ericson for his skill in mentoring, facilitating and empowering student activities, and praises him, his staff and a committed group of faculty members "for encouraging and fostering an environment which residents both enjoy and rapidly assume responsibility for maintaining."

Resident Mike Clarke, who finished an MSc this summer in theoretical physics and began another master's degree in finance this September, has lived at the college for one year--half of the two-year residence limit.

He says that those who think all graduate students are anti-social people who are buried in their books all the time haven't visited Green College.

"That just doesn't happen at the college -- it wasn't designed that way. People here go out of their way to maintain a friendly spirit, and even if you are new you can walk up to anyone at any time and talk to them."

There is no formal pressure to get involved, Clarke says. "But if you want to participate, the possibilities are endless."

Prof. Patricia Vertinsky, head of the Dept. of Educational Studies, and one of eight senior fellows responsible for supporting the intellectual life of Green College, says the active social life students and faculty enjoy there enhances scholarship.

"Not only has Green College become an intellectually stimulating place to be, it has also helped fill the gap left by the loss of the faculty club," she says.

"It provides the space and support that allows faculty from different backgrounds to meet with each other and with students from all over the world who have a very high level of scholarship."

Ericson too is quick to point out that the college is much more than a socially active residence.

"It's both a social and intellectual centre that serves the university, and an academic institution with an academic mission," he says.

Publishing plans are part of that mission. The college now has an agreement with University of Toronto Press to publish lectures by distinguished visiting professors invited under the Cecil and Ida Green Visiting Professorships series.

Researchers at the college are publishing books and articles based on their work, and some of the interdisciplinary groups are planning to publish anthologies based on their speakers' series.

The college's academic mission also involves providing space to two independent programs with an interdisciplinary focus.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies has been located at the college since the spring of 1996. And last year the Individual Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program, which helps graduate students put together a customized team of advisers from different departments, moved to Green College.

All this activity prompted the review team to characterize Green College as "an intellectual incubator of new interdisciplinary initiatives."

But like many flourishing institutions, rapid growth may be causing some growing pains. Ericson would like to see more enhancement of activities and academic research, but the review team points out that there is little room for expansion.

Not only are present facilities being used to capacity, but the reviewers wonder if "such a comparatively small population can sustain much more, especially with a probable annual turnover as high as 50 per cent (among residents)."

To allow for more activities, the team recommends increasing the two-year residence limit, thereby increasing "institutional memory" and securing additional office and research facilities.

Currently, what was designed for socialization is being used for academic space. While it has worked until now, Ericson would like to see the addition of a modest academic building to the college.

He says that with the addition of a dedicated academic building, the college could develop research programs, provide research space to visiting scholars, and offer bigger seminars and lectures.

Such a building wasn't part of the original plan, but then again, neither was much of what makes Green College so vibrant today.