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UBC President Stephen Toope - photo by Martin Dee
UBC President Stephen Toope - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 7 | Jul. 6, 2006

A Conversation with President Stephen Toope

What attracted you to UBC?

I was attracted to UBC primarily for three reasons. First, the Trek 2010 Plan. I was immensely impressed that a complex organization like UBC could agree on such a transformative mission, one that is so clearly committed to research excellence in service of the community, to a challenging and supportive learning environment for all students and to promoting the values of a civil and sustainable society.

I was also impressed that the even harder work had already begun to make this visionary set of objectives touch down in the world of budgets and concrete academic planning. I see the full implementation of Trek 2010 as my primary job.

Secondly, I was attracted by the people I met on the search committee. They convinced me that UBC is filled with extraordinary people fired with ambition for themselves and for their institution. That impression has been confirmed in spades since the announcement of my appointment. I am deeply reassured by the people I meet, students, staff and faculty members — they make me feel that this job is possible and that I won’t ever be alone in striving to make UBC even better.

Thirdly, I was attracted to British Columbia, to Vancouver and to the Okanagan. This is pretty amazing for a dyed-in-the-wool Montrealer. Vancouver represents the future of Canadian urban society -- with incredible diversity and openness to the world. At UBC we talk about global citizenship.

At its best, Vancouver is about what we could call “global cityship.” This is not just about welcoming the world of new immigrants, or the world of sport in 2010. It is about becoming a model for sustainable cities, for economically and culturally innovative cities and for healthy cities. The Okanagan can be a model for rural and small city life that is a culturally rich and healthy alternative to the big city. UBC must be at the centre of these hopes and goals.

What do you see as UBC’s greatest opportunities?

UBC can become the most creative and most influential university in Canada, and continue its march up the ranks of the very best universities in the world. It already attracts some of the best students in the country and from outside Canada; it has many of the best researchers in the country and from outside Canada; it is blessed with a supportive community and a provincial government that recognizes the importance of education and research; it has thousands of wonderful graduates who care about UBC.

And it is in Vancouver and the Okanagan.

What do you see as UBC’s greatest challenges?

To seize the day. Not to let past achievements serve as the boundaries for our aspirations. Not to think that we have done enough. To be global in reach, yet firmly rooted in our own place — in Vancouver and the Okanagan.

Is there a natural conflict between teaching and research at a large, research-intensive university like UBC?

Every major research-intensive university has a challenge in figuring out how to link the research effort to student learning, especially at the undergraduate level. All big universities must admit that we haven’t always done the best possible job in valuing and inspiring our undergraduates.

My own teaching experience tells me, though, that there is no “conflict” between teaching and research. In my first year or two of teaching, I always felt that I was just a day or two ahead of my students; my resources were pretty thin. But as I delved into my subjects through research, I could draw on analogies, parallels and critical appreciations that made me a better and more interesting teacher.

And the process of learning is mutual. Every professor worth his or her salt will tell you that it is more fun to teach strong students because they inevitably challenge a professor to learn more. That is why we are so lucky at UBC to attract exceptional students.

Trek 2010 talks about global citizenship. What does that term mean to you?

My academic background is in international law and global politics, so for me UBC’s commitment to global citizenship is inspiring. I think that the term has meaning at both a personal and an institutional level.

For individuals, global citizenship means caring about the impact that our choices have on others, locally and across boundaries of nation, race, religion, etc. It means learning about other cultures and ways of thinking, mastering new languages. It means preparing oneself to make a difference in the world.

Universities can be global citizens by supporting research that affects the lives of people in every part of the planet — even if the focus of the research seems to be local. Universities also help to create full citizens with a sense of duty to their interlocking communities, local to global.

Universities can even act directly as global citizens by creating transnational student and research networks, by supporting sister institutions in the developing world, and by encouraging our students, staff and faculty to share the blessings of publicly funded education as widely as possible.

How will people come to know you?

UBC is a huge place with two campuses and tens of thousands of students, staff, faculty and graduates.

Many people will only know me as a video clip, a “talking head” or a quote. But I genuinely like meeting new people, so I will do my best to connect in person with the various communities that make up UBC. I love President Piper’s idea of student breakfasts, a tradition I will definitely continue.

Student leaders will meet with me regularly. I want to meet as many faculty members as possible, and to engage with their scholarly interests, so I plan to visit all the Faculties in the fall. I will also host informal seminars where faculty members can share their research across disciplines. Over the summer and into the fall, plans are afoot for regular lunches with graduates.

Add in the staff barbeque … and I should be on public view pretty often. I also believe that universities are a central space for public discourse, so I will be giving my fair share of public talks as well.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I fear that I won’t have much. Being with my family will be the top priority when I am not working. I am delighted to say that my wife and all three children think that I am pretty goofy, with a completely undistinguished sense of humour. They keep me grounded, for which I am eternally grateful.

To relax I like to read fiction, history and memoirs, and to listen to classical music. I have a particular fondness for contemporary Baltic composers that no one else in my house can bear to listen to.

Why do you prefer to be called Professor Toope, not Doctor?

For a non-medical doctor, the designation “Dr.” is a mark of achievement rather than a vocation. I prefer to use a title that is more about who I am than about a hurdle I have crossed. To “profess” is to be part of a university community, to be engaged in the gift of teaching and learning.
That’s how I view the UBC Presidency.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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