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UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 6 | Jun. 1, 2006

Martha Piper: Random Thoughts on a Retiring President

Interviews by Richard Littlemore

  • Brad Bennett, Chair, UBC Board of Governors
  • Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail Columnist
  • Don Avison, Former Deputy Minister of Advanced Education and Current President of the University Presidents Council
  • Stephen Toope, UBC President-designate
  • Peter Meekison, Former University of Alberta Vice President Academic and Public Administrator during the establishment of UBC Okanagan
  • Arthur Carty, National Science Advisor
  • Brian Sullivan, Vice President Students
  • Claire Morris, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada President
  • Moura Quayle, Deputy Minister of Advanced Education (and former UBC Dean of Land and Food Systems)
  • Edward Goldenberg, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Jean Chretien
  • Robert Birgenau, University of California at Berkeley Chancellor

Brad Bennett

Chair, UBC Board of Governors

“I was on the OUC (Okanagan University College) board when I first met Martha. There was a forum on regional innovation and economic development issues and (then-OUC president) Katie Bindon asked me to attend in her place. It was fortuitous for me, given what was to unfold later.

“I was immediately impressed and moved at Martha’s grasp of the challenges that lay ahead for the university and for advanced education in general. I was also impressed at her ability to engage any audience -- whether students, the external community or heads of state, it’s always the same Martha. She talks directly and in a way that people can understand.

“One of her charms is that she never loses sight of the goal -- getting to where she wants to be, for the university and for advanced ed. (In establishing UBC Okanagan) there are a lot of eyes on what we are trying to do here. We’re trying to build an intimate campus with unique programming and research, but with all the benefits, the clout and leverage of UBC -- with that name recognition and branding. We want the best and the brightest faculty and a good complement of graduate students. And it’s working. We are attracting top-ranked faculty -- people who want to come to a smaller, more intimate campus. That’s one of the areas where UBC as a whole gets the benefit (from UBC Okanagan).

“UBC was clearly on a good trajectory that started in (then-President David) Strangway’s time. Martha seized upon that and took the university to heights that have left a lot of people in awe. She recognized that you can’t make it in the international rankings without research and she moved the (UBC) research agenda to new heights.

“I think we will continue on that trajectory -- that we will be the best internationally ranked research university that we can be.”

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Jeffrey Simpson

Globe and Mail Columnist

“Martha Piper was one of three or four university presidents (with Robert Lacroix from the University of Montreal and Robert Pritchard from the University of Toronto) who, during the Chretien and Martin governments were very, very instrumental in helping to shape policies that produced a great benefit for post-secondary research infrastructure and therefore a great benefit to the country’s economic future. ... She made it her business to develop a network in Ottawa and she was amazingly successful.

“Martha always had a national vision and a universal or global context. She realized that UBC could only go to the next level if she set her sights above being a good university in B.C. That took her to Ottawa and outside the country and it made her one of maybe a dozen people who were key movers in the Chretien era.”

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Don Avison

Former Deputy Minister of Advanced Education and Current President of the University Presidents Council

“I only took this job because Martha Piper (Simon Fraser University President) Jack Blaney and (University of Northern B.C. President) Chuck Jago had such a clear vision of where they wanted to see post-secondary education go in this province.

“Theirs was a common enterprise and they acted with a unity of purpose and interests that transcended anything we had seen before. Under Martha’s leadership, there was an approach to partnership (in B.C. universities) that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.” Avison specifically identified the expansion of B.C.’s medical schools to encompass three universities with a single degree. “That was truly revolutionary.”

“Martha has a sense of vision of what might be possible and an equal ability to articulate that vision and get others to help make it happen. She makes me think of Aretha Franklin: She’s got a great voice and one she really knows how to use. It’s always impressive -- and sometimes it’s truly magical.”

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Stephen Toope

UBC President-designate

“I have known Martha well because she sat on the board of the (Pierre Elliott) Trudeau Foundation (of which Dr. Toope has been the president). She has shown real leadership at the national level in so many programs.

“When I look at UBC, it’s very strong, which is in large part due to Martha. I recognize that it takes a whole team, but the leadership has obviously been there. I think she really has to be celebrated, and I am honoured to follow her.”

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Peter Meekison

Former University of Alberta Vice President Academic and Public Administrator during the establishment of UBC Okanagan

When Martha Piper first approached the U of A to investigate an opening as Dean of Rehabilitative Medicine, Dr. Meekison was her first point of contact:

“There was something there,” Meekison says, “a quality. Of six excellent candidates, she was the winner, hands down.”

“She was a natural fundraiser and a born leader. And as Vice President Research, she found an ability to coin a phrase,” with the fundraising slogan ‘Research Makes Sense.’

“In talking about research, she de-mystified it. She connects with people and doesn’t talk down to them. She has tremendous interpersonal and communication skills. She’s inclusive, she’s a nurturer, and she’s always got time to stop and write a birthday card or a little note. That’s what sets her apart.”

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Arthur Carty

National Science Advisor

“I have a great deal of respect for Martha. She is a woman of great integrity; she won’t back off on principle and she is unfailingly enthusiastic and persuasive.

“In the 10 years between 1995 and 2005, Martha was one of the most influential and charismatic leaders in the Canadian academic community. Her influence over government and the university community helped to reinvigorate research in universities across the country. Martha was instrumental in advocating for the Canada Research Chairs, for new funding for the three granting councils and for CFI (the Canada Foundation for Innovation). That accounts for $14 billion in research funding, which had a dramatic impact right across the country. She was also influential as a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology.

“Universities had taken a beating in the early ’90s and Martha was able to impress upon the government the need to reinvest.

“I know that Martha also worked to strengthen the relations between Town and Gown, between UBC and its community and, as a result, UBC has emerged not just as a powerhouse of research excellence, but also as a driver of economic growth and innovation in Vancouver and in the whole of B.C.”

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Brian Sullivan

Vice President Students

“Martha has been unwavering in her support of the students’ voice. She is also an inspiring person: disciplined; attentive to detail; concerned for relationships and obsessed with follow-through.

“And corny as it is, her favourite slogan -- ‘I am UBC’ -- really resonated. When the students came up with that t-shirt (as part of an Imagine UBC program early in her first term), it really caught her. She recognized that it really defined the hopes and dreams of student life. She saw how important it was that students identify with UBC as a whole, not just with a degree program or a team. It was a compelling update of (the UBC motto) Tuum est -- it’s up to you. ‘I am UBC’ said ‘I am this thing and this thing is me’ -- ‘I am this place and this place lives in me.’

“Martha also recognized that there were two groups on campus who were underappreciated: student athletes and alumni. Her understanding of the contribution that student athletes make was terrific. And she recognized that a great university has to pay attention to its alumni. She always backstopped me in doing work with the Alumni Association (including in the hiring of Associate Vice President Alumni Marie Earl) and I think that work will continue.

“(As a manager), Martha always managed to keep the personal and the professional connected. She never imagined that we could divide our lives; she honoured and valued both the personal and professional and I always knew that I could count on her support, whether the issue was professional or personal. I always felt valued as a person.”

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Claire Morris

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada President

“In 1999, I was Deputy Minister of HRDC (Human Resources and Development Canada). I had been around government for 28 years and I thought I had seen effective advocacy and lobbying. Then I met Martha.

“Martha was the first university president to make a trip to Ottawa with the (university’s) whole senior management team - to introduce the team to Ottawa and to introduce Ottawa to the team. It became an event that many universities would copy.

“I always found striking her vision for the role of social sciences. Her Killam speech (in 2002) was really the starting point for the transformation of SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

“She also took a tremendous leadership role in the AUCC. She chaired the standing advisory committee from 2002 to 2005 and she was a huge advocate, not just for UBC but for universities across the country.

“She’s going to leave a big hole in the whole community.”

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Moura Quayle

Deputy Minister of Advanced Education (and former UBC Dean of Land and Food Systems)

“Martha was a role model for the Deans, especially for certain leadership behaviours.” The most obvious of these, was “tenacity. Martha always showed that you just don’t run at something once. If you don’t succeed, you step back, check your strategy, re-check your vision and go at it again.“

“Martha was also so good (on the national scene) talking about universities, not just about UBC. It was strategic - and she always took it to the next level - because she knew that if you could improve the conditions for all universities, then UBC would thrive.”

As a communicator, “Martha is not afraid to talk about her family -- how they shaped her -- and her experiences. It makes her very human.”

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Edward Goldenberg

Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Asked about the rumour that Dr. Piper had a hotline to the Prime Minister’s office, and that the line led directly to Goldenberg, he said:

“That’s true. I wanted to see her as much as I could. Everyone did. She was extremely welcome. Apart from having a very warm personality, she always had good ideas. She was relentlessly positive, interesting, thoughtful, future-oriented and she would put things into a perspective that went beyond the perspective of UBC. She was innovative and would identify possible solutions.“

Martha was so popular in Ottawa that “I joked recently that it sometimes worked to her disadvantage. When she was lobbying for funding for indirect costs (of research), she said she would keep coming to see us until the costs were approved. We would have given her the money much more quickly if she had threatened to stop coming, instead.

“Martha also sometimes said, thank you, which is very rare in Ottawa.”

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Robert Birgenau

University of California at Berkeley Chancellor

“When I took the position of President at the University of Toronto in 1999, Martha was one of the first people to call and congratulate me. And when I took my first trip to Ottawa, I discovered that she was the single most prominent university president in Canada. She set the standard for how to do federal relations properly.

“Now, looking at it from outside the country, there are three great universities in Canada, UBC, U of T and McGill, and my own view is that UBC is pushing very hard on Toronto and on McGill as to which is the pre-eminent university in Canada.”

In addition to the advocacy role that she played nationally, a role in which she was “passionate and unrelenting,” “Martha was also very effective in enhancing UBC’s position internationally, especially through the Association of Pacific Rim Universities and Universitas 21 -- connecting UBC to Asia and, especially, to China.”

“Martha also had an eye for developing new talent within UBC. For example, I tried hard to recruit (UBC’s VP Research) Indira Samarasekera to U of T, unfortunately without success.”

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Brett Finlay

UBC Peter Wall Distinguished Professor

“When I came to UBC in 1989, (UBC Nobel Laureate) Michael Smith promised me a new building. He had the model on his desk, and I know that 30 seconds after he had met Martha, he had the blueprints out.” But 15 years passed before that vision was to be realized.

“Martha’s success at CFI (the Canada Foundation for Innovation) radically changed this university. It’s a different place. We are now competitive on the national scene. We’re doing much better with (winning grant money from) all the research councils and we have lots of new buildings, including Michael Smith’s dream -- a beautiful new building instead of the slums we were in before.

“Martha really created a buzz. She put this university on the map, and I attribute that to her philosophy that research drives a university. If the research is good, the university will be good -- and the students will be proud.

“She has been a wonderful cheerleader for UBC. Of all the Canadian university presidents, she is the one most listened to (in Ottawa). She has the ear of the three granting council leaders -- when she talks, they listen.

“She also surrounded herself with excellent people -- excellent VPs. (Vice President Research) Indira Samarasekera transformed that department. I can speak for researchers in general in saying that she (Martha) really put research back up there.

“I remember when Martha first arrived and she put on that ‘Think About It’ hat during one of her first speeches. She raised some eyebrows. Some people were asking, ‘What kind of a president are we getting, here?’

“In retrospect: a very effective one.”

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Allan Tupper

UBC Associate Vice President Government Relations

“Without exaggeration, Martha is the foremost (governmental) advocate of her era. She has set forth a broad set of arguments about what universities are about and how they fit with the role of government.

“Martha’s global citizenship argument has been particularly influential in (affecting) government thinking, which will be a challenge not just to the next president, but to all the universities and colleges of the country -- how do we continue to move this agenda forward, to articulate the role that the federal government can play in universities and the role that universities can play in the international arena?”

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Dan Muzyka

Sauder School of Business Dean

“Martha is an inspirational leader. She came to UBC at a time when faculties had been suffering budget cuts for the last eight or 10 years. There was a pulling back, year after year, that had torn not only into the hardware of the university, but heavily into the software, as well -- into the people. It had an impact on the mood of the organization.

“Martha came in at the tail end of that period and she helped the university believe in itself again - helped believe in its role in the greater international learning community and in the society of the future.

“She was very strong at three levels. Number one was the emotional level: she helped the university believe in its own power. Number two was in resources: she was able to bring in funds through various initiatives and programs, getting governments to understand the need for increased contributions to research and working with the provincial government to get sufficient operational funding. Number three was getting people to look at different programs in terms of their different requirements -- in directing resources.

“She will leave a stronger university. And the investments in post-secondary education will also result in a stronger society and a stronger economy.

“For Martha, UBC was a mission and a cause, not just an institution where she happened to be president. She believed!”

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Indira Samarasekera

University of Alberta President (and former UBC Vice President Research)

“Martha Piper is the best university president that Canada has had in a long time. Look around the country and she stands out, not just at UBC but nationally. (Martha has) a superb intellect; she’s an eternal optimist and she has a joie de vivre that I find very attractive. She also has the capacity to look beyond the horizon, to connect disparate events and pieces of information into a coherent and powerful case.”

The two Trek strategic plans were evidence of that clarity of thinking: “Trek 2000 was brilliant -- inspiring for many and a model for how you craft a strategic vision for a university: think big, and then deliver on the resources.

“I also feel very privileged and grateful for the interest she took in me personally. I would not be the president of U of A today without her.”

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Heather Munro-Blum

McGill University Principal

“Martha is a superb person. From the very beginning, I have had great admiration and affection for her -- she inspires both in just about everyone she meets.

Among Canada’s foremost university presidents, “she was a leader among leaders in a big team effort to create a national innovation agenda. She listens hard, she learns well, she has a real ability to cut through to the core of the matter and she is a compelling champion. And there has never been a university president from west of Ontario who had a more dominant influence in Ottawa.”

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Walter Sudmant

Planning and Institutional Research Director

“Martha Piper has shifted the ground on the function of a university, not just for UBC but for all universities across the country. The university mission is no longer about pursuing disciplines for the sake of those disciplines. The university is now, primarily, an agent for social change.

“The language of global citizenship -- about civil society -- has become so common at UBC that we have forgotten how radical it is. The link between community service and learning has been out there for a while, but UBC was the first university to put it boldly into a strategic plan. It’s very political, but Martha has attracted people who were bold, who were ‘activist.’

“Martha has never been afraid of controversy.

She has used negative results to her advantage.” For example, when UBC slipped in its Maclean’s magazine ranking, “Martha used it to raise the consciousness of people on the state of undergraduate education.”

The President has also survived early criticisms that she was not serious enough for the position: “There are people who don’t like unbridled enthusiasm, people who think that the president’s speeches should be quite dour and a little opaque. Martha (in doing the opposite) has won a lot of cynics over.

“She has also been tremendously successful with donors. You have to make donors feel that there is stewardship, that they are putting their money in the hands of people who know how to use it. At UBC now, people have a sense now that if they leave large chunks of money with the university, that’s an inspired choice.”

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Shih Choon Fong

President, National University of Singapore

“I would say that Martha’s most significant legacy will be her taking UBC from a top Canadian university to a leading global university. With her global outlook and network, she has been able to ride the crest of an emerging Asia Pacific and seize opportunities for UBC, British Columbia and Canada. The active role that she has played in university consortia like the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) and Universitas 21 placed UBC strategically on the global network of leading universities. Martha has set UBC on the course towards its vision of becoming one of the world’s best universities. I have no doubt that what Martha put in place during her presidency will help UBC realize this aspiration.

“People in UBC and Canada may not be aware of how Martha has contributed to Singapore and to the National University of Singapore (NUS). From 2000 to 2004, she served on the NUS Council ... the only overseas university president to have served on the NUS Council until then.

“Martha’s commitment to nurturing global citizenship will have enduring impact on education and research at UBC. Under her leadership, UBC has pursued internationalization strategies which have leveraged Martha’s knowledge and familiarity with Asia, as well as her openness to seize opportunities in the Asia Pacific. As a result, UBC has strengthened overseas links, nurtured global perspectives among students, and advanced global scholarship and research.

“In the nine years that Martha has been at the helm of UBC, she has been a visionary leader. Her Trek 2000 initiative, which articulated lucidly the university’s mission and strategic plan for the opening decade of the 21st century, was an impressive effort that NUS is also learning from.

We have much to learn from Martha’s success in building up excellent support and a sense of ownership among stakeholders, both on and off the UBC campus and including those in Asia.”

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Dennis Pavlich

Vice President External and Legal Affairs

“Martha Piper inherited a university that was in crisis. She turned it around and I think you could say that it has enjoyed a golden era. (For example), she inherited APEC (the controversial Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting on UBC property), which was not of her choosing. She inherited the frustration of students at the inadequacies of our infrastructure -- the dirty toilets and the dilapidated buildings. And she consistently put in place programs for the renovation of those facilities and the erection of new ones.

“Martha also moved University Town to a new level. She removed the old method of announce and defend; the process has been way more consultative and community led.

“Martha is congenitally congenial. She likes input and discussion and she thrives on getting the best advice. (As a result), she was very strategic about getting the most out of the Board (of Governors). Rather than try to manage or avoid the Board -- rather than worrying about ‘how are we going to get this through the board,’ she was always more concerned with how we could get the Board to help us -- with who on the Board has the knowledge and the expertise we need. We had great debates from which the executive and the university benefited enormously.

“On a personal level, she was incredibly supportive. I could take problems or issues to her and she was uncanny in terms of her ability to find the right solution.”

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Margo Fryer

Director, UBC Learning Exchange

“It is totally amazing that UBC made a commitment to the Downtown Eastside and sustained it over time, especially in the face of skepticism and resistance.

“Lots of people were adamantly opposed to (UBC starting) the Learning Exchange because they had been burned in the past when other organizations made big announcements but didn’t follow through. They assumed the commitment was not authentic.

“But when we went to meet out community partners right at the beginning, Martha was right in there -- she totally understood the issues that people were facing. It was obvious that she had a very strong personal commitment to the idea that the university had a role to play in dealing with those issues. That really impressed me.”

In developing the Learning Exchange from a volunteer project for 30 students in 1999 to a burgeoning community service -- and community service learning -- opportunity involving nearly 1,000 students, “there has never been a time when I have not felt completely confident on the support of the president. That’s a pretty amazing statement to make about a leader in an organization over a nine-year period.”

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David Strangway

Former UBC President

“It’s difficult for the old guy to say, ‘She really took UBC to great places,’ but she did. I had an opportunity (during my tenure) to set some things in motion, but she had the opportunity to really make things happen -- and she did.”

Dr. Strangway, who having left UBC became president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, praised Dr. Piper for UBC’s success in attracting research funding, but said he was particularly pleased with the profit-making market housing developments -- which he began and which have continued on and around campus.

“This will build an enormous endowment for UBC. In the next 10 to 15 years, this is going to be a massive shot in the arm. It will help make UBC much more independent.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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