A Century Later, Aspiring to Global Influence

Prof. Stephen Toope, President and Vice Chancellor - photo by Martin Dee
Prof. Stephen Toope, President and Vice Chancellor – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Prof. Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice Chancellor

In the latter half of the 20th century Canada emerged as one of the world’s most successful societies, noted for its broadly shared commitment to social inclusion, its embracing of cultural diversity, its robust economy, and its strong public finances. Yet these successes are fragile, and could be undermined in the short term by Canada’s under-performance in social, economic, scientific and cultural innovation. Already, Canada’s performance on the measures of social development and productivity is falling in comparison to OECD leaders.

All around the world, ambitious peoples and governments are recognizing that future social success will depend upon the education of highly qualified people and upon the production of new ideas and innovation through research. The global sites of creativity today are places such as Boston, Tokyo, London, and the Silicon Valley. What distinguishes each of those places is the presence of one or more great world universities. Today, Canada has no university in the top rank of global intellectual powerhouses. It has only two or three universities capable of vaulting into that league. One of them is UBC.

If UBC were to emerge as a global leader there would be important internal and external effects. The university would be able to attract even stronger students, faculty and staff in a virtuous circle of achievement and recognition. The alumni’s pride in the university would increase. It would be even easier to make the case for increased public and philanthropic support. The university would also contribute fundamentally to the diversification and transformation of the BC economy and would serve as an idea-engine, a catalyst to social health and cultural attainment.

The BC Premier’s Technology Council recently argued that BC must ensure that one of the province’s universities becomes a “top 20” global university. Currently only UBC consistently ranks in the top 40 of a variety of world ranking scales. Although I am reluctant to measure our achievements on what are rather misleading scales, I do agree that UBC can and should aspire to global influence.

This will not happen unless we do an even better job than we have done in the past of setting and maintaining priorities in each of our Faculties. No university, not even the wealthiest, can be equally good at everything. And UBC is not the wealthiest; on a per student basis, we can currently spend roughly 50 per cent of what the best public universities in the United States of America can spend. Aside from focusing our resources, UBC will also have to attract significant sources of new revenue if we are to succeed in creating a globally influential university across a range of disciplines.

Over the last 20 years or so, UBC has changed dramatically. What was a university with a modest, and primarily provincial, aspiration to influence has become a player on the world stage in fields as diverse as genomics, opera, infectious disease, fisheries conservation, and Japanese philosophy and religion. This has been achieved first by a raising of sights, then by a clear articulation of values, and then by the hard work of excellent students, a devoted and talented staff, alumni volunteers, and superb faculty members.

Since arriving at UBC, I have been struck again and again by the high standards that so many amongst us set and achieve. This is an ambitious place, filled with smart people with heart who really want to make a difference in the world. I am deeply inspired by the zest and zeal in Vancouver and Kelowna. I firmly believe that our sights are already set high. This is the first step in making UBC even more influential than it is today.

I also believe that the values of our university are sound; the discussions that led to the creation of Trek 2010 galvanized our community to pursue a commitment to:

  • The free, open, respectful, and challenging exchange of knowledge, ideas and perspectives.
  • Transformative undergraduate, professional school and graduate student experiences, enabling students to become exceptional global citizens.
  • Outstanding research that addresses the fundamental cultural, social, economic, ethical, scientific, and health challenges facing B.C., Canada and the world.
  • Sharing the results of our work as freely and widely as possible.

Over the next decade, if UBC is to achieve global influence, it must aspire to greater achievement in teaching and research. It must focus its energies and ambitions. It must engage more deeply with the communities that send us their children and that generate the issues that our researchers are inspired to address. It must convince our society that new investments in UBC will create generations of leaders and social, scientific, cultural, and economic innovation.

The above is excerpted from Where Does UBC Stand, a letter to the UBC Community. Full text, and video clips are available at: www.president.ubc.ca.