UBC’s Next Century: Moving from Excellence to Eminence

Canadian Club, Vancouver, BC:

Thank you to Joyce Murray for that warm introduction, and thank you all. I am honoured to be here today, to deliver the first address to the Canadian Club during this, the country’s sesquicentennial.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the law firm, Farris, for sponsoring this event. I also want to thank you all for sharing your time, and to extend a special welcome to today’s special guests; Joyce Murray, Michael Korbin, Jean-Christophe Fleury, Diana Lam, Jonathan Weisman, Peter Jackman and Barbara Grantham.

As I’ve said already, it’s my honour to speak to you today, particularly because this is the Canadian Club’s first event in our country’s 150th year. Birthdays always present a wonderful opportunity: for celebration, for reflection – perhaps for reconciliation – and, absolutely, for preparation.

In any moment of reflection, it’s undeniable that Canada has much to celebrate. Think of where we are – and of how far we have come.

This “New World” – including the ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish people on which we gather today – is not, in any literal way, new. The trees, the rocks, the spectacular views are well aged in geological time.

It’s Canada that is new, certainly so in a geopolitical context – compared to the Commonwealth of England, or the empires of Russia and Spain, Rome and Greece, the dynasties of India and China. Even here, Coast Salish society dates back 10,000 years or more.

But, it was only 150 years ago that this country’s founders committed themselves to an act of hope and promise. Canada, then, was the legal expression of an argument that we could achieve more as a federation, working together, than we could as individual jurisdictions, squabbling amongst one another.

Given Canada’s place in the world today, it’s clear that the founders were on to something important. This experiment in peace, order and good government has been an incredible success.

Our democracy is among the world’s most stable. News reports says Canada is tops this year among the best places to visit. We have three cities on the list of the world’s most reputable. And Canada, as a whole, is eighth among countries judged to be the most livable.

(That is measured by a combination of the UN Human Development Index, Gross National Income per capita, life expectancy at birth and – here’s one I think particularly important – expected years of schooling.)

We stand sixth on the World Happiness Index.

All those accolades notwithstanding, we remain modestly Canadian in acknowledging our bounty. I see this quite clearly having spent so many years in the United States. But even if Canadians are slow to boast, I think we still understand that Canada is a most spectacular gift. Our doorstep is crowded with people who would give anything to be able to call themselves – Canadian.

Which brings me to what I would propose today as my central question: Having received this gift, what can we make of it?

This country – this Canada – is not some vast, physical jackpot to be spent recklessly, or exploited indiscriminately. It is an inheritance. It is a foundation on which we have a duty to build; we are honour bound to consume no more than the interest and to leave behind capital that is stronger, safer, more prosperous and sustainable than it was when it came into our hands. And that’s not just a goal, but a responsibility – for every individual and every institution in this great nation. It will be our challenge this year, and for all the years to come.

As I suspect you know, this period of national celebration and reflection comes hard on the heels of a similar occasion at UBC. We have just marked our centenary and we celebrate a similar embarrassment of riches.

Just as Canada’s lifespan is short in a global context, UBC is a tender adolescent among great institutions like Oxford and Harvard. And yet, on the strength of the brilliance and effort of a century of scholars – and thanks to the sagacity of governments that have invested, well, in post-secondary education and world-class research – UBC now stands among the best three dozen such institutions in the world. We’re in the top 20 if you count public universities alone.

Our faculty includes pre-eminent scholars and researchers, members of the great academic societies and winners of the Nobel Prize. And our 317,000 graduates excel in practically every field of human endeavor: three, including the incumbent, Justin Trudeau, have been Prime Ministers of Canada; 65 have won Olympic medals.

The University, which now spans two magnificent campuses in Vancouver and Kelowna, is renowned as a global research centre. Leveraging more than $600 million in annual funding, UBC clinicians and scientists are leading in everything from the effort to eradicate AIDS to combatting the tragedy of fentanyl addiction.

Our work in sustainability is at the very forefront – even the notion of an environmental footprint was conceived at UBC by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel. And our scholarship in the humanities and social sciences and in the liberal and performing arts is stunning in its breadth and depth.

That is the happy reality of my own inheritance. Ignore, for a moment, the nostalgic connection – that my father taught at UBC and I was born in this beautiful city. Forget, if you can, all the other reasons that would attract a person of good judgment to Vancouver. I came here because I am inspired by UBC’s accomplishments and its potential.

And there, again, is the important word – potential – which invokes, again, my central question: Having received this gift, what can we make of it? What, for example, is UBC’s responsibility to Canada – and to the world?

My own ambition, which I put on the record in my installation speech in November, is to do all that I can to help UBC move from excellence to eminence.

I invoke the word “eminence,” reflecting two possible definitions. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines eminence as: “Fame or acknowledged superiority within a particular sphere.”

To the first part, I make no excuses for chasing after “fame” – which I would define as fair recognition for UBC’s accomplishments and capacities. Because I don’t think most people have any idea how great an institution UBC is today. And if people don’t know, there is a danger that we will not take appropriate advantage of how much good the university can do tomorrow.

As to the second definition of eminence – the notion of superiority – I regard it as my duty to help UBC become even better. Because if the people of UBC are empowered to do their best, they will redefine what “best” means in the world. To strive for less would be to waste an opportunity.

So, how do we achieve this level of performance? Well, it’s clear enough that I cannot do it alone. In a large, decentralized organization – a university or a country – no individual holds the keys to success. No politician, no leader – in business or academia – no independent innovator, no matter how brilliant. The necessary ingredient is our collective effort – everyone working their hardest to do what they, and only they, can do best.

Within UBC, I would argue that we also need a sense of common purpose – to which end, I have launched a strategic planning process. It is early days yet, but there are common themes emerging. I’d like to share five.

They are:

  • Teaching;
  • Research and scholarship;
  • Student experience;
  • International engagement; and
  • innovation

Some of these may seem obvious, but it’s often the obvious things that, in the flurry of the day-to-day, we begin to overlook.

So, let us begin with teaching. It’s really, the whole educational interaction that is teaching and learning, and it is essential. At UBC, we do not regard education as a commodity or a simple path to a credential. It is the transformation that empowers our students to think critically and creatively.

UBC is already a global leader in teaching innovation. Consider Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman’s Science Education Initiative: It’s a multi-year project aimed at improving undergraduate science education, and it has already produced new techniques and strategies that are being emulated in other countries and by other great universities, including Stanford.

Coming back to the question of reconciliation, we also want to ensure that the education we offer is responsive to every student, which begins with an unflinching look at where our system has failed in the past – at UBC and elsewhere in society.

UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC is a major commitment towards this goal. And our Aboriginal Admissions program suggests that our performance has been improving. In 2001, we set a target of graduating 50 First Nations doctors by 2020 – and we hit that milestone, five years early, in 2015.

Our second theme, research and scholarship, is equally essential. This, too, is a theme you’ll see on the short list of imperatives at every good research institution. But one of the ways we have chosen to distinguish UBC is to urge our researchers to embrace the grand challenges that face humanity: clean water, sustainable and renewable energy, chronic diseases and global food availability. We don’t just want to be a great university; we want be a great university that does good.

Consider, for example, the work of William Cheung, director of science at the Nippon Foundation-UBC Nereus Program and associate professor at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. Researching the impacts of climate change, Dr. Cheung reported recently that capping the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees could increase the ocean’s capacity to produce food fish by an annual average of six million metric tonnes.

The third theme, student experience, speaks to a fundamental responsibility – to taxpayers as well as to students. It also reflects the fiercely competitive space in which great institutions like UBC must operate.

In terms of the former, there was a time when big universities thought it acceptable to push students in at the deep end – and to let them flourish or fail as the current took them. No longer. We are now invested in the success of every student – for their own sake and to ensure that the support that we receive from government is well spent. Society is investing in tomorrow’s capacity; and we are committed to safeguarding that investment.

This means providing students with a safe and supportive experience in their academic and extra-curricular lives. Academically, this crosses over with teaching, as we innovate in the classroom and expand options such as experiential learning – everything from work-integrated learning or co-ops, to research experiences and study abroad. Our data clearly show a correlation between student satisfaction and experiential learning.

Student experience, broadly, is also enriched by the participation of the best students; that’s why the competition to attract great students is so fierce. Take the example of Ann Makosinski, a 19-year-old from Victoria who, in high school, invented a flashlight that runs off the heat of the human hand and a mug that uses heat from the drink to charge a cell phone. Makosinski, who has just been named to the Forbes magazine list of the top 30 under 30, was choosing – among other institutions – between UBC and Stanford. As she works through her second year, we’re delighted that Stanford missed the pick, because Makosinki sets a fantastic example for her fellow UBC students.

I characterized our fourth theme as international engagement, but it could just as easily be community engagement – for UBC has never been more open or integrative in how it works, teaches, researches and interacts with its various communities. But UBC also has a unique opportunity in Canada to connect our cities, our province and our nation to the great educational institutions around the world – especially in Asia.

We are already investing toward this end. Our Liu Institute for Global Issues is a major interdisciplinary centre focused on solving issues such as sustainability, social justice, conflict resolution and global warming.

We have 33 student mobility agreements with universities around the world; we have strategic links and research partnerships in myriad faculties and disciplines, with leading scholars in Asia, Europe and the U.S.; and our Asian Library houses the largest research collection in Asian languages in North America. As well, 23% of UBC Vancouver and 13% of UBC Okanagan students are international, which enriches the experience for all of our students today and engenders international networks and connections for tomorrow.

A final theme, and one that dovetails nicely with federal and provincial priorities, is that of innovation. UBC was recognized in the last Reuters survey as Canada’s most innovative university, ranking among the top 50 most innovative universities globally. But we aspire to do even better.

There are myriad examples in this category that you might have heard before: the Vancouver biotech revolution leveraged off the work of Dr. Julia Levy; the advances in prostate cancer treatment; clean energy spin-offs, as  through Westport Technologies; Brett Finlay’s work in e.coli – in fact, all of the life science innovation that has come out of the lab of the late Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael Smith.

There are also the hands-on innovations in forestry, mining and the petrochemical industries that have made UBC’s engineers so critical to the success in B.C.’s traditional resource economy.

But we are always looking to do more – always looking for the next big thing. And it’s in the nature of innovation that you can’t predict the next breakthrough – or even the implications of the most recent discovery.

For example, I am charmed by a recent piece of research in which UBC zoologist Prov. Douglas Altshuler discovered that hummingbirds detect motion in a completely unique way. While every other animal is wired to pay most attention to images coming from behind them, hummingbirds entertain visual signals from all directions equally. I don’t know what the implication of this discovery might be, but it could prove crucial in an age when drones and self-driving cars have made 360-degree vision more important than ever.

So, we are attentive to fundamental research and determined to expand our capacity as a catalyst for new technologies and spin off companies, in Vancouver and Kelowna.

We are working with the provincial government to implement its BCTECH Strategy, and the federal government on its Innovation Agenda, to strengthen the innovation pipeline – from basic research all the way to commercialization.

For example, as Western Canada’s largest technology research cluster, UBC has combined the efforts of the Institute for Computing, Information, and Cognitive Systems with the Faculties of Applied Science, Science, Sauder School of Business, entrepreneurship@UBC, and the University-Industry Liaison Office, to establish a new UBC technology incubator: HATCH. I’m certain you will hear more from HATCH, soon and ongoing.

Finally, and this captures themes of research and innovation, I have just established a President’s Excellence Fund directed to six areas where UBC has exemplary capacity: cancer genomics, forest bioproducts, biodiversity, media studies, global development policy and brain health. The fund will allow us to expand the scope of our research and recruit top talent into research chairs in each of these areas.

These five themes, this nascent strategic vision, is dedicated, once again, to our central purpose: to take something that is very good and make it better – to move from excellence to eminence.

We do that in concert with our governments, and we do it on behalf of the people of Canada, and the world – today and tomorrow.

Once again, as we celebrate 150 years of confederation – as we look fondly at what we have done well and unflinchingly at what we could and should do better – let us remember: ours is a gift that we dare not waste.

Thank you.