Ismaili Centre, Toronto
Good evening and thank you everyone! It’s an honour and a privilege to be here.
It was my absolute pleasure to have our generous hosts take me on a tour of the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Aga Khan Park. The architecture of the Ismaili Centre must be a great source of pride for the community.
The Centre truly does provide a bridge to friendship and understanding for the wider community and opens our minds and hearts to pluralism in Canada and around the world.
This is a message that resonates personally with me. My own experiences have made me very aware of how different cultures and races interact and are treated, in higher education and elsewhere. I appreciate the work the Centre does in this regard.
I was thrilled to meet His Highness the Aga Khan last October, when UBC and SFU awarded His Highness with honorary degrees in a joint conferral ceremony.
We were privileged to recognize His Highness’s outstanding humanitarian contributions in helping fight poverty and improve health and education for millions of people in underdeveloped and war-torn parts of the world.
I’m proud to say that the University of British Columbia and the Ismaili community collaborate on a number of initiatives; globally through the Aga Khan Development Network and locally through the Ismaili Council of BC.
UBC is working with the Ismaili Council of BC to establish a Joint Liaison Committee to explore areas of collaboration between the two Institutions. The committee will initially focus on joint public engagement and community engagement activities, but the scope will likely broaden as the relationship matures.
In June, representatives from the Aga Khan University visited UBC for a roundtable discussion about collaborations between the two institutions.
Two years ago, we were honoured to have Prince Amyn, brother of His Highness the Aga Khan, officially open the “Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia” exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, which in part featured collections from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
As president of UBC, I am also proud to acknowledge …
Khalil (Z.) Shariff, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada, is a graduate of UBC.
Firoz Rasul, a former member of UBC’s Board of Governors, is President of Aga Khan University.
Shamez Mohamed, responsible for building the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, has served on the UBC’s Museum of Anthropology external advisory board.
Two years ago, I was honoured to give a talk to the Ismaili Centre Burnaby on “The changing role of higher education: Developing the next generation of global leaders.”
And now I have the honour of addressing you this evening on the topic of “Faith in the Academy.”
The Ismaili Centre lecture aims to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding between diverse peoples, communities and faiths, while expanding intellectual horizons and fostering an appreciation of pluralism.
My university leadership experience spans two countries and three universities – Emory University and the University of Cincinnati in the United States, and the University of British Columbia in Canada.
All three are public, multi-faculty, international institutions with an incredible diversity of cultures and backgrounds, across students, faculty and staff.
UBC is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Our two major campuses in Vancouver and the Okanagan are home to more than 65,000 students, enrolled across 16 faculties, 18 schools and two colleges.
I am proud to say UBC has been named one of the world’s most international universities. There are several reasons for this, including our commitment to student mobility and embracing international students, and our involvement with global research initiatives.
Also, UBC partners with over 200 universities and institutions worldwide for domestic students to study abroad for a semester.
Leaving home to study in another country, students learn to approach different situations and people with respect and sensitivity, to remain humble, to make the effort to learn things about other cultures, and to become aware of their own biases.
The very nature of a campus environment is a place to foster diversity, where students encounter people whose views and backgrounds differ from their own.
This is why “Faith in the Academy” is a topic that is very important to me; and, indeed, fundamental to how I’ve come to understand my purpose in life.
I certainly didn’t start out imagining that one day I would be called to be a leader. I became an academic because of my natural curiosity and passion for science. That passion and curiosity led me to an academic career in medicine and biology.
As I progressed in my academic career, I also began to assume administrative and leadership responsibilities, first at Emory University and then at the University of Cincinnati and now at UBC.
My own leadership style is based on a philosophy called “servant leadership.”
A leader has to start from a position of humility and respect. There are all kinds of people that you work with or encounter as a university president. My style is to consider myself as their servant.
Servant-leadership doesn’t mean that you don’t, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself, but the foundation of how I interact with people is one of mutual respect.
Part of how I reach out to the least-powerful individuals in an organization or society comes from my faith. I’m a Christian and have been very involved in churches in the different cities that I’ve lived in.
But as a university president, my focus on service is agnostic of denomination or faith. It’s really about my responsibility for others and focusing on them.
And so it’s entirely consistent with my own faith that I can be supportive of all faith groups, and also of students who are still searching or have decided that there is no room for faith in their lives. I still need to serve them, regardless of what their beliefs or interests might be.
At UBC, there are about two dozen student clubs that have a faith affiliation. I don’t focus so much on the similarities and distinctions of the particulars of different religions. I focus more on the fact that for individuals that do have a faith, it’s an important part of their identity. It’s an important part of their wellness.
For a large proportion of our campus community — whether faculty, staff, students, or alumni — faith plays an important role in their identity and their wellness.
And, therefore, it’s important for me to respect each of those faiths. It’s important for me to be supportive of their needs and to advocate for them with respect to their needs on a secular campus, to fulfill that part of their identity and their wellbeing.
There are multiple gifts that result from having a spiritual path. My own faith keeps me anchored and keeps me focused on why I use my efforts to help individuals in the university community and beyond.
Looking back, I started my own faith journey thinking that the only things that could be true are those things that could be proven.
The deeper I delved in experimental science, the more I appreciated that so much that exists in this world cannot be explained or proven. Not only did this realization open my mind, it was the pivotal force in my faith.
My view of science changed when I became a Christian. In turn, my view of religion changed, and changes regularly, because I’m an active scientist.
To give you an example, my faith influences how I think about data, how I think about potential flaws in data, and how I think we have to be very careful in how we interpret data as a scientist.
Thus, I don’t feel a tension between the secular university and my faith. All of the different views and questions and conundrums that are explored in a university, for me, underscore my faith.
I will read a quote from the renowned twentieth-century philosopher Alan Watts. Before I read the quote, I want to explain the root of the word “belief” – which is “lief” – an archaic word from Middle English that means “gladly or willingly.”
As Alan Watts once wrote, “Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”
Faith invites us to welcome discourse and dialogue and difficult questions in our spiritual life.
Through questioning our faith, I believe we become stronger individuals. For me, a real gift of the spiritual path is you grow as an individual and your faith becomes stronger because you’re constantly asking yourself questions and perhaps sometimes doubting your decision.
This is really at the heart of what it means to innovate. How do we welcome innovation in our spiritual lives?
There are churches and congregations where there is active debate and sometimes tension between different members of the congregation or different parts of the congregation and the minister.
And some people don’t want to be in that kind of environment, but I believe that those are the strongest churches. We really come to believe when our faith is challenged, and we work through inconsistencies or differences of opinion.
In the same way, the best universities are the ones where people have the freedom to voice different points of view, and to either change their mind or strengthen their belief based upon honest discourse. To explore the questions and mysteries of science and faith together. And to acknowledge the humility of what we do not know.
Albert Einstein had this to say: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.”
The tension, if you will, between science and faith is that science is evidence-based or proven, while faith transcends human understanding.
When we make the conscious decision to have a faith in a particular religion, whether based on indirect references in history or in some other foundational document, we take a leap of faith.
This is true for me as a scientist, and it’s also true for many other scientists.
I was trained as a scientist to prove everything, to only make pronouncements about something being true because there’s empirical data that supports that view or that statement.
However, one of the privileges of being a scientist, is you begin to understand the limitations of human consciousness and human conceptualization of things that transcend our ability to understand or explain or to prove.
For instance, my research focuses on how the eye works or how the immune system works. Some of the brightest people in the world that I know personally spend a lot of time trying to understand how these systems work.
And the best of them admit they only have a partial understanding or that they don’t fully understand the most fundamental aspects of those systems.
Much of how the immune system works has been discovered in my lifetime, and it’s truly remarkable. In witnessing, with a front-row seat, how the immune system works, I can tell you that it is so complicated, there are so many checks and balances, and there are so many layers of complexity that the brightest of human beings, the brightest of engineers, wouldn’t have engineered the immune system the way it is.
As a scientist, the crux of my faith is learning first hand that the tremendous diversity and complexity of biodiversity exists beyond the explanation of the brightest human beings.
As a university president, I feel my spiritual path and philosophy of servant leadership are both very supportive of faith and science coexisting at the modern secular university.
A campus environment that fosters conversation about faith, identity, race, religion, politics affords students opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and grow — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.
Urban students, inner-city students, Indigenous students, racial and ethnic minorities, rural students, immigrants, refugees, and students of any sexual orientation and gender identity — all reflect the world we live in, and we want them to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to contribute to society.
Diversity is a fact of human experience, and campuses need to reflect the communities they serve. Indeed, diversity is essential to the role of universities in contributing to the betterment of society.
I’d like to share some of the words His Highness the Aga Khan spoke in Toronto in 2016 on accepting the Inaugural Adrienne Clarkson prize for Global Citizenship.
Here is what His Highness said:
“Perhaps the key to resolving the ‘Paradox of Citizenship’ is to think about layers of overlapping identity. After all, one can honour a variety of loyalties — to a faith, an ethnicity, a language, a nation, a city, a profession, a school, even to a sports team! One might share some of these identities with some people, and other identities with others.
“My own religious community identifies proudly as Ismaili Muslims, with our specific interpretation of Islamic faith and history. But we also feel a sense of belonging with the whole of the Muslim world, what we call the Ummah. Within the Ummah, the diversity of identities is immense — greater than most people realize — differences based on language, on history, on nationhood, ethnicity and a variety of local affiliations. But, at the same time, I observe a growing sense within the Ummah of a meaningful global bond.
“When the question of human identity is seen in this context, then diversity itself can be seen as a gift. Diversity is not a reason to put up walls, but rather to open windows. It is not a burden; it is a blessing. In the end of course, we must realize that living with diversity is a challenging process. We are wrong to think it will be easy. The work of pluralism is always a work in progress.”
I find his words especially relevant and inspiring. The very nature of a post-secondary environment is a place to foster diversity. Higher education is a transformative experience, as students learn not only about themselves, but others as well.
Education is an enabler of social development and mobility, and UBC is committed to advancing the inclusion of all those who have been excluded based on gender, race, religion, sexuality, age, physical ability or economic circumstances.
Intentional recruitment and active retention of a diverse faculty, staff, and student body requires institutional commitment and the buy-in of everybody on campus.
These efforts benefit not only our institutions and our students, but society as a whole; in a world where our students will be leaders, employers and employees, parents and global citizens.
In closing, let me share with you the words of one of UBC’s international graduate students, from the valedictory address given by Dr. Olga Pena, on receiving her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. Here is what she had to say about on her student experience:
“My experience at UBC went far and beyond just acquiring academic knowledge.
“At UBC, I also learned the real meaning of multiculturalism, by interacting with people from many different countries and cultures.
“I learned the meaning of international and community engagement, by being engaged and engaging others in initiatives that can contribute to building a better world through dialogue, teaching and learning.
“I learned the meaning of sustainability and not just the importance of environmental but also economic and social sustainability, by applying these concepts into my everyday life.
“Most importantly, as an international student coming from a very small town called Chicoral, I also learned that I am not just a citizen of Colombia, and you, my fellow graduates are not only citizens of Canada or Germany or China or Brazil… We are citizens of the world!”
I’d like to once more say how honoured I am to be here. I believe higher education holds great promise in meeting the social, geo-political and economic challenges that lie before us, and in supporting all of our students and graduates to be the best they can be at home and everywhere in our very diverse world, to be citizens of the world.