University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Many thanks for that generous introduction, Peter – I barely recognized myself!
And my thanks to you all for joining me in this important and timely dialogue.
I feel very honoured to be invited to the Visiting College Leaders Program here at the University of Pennsylvania – it’s always exciting to see university leaders, faculty and students in the same room because I know it will generate a lively discussion!
When accepting this invitation, in addition to the compelling subject matter, I was particularly interested in the title of the event, ‘Moving Beyond Talk’ because as anyone in these fields knows there is absolutely no shortage of talk!
What I hope today is to show you how a large, North American research university can take action to address the twin challenges of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and climate change – and in so doing, I will tell you a little bit about UBC.
You are familiar, I am sure, with the analogy of any large organisation being like a freighter that takes a long time to change direction, if it manages it at all. As with most analogies, there is a grain of truth in that both of our universities are large entities that have grown fiendishly complex over time. In reality though, it’s more about re-directing a navy than a single monolithic vessel. The other analogy about herding cats doesn’t quite work because re-directing a navy is at least possible – herding cats is not!
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t embark on this journey – we absolutely must – and to paraphrase President Kennedy’s ‘moonshot’ speech, we address difficult challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard’’. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am an incurable optimist, but I am no Pollyanna. I believe I can show you that universities can turn themselves around – and that we are doing it as we speak. The world is crying out for leadership on Indigenous Peoples’ rights and climate action, and universities like ours have an historic duty to show how to lead at this pivotal point in human history.
Sadly, I don’t have to tell you that we are living in difficult times – the war in Ukraine was unthinkable just a few short months ago. In fact, until recently I never thought I would utter the words ‘the current war in Europe’ in my lifetime. Having only just begun to emerge from the Covid cocoon, whatever flickering optimism there was seems to have been quickly dampened. And so, you will hear people say that now is not the right time to be addressing issues like climate action and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, that there are more pressing items that deserve our attention.
But the truth is, there is never a ‘right time’ to address difficult issues. Back in the 1960’s well-meaning people (and others) were urging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to slow down and wait for the ‘right time’ to build his civil rights movement. Dr. King’s response was: “The time is always right to do what is right”. So today, here, and now, the time is right. If we are waiting for Utopia we will wait a very long time – there is a reason why the word ‘Utopia’ means ‘nowhere’ in Greek!
Yet running beneath the military action and the thankfully waning epidemic, there has been a more pervasive and long-term attempt to undermine serious action in many fields, including climate change and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. I recall President Barack Obama addressing a joint session of Congress in 2016 with these words: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there… We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget, we built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”
Of course, the difference between the moonshot analogy and our current situation is two-fold: unlike the moonshot our work will never be ‘done’. This is a multi-generational journey – but we must not flinch from it. Secondly, a key shift that has taken place since the space race was back then there was a largely agreed set of facts. Today we live in the era of ‘alternative facts’ and the so-called ‘war on wokeness’ falls squarely into this paradigm. ‘Wokeness’ is a convenient catch-all that is used to group together a hodgepodge of dog-whistles, without ever really trying to understand the issues at hand. The Merriam-Webster definition of ‘woke’ is to be “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.” Amen to all that, but I would argue that in large swathes of the media the term ‘woke’ has now been hijacked and is used exclusively pejoratively.
So that’s the doom and gloom part – I told you I was no Pollyanna!
But what you all want to know is what can universities do to move forward on the difficult issues of Indigenous rights and climate action and, more specifically, what is the University of British Columbia doing about them.
But first, as requested, let me tell you a bit about the University of British Columbia, or UBC for short: we have two main campuses – the original campus is in Vancouver on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam People. The land it is situated on has always been a place of learning for the Musqueam, who for millennia have passed on their culture, history, and traditions from one generation to the next on this site. Our second main campus in Kelowna, in the BC interior, is located on the unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) Peoples.
By way of perspective, the university system in Canada is overwhelmingly public, with around 100 public universities across the country. There is a similar number of private universities but these tend to be small and tightly-focused around religious or specific learning missions – so, only about 200 in all. By way of comparison, there are about 4,000 4-year degree-granting institutions in US, depending on which data you read!
Coming back to Canada, I like to think of UBC as one of the three jewels of the Canadian university sector, vying with the University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal, depending on the subject area and the ranking. But there is one key difference: both Toronto and McGill are around 200 years old and represent a venerable legacy as the founding institutions of what was then called Upper Canada and Lower Canada respectively. Having said that, I see UPenn was established in 1740, so in comparison, Toronto and McGill are mere upstarts!
UBC, on the other hand, has just passed its first century and I am only its fifteenth president – so we really are the new kids on the block! More than any other Canadian university UBC embodies the spirit of the future – our main campuses in Vancouver and in the Okanagan are state-of-the-art centres of learning and research, set amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes in Canada. I invite you to come and see them for yourselves!
UBC is British Columbia’s flagship university with the only faculties of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy in the province, and the largest school of education. We also have first-class law, business and music schools and so much more! UBC is by far the largest university in the province with almost 70,000 students and is one of BC’s biggest public employers.
In terms of research, UBC consistently ranks as one of the world’s top 40 research universities – actually #13 in the THE Impact Ranking! – with around $750 million in research funding each year across both our Vancouver and Okanagan campuses. UBC research has benefitted the world in many ways, from demonstrating the sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems to developing the gold standard in image recognition software; from devising composite materials used in commercial aircraft to treating HIV/AIDS. UBC’s innovative researchers contributed to technologies that help deliver the mRNA COVID vaccines, as well as technologies used to stitch together Google maps, and even developed the concept of ‘zero footprint’!
We generate significant social and economic impacts through our research activities, notably commercialization, with more than 200 spin-off companies, 450 current licensing agreements, and $11.5 billion in sales of products using UBC discoveries. In fact, as we speak there are over 10,000 research projects in progress overall at UBC so I won’t go through them all!
We also have 370,000 alumni in 148 countries around the globe, including 218 right here in Pennsylvania – and maybe even some of you here in this room!
In terms of rankings UBC came 34th in the most recent THE World University Rankings – I believe UPenn was 13th, but you had a 175 year start on us! In the most recent QS subject rankings this week, we placed in the top 40 in the world across all five subject areas.
UBC can count 8 Nobel Laureates, 3 Canadian prime ministers, 71 Rhodes Scholars and 63 Olympic medallists in its short history. There are three other global rankings, however, that I am particularly proud of, all of them from the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) survey:
- UBC is #13 in the world overall in achieving Sustainable Development Goals
- UBC is #3 in the world for Climate Action
- and #1 in the world for Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure!
And impressive though all these numbers are, universities are not about numbers – they are about people making a difference, making change, and building a different future. We are very encouraged by these rankings, of course, but I am more interested in what lies ahead, which is why we are here today.
What is UBC doing about rights of Indigenous Peoples and Climate Action?
Well, first and foremost, these two areas are not entirely separate – which I am sure is why they were grouped together in the title of this forum. The struggle for a healthy planet and for Indigenous rights involve all of us because they are, at bottom, issues about justice, about respect for each other and respect for our planet. Indigenous Peoples have long understood the connection between the land and its people – and that connection revolves around the commitment to stewardship. For more than 10,000 years the Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia have been stewarding their land for future generations. Unfortunately, it has only taken the rest of us about 250 years since the industrial revolution to jeopardise that same planet for all of us. So, our peoples and our planet are inextricably connected, but I would like to talk first about the rights of Indigenous Peoples and how UBC is helping to address this historic and defining challenge. I would like to spend the rest of my time speaking about actions, not words, and I would like to start by addressing the issue of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Just last week I was discussing the principles of Equity, Diversion, Inclusion and Indigenization (EDII) at a post-secondary conference in Vancouver, with representatives from UBC and American institutions in the Pacific North-West. The panelists spoke passionately about the need for universities NOT to see themselves as ‘empowering others’ or any other expression of the saviour complex. They said it is incumbent on us to understand that universities are born of and are still largely sustained by privilege.
Our role as universities is not to ‘sort these things out’ but to engage in a process of co-creation, because a university cannot possibly share someone else’s lived experiences over many generations, nor should we try to. What we can do is approach the experiences of others with a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn.
I myself am a big believer in the concept of servant leadership: I believe that a leader has to start from a position of humility and respect. There are all kinds of people who you work with or you encounter as a university president. Servant-leadership doesn’t mean that you don’t, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself, but the foundation of our interaction with people must be one of mutual respect. In my experience, people relate and respond to openness—not arrogance— this is something universities in particular must guard against if we are to connect with those around us in a productive manner.
You have perhaps heard of Canada’s notorious ‘Indian Residential School System’ which was so prominent in the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The term ‘Indian’ here is of course intended to denigrate. And yet the last of these Indian Residential Schools did not close until 1997 and the federal ‘Department of Indian Affairs’ was only renamed in 2011! But you may not be aware that since 2015, sadly and shamefully, we in Canada and specifically in BC, have only just begun to meaningfully absorb the devastating experiences of our Indigenous peoples, highlighted by the recent discovery of hundreds, possibly thousands of unmarked children’s graves at these so-called ‘Indian Residential Schools’. These schools were funded by the Canadian federal government and outsourced to the main Christian churches and – it must be said – aided by universities like UBC.
We must acknowledge truth before we can achieve reconciliation, and in 2018 UBC completed the ‘Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre’ at the heart of our Vancouver campus. The Centre was opened to the public in a ceremony that included a statement of apology that I delivered on behalf of UBC to Indian Residential School survivors and, more generally, to Indigenous Peoples for the university’s involvement in the system that supported the operation of the schools. In 2015, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission described this school system as ‘cultural genocide.’
It was only last week that Pope Francis apologised in person to survivors of the Canadian Indian Residential Schools for the Catholic Church’s leading role in this brutal system. It is, at least, a step in the right direction.
We often hear the phrase ‘this is not who we are’, but I would argue that what we do is who we are – whether it fits our self-image or not. The Indian Residential School System will forever be a stain on Canada’s history – it can never be erased, but we have a duty to address the effects of the devastating damage that has already been done.
So, let’s take a pause before we move forward to what we are doing now.
Given everything I have said, I am not here trying to blow UBC’s trumpet, but I do want to describe what steps we are taking now and for the future. These actions form part of UBC’s response to the 2015 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which stated:
“Much of the current state of troubled relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is attributable to educational institutions and what they have taught, or failed to teach, over many generations. Despite that history, or, perhaps more correctly, because of its potential, the Commission believes that education is also the key to reconciliation.”
Just as UBC was part of a dark past, so must we now be part of a better future.
UBC is in fact the first university in North America to commit to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to take a human rights-based approach to our Indigenous strategic framework. So, in response to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ‘National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ calls for justice, I asked the UBC community and our Indigenous partners to come together to build an Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP) for the institution.
The ISP was rolled out in 2020, co-created by more than 2,500 students, faculty and staff across both campuses, including Indigenous students, faculty and staff, and Indigenous community partners. The ISP is built around the three key themes of research, learning and teaching, and service, themes which underpin eight key goals and 43 actions the university will collectively undertake to advance our role in the implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
So what are the key action points from the plan? Well, you will be glad to hear that I won’t be running through all of the 43 actions, but let me give you an overview of the eight goals. I draw your attention to the fact that these eight goals all begin with active verbs – ‘doing’ words! :
- Prioritize Indigenous peoples and Indigenous human rights at all levels of UBC’s leadership and accountability structure.
- Advocate for the truth: create open public dialogue about truth, reconciliation and the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights.
- Support research initiatives that are reciprocal, community-led, legitimize Indigenous ways of knowing and promote Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination.
- Indigenize our curriculum: include Indigenous ways of knowing, culture, histories, experiences and worldviews in curriculum delivered across faculties, programs and campuses.
- Enrich the UBC campus landscape with a stronger Indigenous presence.
- Recruit Indigenous people! Make UBC the most accessible large research university in the world for Indigenous students, faculty and staff.
- Forge a network of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights resources for students, faculty, staff and communities.
- Create a holistic system of support: provide exceptional and culturally supportive services for Indigenous students, faculty, staff and communities.
Now you may be thinking these are lofty goals indeed, but as I said they are underpinned by 43 concrete actions built by our constituents from the ground up. Better yet, we have built the ‘ISP self-assessment toolkit’ whereby any unit on campus can navigate an online system to suggest which actions would be most appropriate for them based on these four questions:
- What are we currently doing as a unit to advance the goals and actions of the ISP?
- What can we be doing more of?
- What are we doing that we can change?
- What can we start doing?
The proposed actions arising from the toolkit include:
- ‘Support research opportunities for students to become global leaders in the advancement of Indigenous knowledge systems in health, governance, education, law, business, the sciences, the arts and Indigenous languages.’
- ‘Engage with Musqueam, the Okanagan Nation and other Indigenous host nations regarding the design and development of UBC facilities.’
- ‘Increase Indigenous student access to financial aid for tuition, child-care and housing.’
I promised you that I wouldn’t read all 43 actions – but you get the picture. Of course, no-one is limited to these 43 actions – the sky is the limit!
As you can see, the ISP is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ top-down exercise. The Indigenous Strategic Plan is a living document which we will be reviewing every three years in consultation with the UBC community and our Indigenous partners – I would be happy to come back and update you on our progress!
Now, as I said before, Indigenous Peoples’ rights and climate action are related issues – and they are equally complex! So now I will outline for you UBC’s commitment to Climate Action and what this means in practice for a large, research-intensive university in North America.
On December 5, 2019, UBC joined other organizations and governments around the world to declare a climate emergency. This declaration recognized the severity, complexity, disproportionate impacts of, and disproportionate responsibilities for the climate crisis, and committed UBC to develop a collective response that embeds climate justice throughout its activities and priorities. With the Board of Governors’ endorsement and support of strong community advocacy, UBC rapidly mobilized to update, expand, and accelerate the University’s ambitious climate action goals.
We immediately set ourselves the key target of achieving a 100% reduction in operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 – a full 15 years ahead of UBC’s original net zero target in 2050. And then we developed the UBC Climate Action Plan 2030 (aka CAP 2030) which involved accelerating our path to net zero emissions for buildings and for energy supply, as well as the significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for extended impact areas over the next 15 years. These targets bring UBC in line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increases at 1.5°C.
In terms of the main targets for 2030 itself:
- an 85% reduction in campus operational emissions by 2030. Operational emissions are generated mainly from the operations of buildings and the supply of energy. This reduction would significantly exceed the Paris Agreement emissions reduction target of 45% necessary to keep global warming to 1.5°C. This 85% reduction in emissions translates to eliminating virtually all conventional fossil fuel use from campus operations.
- a 45% collective reduction in emissions from extended impact sources by 2030. Extended impact emissions include commuting, business air travel, food, waste and materials, and embodied carbon. This 45% reduction will also keep the university in alignment with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.
I realize that these actions will only take effect in the 10-15 year time range, but like Indigenous Peoples’ rights, climate action is a multi-generational challenge that will never be ‘done’. And, as you know, a university is a very complex organism with thousands of touchpoints required to set a new direction and even more to see it through.
An important yet sometimes overlooked tool in our arsenal is the local and global partnerships between research-intensive universities. Research-focused organisations like the Russell Group in the UK, the U15 group of Canadian research universities, together with their equivalents in the US and worldwide, could play a major part in formally growing the connective tissue of collaboration between universities, institutions, and national and global entities.
This collaboration could go a long way to help implement research that leads to better policies and practices, that in turn lead to effective change. Direct, one-to-one partnerships with like-minded universities across the globe could also harness the potential of individual universities towards an even greater impact.
Universities are key drivers of growth and prosperity, but we must also use our intellectual capabilities to address the real challenges that face our planet – and these may not seem to be the most tangible or even the most urgent ones. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples across the globe and the action needed to combat climate change are no less urgent than our seemingly more immediate problems.
As universities we need to show that we can walk and chew gum at the same – this isn’t a case of ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’. The imminent challenges of how we steward our planet and its peoples will define all our futures, more so even than the immediate threats of pandemics and armed conflicts.
As I mentioned earlier, the war in Ukraine has dampened the flickering optimism that the world was beginning to feel post-covid. I agree that optimism has been dampened but I refuse to believe it has been snuffed out. As I told you, I am an incurable and unapologetic optimist, and I do believe that universities like ours can light the way to a better future – but we can only do this by example, by doing. I hope I have given you some idea today of what one university can do to address the challenges of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and climate action. We know that this is just the beginning but we must start now, while we can. Justice is not done for any of us until it is done for all of us.
To put it in historical terms, I think that today we are standing at another major juncture in human history: in 1816, the world was still reeling from the seismic impact of the industrial revolution, but the romantic poet John Keats still dug deep into his being to offer a vision of optimism and hope:
“And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?”
Thank YOU for listening to me – and I look forward to a lively discussion!