President’s Message: An inauspicious start, but a grand first century

Martha PiperOurs were modest beginnings – which is never how it was supposed to be. In the decades before the University of British Columbia accepted its first students, BC’s intellectual and political leaders had ambitious designs. There were plans for a substantial new campus at Point Grey, and in 1913 the provincial government committed to the kind of budget that would put UBC immediately on the international academic map.

Yet a year later, the world slipped into war and the provincial treasury into deficit. With virtually none of the promised funding forthcoming, UBC opened its doors on September 30, 1915, in the “Fairview Shacks,” a clutch of rundown buildings on the grounds of what is now Vancouver General Hospital (see page 4).

In the opening pages of UBC: The First 100 Years, a wonderful book by Eric Damer and Herbert Rosengarten, the authors offer a compelling, if uninviting, picture of a university in its infancy:

“The institution had no history, no alumni, and no benefactors; its physical plant was embarrassingly inadequate and its budgetary situation precarious.”

Perhaps worse, the rousing ambition also seemed to have faded away. As Damer and Rosengarten report, our founders welcomed UBC’s charter students with a promise to “provide a satisfactory education… comparable to that offered by other Canadian universities.” We were going to validate that “satisfactory” standard by conducting “respectable” research.

Nothing special. And not nearly enough.

Seven short years later, the city, the region and the world got its first big UBC wake‑up call when 1,178 UBC students, a handful of professors and a surprising number of alumni launched a protest march to demand that the province keep its old promise and build the university. It would come to be known as the Great Trek (see page 8). The next week, the AMS President delivered a petition to the Legislature with 56,000 names – an impressive proportion of the city’s population.

We know what followed: a century of innovation in everything from traditional sectors like forestry and mining to the most advanced industries like clean energy and biotechnology; a century of top‑quality education in every discipline; and a century of athletic, artistic and cultural accomplishment. From its first 379 students in those cramped shacks, UBC now has 60,000, on Point Grey, in Kelowna, at Robson Square and Great Northern Way, in the Downtown Eastside Learning Exchange, and in co‑op and internship placements across the country and around the world. Our annual economic impact is more than $12 billion, which includes $1.4 billion in Kelowna. In research alone we spend more than $530 million a year, the lion’s share of which is earned in peer‑reviewed competition with the other best research universities in the country.

And when I say “best,” the superlative is both intended and justified. UBC is consistently ranked in the top three medical‑doctoral institutions in Canada and among the top 40 in the world. A significant amount of credit for that achievement goes to UBC’s 305,000 alumni, whose capacities and accomplishments are the primary measure by which a great institution must be judged. Certainly, the international rating agencies focus on how often UBC’s faculty and researchers are published and cited. They look for Nobel Prize winners – finding seven among our alumni and current and former faculty. But if you’re measuring the broad quality of one of the world’s foremost universities, you might also count the 69 Rhodes scholars who earned their undergraduate degree at UBC, and the Academic All‑Canadians and Thunderbirds who have won as varsity athletes and gone on to represent Canada on every sporting podium, including the Olympics. Among alumni and former faculty, you might consider the BC premiers – there have been three (Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, and Ujjal Dosanjh) – and the prime ministers (John Turner and Kim Campbell). You might ponder the impact of great jurists – including Frank Iacobucci and Beverley McLachlin – and spectacular artists and performers, like Sam Black, B.C. Binning, Ben Heppner and Judith Forst. You might, especially, look to the donors and supporters who, year after year, have enabled UBC to attain new levels of excellence.

So, to all UBC alumni I say take a bow, and accept my most heartfelt thanks. Since my first arrival at UBC in 1997, I have come to love this institution like no other; I mean it quite sincerely when I say, “thank you!” for the role that you have played in helping UBC achieve its position as one of the world’s leading universities.

And finally, don’t stop. We still need your support – and, I promise, we will reward your continued attention. If you thought the first century was grand, you’ll be amazed by what is to come.


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