Leading Lights

UBC's Vancouver campus

A year ago, many quite reasonable people were worrying aloud that UBC was headed into a rough patch. The university had lost its 13th president, Dr. Arvind Gupta, less than a year into his term, and the departure was followed by a bruising controversy over institutional governance, accountability and the protection of academic freedom.

Knowing that it would take a remarkable individual to guide the university through this period of intense scrutiny, UBC approached former president Martha Piper, asking if she would be interesting in resuming the position she held from 1997 to 2006. And her response? “Absolutely not!” With her work on corporate and not-for-profit boards – and with the delightful distraction of grandchildren – she says she had neither the time nor the inclination.

But then she wavered: “Of all the institutions I have ever been associated with, this is the one I care most deeply about. So, when pressed, I felt I needed to give it serious consideration.” She talked it over with family members, who encouraged her to take the plunge, and then, mere months before her 70th birthday, Piper stepped up as UBC’s 14th president and vice-chancellor – optimistic (as is her tendency) that everything would turn out perfectly.

“I never feared for the institution,” she says. “People just needed to believe – and to get back to their focus.”

There were others, however, who felt a greater sense of trepidation, and a great conviction that only Piper could have had such an immediately restorative effect. “No one else could have done it,” says former University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera, PhD’80, who was VP of Research at UBC during Piper’s first presidency. “It had to be someone who had a deep sense of what it was like to be at the helm of UBC.”

During her 10 years in Alberta, Samarasekera says, “I had many people say that running a university is one of the most difficult jobs in the country, and I think it’s true. You have all the accountability for outcomes without having complete authority over anything. Everything you achieve you must do through influence and persuasion.”

No problem, says Philip Steenkamp, who joined UBC last December as vice president, External: “Martha has almost frightening powers of persuasion.” Steenkamp had known this for a long time, having dealt extensively with Piper when he was deputy minister of Advanced Education during her last term as UBC president. Steenkamp says: “(Then-premier) Gordon Campbell was always exhausted after a meeting with Martha. He’d turn his pockets out – literally – and say, ‘She did it again. I have nothing left.’”

Piper’s previous nine years at the helm of UBC proved invaluable. “Her tremendous experience showed in each decision she made, often in the face of controversy,” says Mark MacLean, president of the UBC Faculty Association. “I appreciated Dr. Piper’s willingness to engage on hard issues and her directness in dealing with tough decisions.”

Despite the immediate challenges, Piper never lost focus on ensuring the university excelled in its day-to-day business. “Not only has she brought vibrant leadership, but under her guidance the university has continued on its upward trajectory,” says Stuart Belkin, chair of UBC’s Board of Governors.

“Martha has always been a huge advocate for alumni as central to the UBC community. She championed the university’s Centennial like no one else could and Santa is an equally enthusiastic leader. What a great way to begin UBC’s second century!”

Faye Wightman, BSc’81, Chair, alumni UBC Board of Directors

For Piper, the overarching task was threefold: “First, we just had to stay the course – to be sure that in a transitional year, we weren’t falling behind.” That meant more than keeping the lights on. UBC competes for research funding and students – two standards by which the university’s performance can be judged favourably in the last year.

“Second,” she says, “we had to reassure everyone inside and outside UBC that the university was strong and resilient.” This was actually easier abroad, where people tended to pay little attention to what they saw as a temporary setback, she says. The real morale problem was at UBC, but Piper says that, too, resolved itself during the year.

And third, “we had to attract a great president.”

Notwithstanding Piper’s optimism, that task seemed daunting. Skeptics feared that the controversies that arose around President Gupta’s early resignation would discourage top candidates. Others were concerned that UBC was not in a position to offer a competitive salary, given what academic leaders can earn even at public institutions in the United States (Ana Mari Cauce at the University of Washington was hired in 2015 on a contract amounting to more than $900,000 US a year; University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer was last reported to be receiving $3.4 million US annually).

But Piper says that people were not giving sufficient credit to UBC’s power to draw spectacular talent, adding that the university’s ranking among the top three dozen research institutions in the world is well-earned and offers incredible opportunities at every level. “People are so excited about the new leadership,” Piper says, adding that former University of Cincinnati president Santa Ono “will be magnificent.”

Indeed, as a serious researcher and seasoned administrator, President Ono was a dream candidate. A professor of Medicine and Biology, he worked at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Emory universities before stepping in as VP Academic and Provost and then president in Cincinnati. There, he earned the support of the academic community and something approaching adoration from students. Inside Higher Education named him America’s most notable university president in 2015, and more than 72,000 people follow him on Twitter. And he is clearly motivated by something other than money: his UBC contract includes a $470,000 annual salary compared to the $525,000 US he made in Cincinnati.

“The term ‘hitting the ground running’ could have been coined for both Dr. Piper and Professor Ono. Martha reassumed her responsibilities as if to the manner born, and Santa is making his presence felt before he has even arrived! If you can run before you hit the ground, that is what he is doing!”

Lindsay Gordon, BA’73, MBA’76, UBC Chancellor.

Perhaps that motive is partly UBC’s reputation. The well-regarded University of Cincinnati ranks in the top 301 to 350 category in the Times Higher Education ranking and UBC ranks 34th. That ranking is a symbol of the strength that Martha Piper was describing all along – something she says she now sees through a different lens. In her first two terms as president, she says, she approached the university like a parent – “when you worry about everything: ‘Is the kid going to walk on time? Are they going to do toilet training? Are they going to do drugs?’ You know, you love them, but you’re always worried.”

But Piper says came back last year with the perspective of a grandparent, “where you just love them to death and you don’t worry. I love this institution more than when I first came. I love it more and I worry less.

“That’s not to say that I didn’t worry this year. But, with the experience of a grandparent, you know when to worry and when not to. You don’t have to ride the rollercoaster.”

However you describe the thrill-ride of the last year, Martha Piper says she is delighted to pass the university into excellent hands – and to return to an even more peaceful life than the one she left. She withdrew from all board appointments when she came back to UBC last year, so now – aside from serving on a federal government panel reviewing the level of support for fundamental science research – she is looking forward to spending more time as a literal grandparent.

But she’ll be missed.


One comment

  1. Lorne Welwood, BA '65, LLB '68 says:

    What a great article with a balance of fact and feeling. As a grandparent and great grandparent, that leadership analogy really explained to me Martha Piper’s passionate, yet relaxed return to the presidency of UBC.

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