Dr. David W. Strangway, OC
Tenth UBC President and Vice Chancellor
June 7, 1934 – December 13, 2016
When David Strangway left UBC in 1997 after 12 years as president, Robert Wyman, the chancellor at the time, remarked: “The real contribution of David Strangway to the university, to the people of British Columbia and to Canada will not be fully understood until several years after his presidency. At that time his greatness and his contribution will be recognized, and his place as UBC’s number one president acknowledged.” Wyman’s words proved prophetic; his former colleague would come to be widely regarded as one of the most successful presidents in the history of Canadian universities.
David Strangway was the son of two pioneering Canadian missionaries, Dr. Walter and Mrs. Alice Strangway, who worked in Angola for 40 years providing medical and surgical treatment. He was born in the summer of 1934, while Walter and Alice were on furlough in Simcoe, Ontario. He and his young brother, Donald, grew up in Angola, studying in Huambo Province, some 450 km southeast of the capital city of Luanda. The Angolan community gave young David the name Cikomo, meaning “miracle worker” in the Umbundu language.
In 1952, David returned to Canada and entered the University of Toronto, where he ultimately obtained his PhD in physics. He then took up a post as professor of geology at the University of Colorado, followed by three years at MIT as a professor of geophysics. In 1970, he became chief of the Geophysics Branch at NASA, where he was closely involved in the Apollo missions, examining moon rocks transported back to Earth and designing experiments for astronauts. His highly respected work was rewarded with NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.
David joined the University of Toronto in the early 1970s, becoming the institution’s eleventh president in 1983. Two years later, he headed for the West Coast and UBC.
After arriving on Point Grey, David wasted no time pursuing his bold vision to transform the institution from a respected, but regionally focused university into an international centre of research excellence. It was a vision from which UBC’s 10th president and vice chancellor could not be deterred, even when faced with a series of cuts to university funding that were announced almost immediately after his appointment, and which threatened to undermine his aspirations.
Infused with the determination of a lunar explorer, he maintained the only perspective that had ever made sense to him, that of looking straight up, and in defiance of gravity or any other force that might impede the progress of his mission.
In immediate response to the reductions in public funding, he persuaded the provincial government to establish a new fund to support research excellence. He then went to work on a much bigger plan. Launched in 1989 with the help of UBC’s then VP External, Peter Ufford, the World of Opportunity capital campaign was the most successful in Canadian university history, raising over $260 million in four years. With the aid of friend and UBC governor Bob Lee, he created another significant source of funding, a real estate corporation known today as UBC Properties Trust, which has raised just over one billion dollars and transformed the campus into a vibrant and sustainable community.
The success of the campaign and the expansion of residential development combined to escalate UBC’s endowment from $85 million in 1985 to over $500 million by the time he retired from UBC in 1997. The endowment provided increasing levels of support for students and scholars alike, thereby serving to steadily enhance UBC’s reputation for excellence in various fields and disciplines. It also paid dividends in the form of new buildings. Utilizing a combination of internal and provincial financing, the university spent almost a billion dollars in new construction during David’s presidency, including the Biotechnology Lab that would later become the Michael Smith Laboratories; the David Lam Management Research Centre; First Nations Longhouse; Walter C. Koerner Library, and the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts to name only a few.
With these buildings came many new programs in research and learning, along with the creation of new centres such as the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, the Sustainable Development Research Institute, and the Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues. He further demonstrated his remarkable foresight by stressing the value of internationalization, especially the importance of building connectivity between UBC and Asia, including with growing numbers of engaged Asian alumni.
Members of the university’s leadership community were well aware that even as David bid his farewell as president, the university he left behind would maintain its steep trajectory for years to come.
Indeed, UBC continued to ascend into the upper echelons of advanced learning and research, eventually securing its current ranking among the top 30-40 universities in the world. David continued to indirectly influence UBC after his appointment in 1998 as President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). A multi-billion dollar federal government investment in scientific and technological research, the foundation became an important source of funding for research infrastructure at UBC, thereby assisting the university to amass even greater sums of human capital in the form of extraordinary faculty and students from around the world. After he left the CFI, David continued his contributions to post-secondary education by founding Quest University Canada, a private non-profit liberal arts and sciences university, which this year marks its 10th anniversary.
In reflection upon his death, many are those who have expressed reverence and recognition of the extent to which David W. Strangway’s leadership shaped the UBC of today. Although much larger in terms of enrolment, research awards and contracts, revenues and expenditures, it remains indelibly influenced by his bold vision and steady hand. Indeed, his legacy is one for which a community, province and nation can be profoundly grateful.