Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On Stephen Toope (or, the Case for Students)

Tonight the student senators were invited for dinner with Stephen Toope. I had attended several dinners with Martha Piper, the former president, so I was wary of another superficial, "schmoozy" conversation.

It was a surprise to me that out of the conversations which unfolded at the dinner table, I received the distinct impression that this new UBC President was, well, different.

Don't get me wrong - Martha was instrumental in attracting the "hotshot" researchers that we showcase today. The number of research papers published in Nature out of our labs each month is impressive and rivalling the ivy leagues. And this helps the few (under)graduate students who are involved and learn, without question. She also focussed a lot of her attention on doubling the endowment which, in the long run, will help students.

Martha Piper at Senate, March 2005

The Martha era, though, is notable for a decline in focus on teaching and learning. The climate at UBC is not supportive of students. There is a hostile "bottleneck" atmosphere which ruthlessly "weeds you out". The laboratory equipments are old and falling apart. Buchanan is old and reminiscent of a high school in terms of architecture, yet the biggest undergraduate faculty traverses it and calls it their home. The class average of Chem 233 is often in the 50s. Tuition has doubled this decade. In such a competitive strenuous unsympathetic atmosphere, would I really want to retrospectively support this system? Would I not rather get the heck out and never look back?

So, why might Toope be better? Read more after the jump.

Questions were asked to Prof. Toope about the NSSE survey results. He said that the administration wanted to publicize the results. Why? Because the survey was of good quality and the data valuable (recognizing UBC's dismal performance in the three years it's participated). He asserted very strongly and very passionately that for all of the executives of UBC, the NSSE survey results were the number one priority on their agenda. He spoke of Carl Wieman's initiative to evaluate the student's experience, and the SHINE initiative to give graduate students mentorship from faculty members. Drawing from his own experience of having attended a liberal arts college, he mentioned that perhaps a pass/fail system should be implemented when taking electives (he did this, impressively, without Jaspreet having to bring it up first).

When asked about the potential merger of the Faculty of Forestry with Land and Food System, he promised the students that consultation would be sought out as soon as it came up as an agenda item before the executive. He enthusiastically affirmed that student consultation would begin at an early stage. Furthermore, and this is delicious for anyone who knows Martha Piper's philosophy of University governance, he stated that he was "not a CEO of a corporation", but that the university was a collegiate group of people and his job was to try to facilitate dialogue to work on arriving at a decision.

This may seem like very generic things for a President to say, but I have never seen the UBC administrator focus so much on the student/learning/teaching side of the institution. This was reaffirmed verbally several times at the senate meeting tonight when he talked about the endowment fund.

I have a feeling Professor Toope's approach will make a few faculties unhappy because of their relative de-prioritization; this is an inevitable outcome in an attempt to balance the research and the learning which goes on here. In the past we've seen the Faculty (ie the researchers) receive a disproportionate amount of support from the administration. I'm hoping that Toope will balance both.

I realise this is the honeymoon year in which the new president is still figuring out his own role, and thereby treading carefully in many areas. But he has already shaken a few things up, such as improving the communication and reporting relationship between BoG and Senate, the two highest governing bodies. Overall, I can't help but be optimistic that he has a balanced, diplomatic and visionary agenda which will not only advance the University in many aspects, but will actually uphold the Trek2010 vision in its truest spirit.