The University of British Columbia: The First 100 Years

By Eric Damer

The history of higher education in British Columbia reaches back almost as far as its public school system, although the initial efforts to establish a provincial university were marked with more rhetoric than action. When the new province of British Columbia passed its Public School Act in 1872 to create a system of tax-funded, non-sectarian elementary schools, a few educationalists were promoting educational provision at the other end of the continuum. For some, a university was the leading institution to provide the intellectual, cultural, and political education for the future leaders of the province. From the beginning, the ambition to provide educational leadership, through both formal and informal means, guided university development in the province. But exactly what this leadership would look like — what knowledge was the most important, who should have access to it, and how it should be provided — was debated over the years resulting in changes to the curriculum, styles of instruction, areas of research, and nature of the student body. Initially, lack of agreement on basic issues such as where to locate a provincial university delayed its establishment by several decades, and after its founding the university was pulled and pushed by supporters and critics alike to redefine its educational leadership. UBC administrators, faculty, students, support staff; governments; business and social leaders; and the general population all had their influence in varying proportions. Through a complex, dynamic process, UBC grew to provide the educational, intellectual, and cultural leadership sought from the beginning, although the questions and debates surrounding the nature of its leadership remain as alive now as they were in earlier times.

Early Attempts

Although leading citizens in British Columbia first considered a university as early as 1871, nearly forty years of political debate would pass before government committed itself to its own institution of higher education. Even after Premier Richard McBride and his Conservative colleagues passed the University Act in 1908, it took several more years before key practical issues were settled. The earliest attempts to create a university had been thwarted by differing views about the purpose of a university, pitting conservative views against more progressive ones. Some proponents in the well- established communities of Victoria and New Westminster believed that a university would provide the capstone to the new school system and provide a sound education for the province’s future professional gentlemen, understood in nineteenth century terms to include politicians, literary men, clergymen (despite the non-sectarian nature of the public schools), barristers, and physicians – members of a tiny but influential upper middle class. Labour leaders in the province naturally disagreed with this class-based view of higher education, and politicians more generally had little desire to finance an expensive institution that seemed to provide no immediate material returns to a young and struggling province. Frustrated, Superintendent of Education Stephen Pope in 1885 even suggested that “private munificence” might accomplish what government legislation had not. But new ideas about the function of universities were in the wind. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway on the west coast in 1886 heralded a new industrial economy and sparked rapid immigration, providing politicians with additional reasons to support a university. British Columbia needed technical experts like engineers, physicians, teachers, and, with industrial operations increasing in size, corporate managers. Some even believed that a well-educated middle class was good for political stability, providing protection against the self-interest of capitalists and establishment politicians. Encouraged by these considerations, a member of the legislative assembly from Victoria, Simeon Duck, proposed a university bill in 1890 to create an institution to provide both a traditional liberal arts education and a more contemporary practical education in such areas as medicine, engineering, and agriculture. It would be “non-sectarian,” like the public school system, and largely self-governed, like the old British universities. Instead of catering solely to an established upper-class, the new public university might enroll less affluent young men — and women — of merit.

The bill passed easily, creating an Act that set out the first steps toward launching the new university. Within the year, the Act was amended by its supporters who rearranged the structure of the administration slightly, deleted references to a normal school, pharmacy, and midwifery, and specified four founding faculties: Arts and Science, Medicine, Law, and Applied Science. As before, women were granted admission but subject to a clause that they study in areas deemed “most fitting” by university authorities. Theological colleges, previously unrecognized, could now affiliate and award theological degrees. The revisions were presented before a receptive legislature that passed the revised bill into law with little serious debate. All seemed well for the new university until the first meeting of Senate, the highest governing body, which was legally obligated to meet within a specified time. Left to the last possible date, 2 July 1891, the meeting failed to meet quorum thanks to muddled communication and geopolitical rivalries between Senators from Vancouver Island and Senators from Vancouver and New Westminster on the mainland. Without quorum, the government considered the University Act dead.

The question of where to place the university proved intractable for decades. University proponents in several locations looked for other ways to provide higher education locally, but educationalists in the young and ambitious city of Vancouver were the most successful. They invited McGill University in Montreal to affiliate with Vancouver High School; McGill had affiliated with other high schools in maritime Canada, and saw itself potentially as the country’s national university. Besides, McGill had ties with Canada’s national railway, the Canadian Pacific, whose western headquarters were in Vancouver. The CPR hired managers, accountants, and engineers, providing additional demand for advanced, practical education. After provincial legislation in 1896 permitted the affiliation, Vancouver High School brought its curriculum in line with McGill’s and enrolled its first university-level students in 1899. Victoria followed suit in 1903, but Vancouver boosters soon took a more ambitious step.

During the first decade of the 20th century, British Columbia’s political leaders introduced a number of reforms to the province’s school system to provide greater efficiency to support the modernizing industrial economy. University education was among these reforms, as demand for technical and managerial expertise — new middle-class occupations — grew alongside an expanding and differentiating work force. McGill was consequently invited to increase its educational efforts in British Columbia by creating a college independent of Vancouver High School that would provide several years toward an arts degree (meaning humanities and natural sciences) or an applied science degree (leading to engineering work). Amidst some objection by those who opposed the presence of the eastern university, McBride’s Conservatives, who held a slim majority of seats (and, more importantly, were bound for the first time in the province’s history by party discipline), passed legislation in 1906 to create the McGill University College of British Columbia, popularly known as “McGill BC.” Supporters were pleased with this step, but others continued to press for a provincial institution. However, creating McGill BC avoided the thorny question of where to locate the university, the issue that had scuttled plans in 1891.

McGill BC, supported by local industrialists, educational leaders, and students (and their parents), satisfied some of the demand for higher education in the province; notions of meritocracy helped find a place for women and the less affluent, but few students from outside the Anglo-Canadian middle class found their ways into McGill BC. Although the college eventually enrolled several hundred students, offered three years toward a degree (which could be completed at McGill University or elsewhere), and hired a dozen faculty members, the drive for an independent provincial institution persisted. The practice of hiring skilled expertise from outside the province challenged social and economic self-sufficiency, and BC was already behind other western provinces in establishing a university.

The government moved another step toward its goal in 1907 by creating an endowment for a university, setting aside a patch of land in the province’s southern Chilcotin region for revenue purposes. The following year, the Minister of Education, Henry Esson Young, presented a university bill before the legislature. Written with his wife, Rosalind, and modelled after the new constitution of the University of Toronto, the bill proposed a bicameral governance system consisting of a Board of Governors (appointed by the government) and an academic Senate comprising teaching faculty, alumni (when they came to exist), and representatives of various professions and larger cities. The new bill passed fairly easily, thanks to the solid political majority now enjoyed by the Conservatives. Still, no one dared specify the location. Finally, in 1910, a commission of Canadian experts toured the province to advise on the matter. Civic boosters across the province argued for the merit of their area, citing industrial potential or healthy climate, but the commissioners chose Point Grey, a prominent head of land west of Vancouver and the traditional lands of the Musqueam First Nation, as the best location. It was close enough to the province’s commercial centre — a distinction now firmly held by Vancouver — to be economically useful, but outside city boundaries where student “character” could be nurtured. In addition, it had room for agricultural experimentation, a necessary element if BC were to turn its limited arable land into prosperous farms and join Canada’s surge in agricultural productivity. The province agreed with the decision, and negotiated with Ottawa for ownership of the crown land on Point Grey to create the University of British Columbia.

The Imperial University

With a number of delicate political decisions settled, the Conservatives began planning a magnificent monument to the ascending cultural and economic power of British Columbia and Canada as key constituents of the British Empire. Although this vision included the meritocratic ideal of assisting intelligent and ambitious young people to attain a social and economic position commensurate with their abilities, prevailing social beliefs meant that students of British (and perhaps American or northern European) backgrounds could be more confident that the university would have a place for them. Minister Young invited Canadian architects to compete for the contract to build the new campus on Point Grey, and hired a University President. Frank Fairchild Wesbrook, a Canadian from Winnipeg who had studied in Manitoba and in Cambridge, England, left a prominent post as Dean of Medicine at the University of Minnesota to supervise the creation of the university. Wesbrook was a modernizer and a charismatic politician who saw the value of the new, practical sciences but retained respect for the more traditional liberal arts and their role in building character within a strong Canadian nation. UBC would include both curricular streams, although the new University Act permitted the university to engage in study and teaching in any field or discipline it chose, particularly those of practical value to the developing province. With government assurances of political and financial support, Wesbrook accepted the Presidency, drummed up popular support with his provocative comments about “the people’s university,” and set about hiring staff for his “Cambridge on the Pacific.”

Alas, the economy faltered in the fall of 1913, and then plunged with the outbreak of the First World War the following summer. Government shelved the grand plans for the university, leaving only the skeletal frame of the science building standing on Point Grey. The land endowment proved inadequate, and UBC was forced to open in the fall of 1915 in buildings used by McGill BC, next to the Vancouver General Hospital. The college in Victoria, also affiliated with McGill, now came under the jurisdiction of UBC’s Board of Governors who closed it for want of adequate funds; it would re-open as a “junior college” in 1920. Many programs at UBC were incomplete and many faculty positions remained vacant but the university nonetheless opened with nearly four hundred students, mostly transfers from McGill BC, who were enthusiastic to obtain the social and economic opportunities afforded by a university degree. In some ways, it didn’t really matter exactly what one studied, as the status of a degree was enough in itself and few programs outside the small Faculties of Applied Science and Agriculture (opened to students in 1917) had explicit vocational purposes. Most students thus enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Science, following programs in humanities (history, philosophy), modern languages (English, French, and later German), classics (Latin and later Greek), social sciences (economics, political studies), and natural science (physics, chemistry, or biology). All students followed a first year course of English and mathematics, a foreign language, and a science; the remaining years emphasized the selected area of study somewhat, with greater concentration for those in the Honours program. For the first five years students paid no tuition – a small encouragement for less-affluent students – since most students were from modest economic backgrounds, worked during the summers to pay for their years of study, and would require jobs after graduation.

For its first decade, UBC faced considerable financial difficulties that were symbolically represented by its shabby accommodations, dubbed the “Fairview Shacks” by a generation of students. Both Richard McBride, recently knighted for his public service, and Henry Esson Young left politics soon after UBC opened, leaving the province ripe for a change of government. The Liberals who took office in 1916 were less enthusiastic about a university that depended solely on a provincial grant for its operating funds and appeared of interest primarily to Vancouver residents. Yet another loss was keenly felt when President Wesbrook died in 1918 as a result of a chronic infection, exhaustion, and perhaps lingering bronchitis; his successor, Leonard Klinck, formerly Dean of Agriculture, was a competent administrator but unfortunately lacked administrative and political charisma. Faced with post-war recession, UBC grew very slowly: although the university offered a complete degree in Arts (natural science, social science, or languages) the first year, it took several more years before the university could offer complete degrees in the other Faculties. Little time and funds could be spared for research, although there were exceptions. Members of the Faculty of Agriculture, who were more numerous than student teaching might warrant, conducted basic and applied research important to local crops, cheese making, and livestock management. Faculty in Chemistry (which included chemical engineering) were also notably productive, providing research of interest to the province’s chemical smelting industries. Other faculty did conduct research and supervised MA thesis almost from the beginning, but it was a minor activity compared to undergraduate teaching.

Despite the restrictions, the tightly-knit community of students and faculty maintained a remarkable optimism that they were laying the foundation of a great university. Indeed, examination standards were rigorously maintained, with the result that graduates were proudly identified in the local press and well regarded by other institutions. Students welcomed freshmen (and “freshettes”) with embarrassing and uncomfortable initiation rituals, asserting their self-importance by reciting chants, cheers, and yells at public events. In extra-curricular events, UBC students soon distinguished themselves in debating, theatre, and sports, competing against local adversaries. Faculty presented themselves favourably before the public by providing extension lectures, vocational courses for returning veterans, and commentaries in the local newspapers.

By 1922, faculty and students alike had had enough of life in the “Shacks.” The provincial government was keeping the university on a meager financial diet, forcing the Board of Governors to introduce student fees in 1920, and dragging its heels on the construction of the Point Grey campus. Encouraged by university supporters across the province (some of whom were influential Liberals), students took matters into their own hands. That summer, they collected signatures on a petition; by October, they had some 56,000 names and prepared for a massive public relations stunt. On October 28, students (and a few professors) paraded in the streets of Vancouver with decorated floats designed to publicize their plight, calling on the government to “Build the University.” One colourful float carried a large can of “Varsity sardines” to illustrate their point. Students then rode streetcars to the end of the line before walking the remaining distance to the abandoned frame of the Science Building. Climbing aboard, they unfurled banners demanding the construction of the Point Grey campus. Several days later, student leaders presented the government with the petition; the Premier, John Oliver, reconsidered his position and decided to follow the public mood and begin the new campus. Besides, Liberals in British Columbia and across Canada were taking the position that social services like education were a good idea, providing the opportunities for increased personal liberties.

UBC’s Point Grey campus was built between 1923 and 1925, when students first moved into the new facilities, but it was a pale shadow of the earlier plans. Only three permanent buildings were constructed – the Science Building, Main Library, and a power house to supply steam for heat and electricity – with the rest being a handful of semi-permanent frame buildings. Still, modest growth in student numbers (from an undergraduate total of nearly 1,400 in 1925 to some 1,800 five years later) and a somewhat more generous operating grant meant that programs could expand. Vacant faculty positions were filled and additional courses were added. In addition to basic degrees in arts and science, applied science (engineering and nursing), and agriculture, it additionally became possible to complete a “pre-medical” degree or a post-baccalaureate year of teacher training in preparation for high school (with elementary teachers enrolling in the summer school, launched in 1920). By the end of the decade, courses had been added in German, sociology, and commercial studies. UBC’s administrators were beginning to adopt the vocational spirit of education, as many of these new programs were “professional” with direct implications for jobs following graduation. Even research was increasing, thanks to internal funds and some small grants from private companies and the Research Council of Canada, but research at UBC remained a marginal activity that graduated only a handful of master’s students each year and generated only a handful of good, but small, faculty publications.

Yet the imperial ambitions were waning. The original plans for a monumental university of collegiate Gothic design to proclaim the glories of Great Britain were fading as sensibilities at UBC began to favour a more independent Canadian identity. At the same time, American ideas and culture were creeping into the universities, influencing the educational thought of professors like Herbert Coleman and George Weir and introducing students to customs like fraternities and American football. Students poked fun at the values of an earlier generation, attracting criticism from locals who felt that UBC harbored a streak of anti-British sentiment. History professor Mack Eastman in particular was dragged into media controversies on a number of occasions, first for supporting an American as his temporary replacement during the First World War, next for daring to discuss socialism and Biblical criticism, and finally for choosing textbooks alleged to be insufficiently patriotic. The Officers Training Program, in which membership was compulsory for men during the war (a number of whom subsequently saw active service), disbanded in 1919 due to student rejection of militarism. Students at times questioned blind loyalty to Empire, and reformers found outlets for mild social criticism in the student newspaper The Ubyssey and through such groups as the Student Christian Movement. Slowly, during the 1920s, UBC began to strengthen itself as a resource of British Columbia and Canada, but it would face an almost disastrous attack in the years to come.

Averting Disaster

In 1928, the provincial Liberals were replaced by Simon Fraser Tolmie’s Conservatives who were not well disposed toward the university. After a year of amicable relations that saw new programs launched in commerce and social work, Tolmie and his Minister, Joshua Hinchliffe (an Anglican cleric who earlier had tussled with Mack Eastman over the latter’s choice of history textbooks) criticized UBC for having low standards, incompetent administration, and an overly vocational orientation. They launched an audit of the university’s books, found nothing of consequence, but nonetheless trimmed the annual grant on which the university depended. But more attacks would come.

The onset of the Depression in 1929 precipitated a financial crisis. The Conservatives, faced with dwindling tax revenue, cut UBC’s operating grant severely — from $587,700 in 1930-31 to $487,000 in 1931-32, and to a devastating $250,000 in 1932-33 — prompting an increase in student fees and a fight among the Faculties for a share of the grant. Since the President and the Board of Governors appeared to favour the Faculty of Agriculture, members of the other two Faculties on Senate passed a motion of non-confidence in the President. Even the Student Council voted to censure the President’s decision. The Board of Governors, however, expressed its support for Klinck, who firmly held onto his position as President. An inquiry into the fracas launched by alumni blamed the incident on the harsh budget cuts and poor communication between the two governing bodies, and recommended that Senate elect two members to sit on the Board; after legislative amendments, this suggestion was implemented.

More generally, the Faculties met the Depression by cutting salaries, laying-off support staff, and curbing expansion. A few faculty positions were lost to retirement, voluntary resignation, death, and in a few cases, lay-off. UBC faced a potentially lethal blow in the summer of 1932, a few months after the internal crisis, when a committee of prominent businessmen released its report recommending that UBC be closed if the government were unable to provide a sufficient operating grant, with leftover funds used to provide scholarships for local students planning to attend universities elsewhere. Fortunately for UBC, public condemnation of the “Kidd Report” was swift and decisive; the government distanced itself from the recommendations, but voters in the provincial election the following year reacted strongly. Only a couple of former Conservatives were re-elected as independents, leaving a Liberal majority under Premier Duff Patullo with considerable power. One of the new Liberal MLAs was George Weir, a Professor of Education at UBC who became Provincial Secretary and Minister of Education, a position that allowed him to strengthen the reforms he had in mind for the province’s school system. For Weir, schools played an important social function by sorting students by intelligence into the occupational hierarchies essential for social and economic progress; UBC would play an important role in selecting personnel for the upper-levels of those professional hierarchies and produce the educators capable of staffing the schools. With political allies like Weir and Premier Patullo in power, UBC’s recovery was assured even if the annual grant remained well below pre-Depression levels.

After the crisis of the early 1930s, UBC began a slow recovery. Small gifts of money or supplies were received with gratitude, especially donations from the Carnegie Corporation that helped to keep the library alive and launched the Department of Extension. Instructors in some program areas, like Commerce and Social Work, taught for almost no salary, while library staff similarly worked far below their usual salary. Enrollment began to climb after 1933, especially in the numbers of men who opted to return to school rather than face unemployment; not surprisingly, they favoured programs in practical areas of study. Many students could barely afford to attend, surviving, at times, on small loans or bursaries and hoping that they would find employment after graduation. Morale was improved by new school songs, a new name for athletic teams (Thunderbirds), and a new intra-mural recreation program that resembled the Pro-Rec program launched across the province. By the end of the decade, with undergraduate numbers well over 2,000 and provincial operating funds still below pre-Depression levels, the university had expanded slightly in public health, forestry, and commerce and was considering new developments in law, medicine, pharmacy, and other professional areas. Even research picked up a little near the end of the ‘thirties, with research grants provided by the new interventionist-minded provincial government along with those from the National Research Council. UBC’s administrators could feel relief that the university was back on its feet again, if barely, but political matters in Europe provided reason for concern of another sort. When UBC opened for classes in the autumn of 1939, Canada was again at war.


UBC embraced the war effort as it had in the first world conflict, but this time it played a much more active role. UBC’s Officer Training Corps, which had re-formed in 1929 as a voluntary body, nearly doubled in size during 1939-40 to some 219 members, for a grand total (including recent graduates and faculty) of 600. When enlistment in the corps became mandatory the following year, numbers swelled to nearly 2,000. Although the federal government advised students to continue their studies (particularly those in engineering or other technical areas), some 1,680 UBC-trained offices joined the active services and fought overseas; 165 of them never made it home. Eventually, women students also played active roles in the Red Cross Corp or studied map reading, first aid, and truck driving, although sororities helped promote a racier “pin-up girl” image of wartime contribution by providing chorus-lines for the annual Red Cross fundraiser. War in the Pacific brought new concerns to UBC, as buildings were prepared for air-raids should Japanese forces make it to North America. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the fall of 1941, students of Japanese ancestry at UBC were dropped from the Officer Training Corps, but allowed to finish their year of studies before joining families in the forced evacuation of Japanese-Canadians from the coast.

Faculty were also involved in the war effort. A few became commanding officers in the OTC, others taught special technical courses to servicemen, and some went on leave for work in Ottawa or conducted research in war-related technologies. One of UBC’s most celebrated graduates, physicist George Volkoff, worked on an aspect of the Manhattan Project before returning to UBC to build its nuclear physics program into one of national prominence. UBC faculty also conducted research in chemistry (including gas masks and propellants), electrical engineering (degaussing ships to avoid magnetic sea mines), optics, radar, pilot stress, food production, and food preservation. One research initiative, the War Metals Research Board, outlived the war to become the BC Research Council.

President Klinck used the war to help reform student culture. During the Second World War, patriotism was as much for Canada as it was for Great Britain, and Klinck advised that students (many of whom were exempt from active recruitment as long as they maintained good grades) should demonstrate their seriousness. Freshman hazing and “brawls” that proved popular for several decades had to go, and the Student Council finally agreed. However, the traditions were not so easily silenced, with informal roughhousing carrying on for several more decades. Applied Science students (‘Geers) were particularly fond of initiation rituals, and elevated their longstanding rivalry with students in Agriculture and Forestry.

But the war’s greatest and most lasting impact on the university came from a broader reorientation of educational priorities. Midway through the war, when the victory of the allies seemed probable, leaders in Canada and elsewhere turned to the question of social and economic reconstruction. The Depression and then war had left many citizens tired and frustrated to the extent that they were electing social democrats to political office. In British Columbia, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) had since the 1933 election been a strong presence in provincial and civic politics, much to the consternation of establishment party members. Governments responded by providing more state services in the form of social security, economic stimulus, and educational opportunity. UBC could play a role in the new “welfare state,” and it did.

By 1943, UBC had a new Board of Governors, a new chancellor, and a new President, Norman MacKenzie, who were eager to expand the university in many ways. The first step toward expansion was to boost enrollment, a task made easy by a new federal initiative to provide veterans with tuition funding and a living allowance to complete as university degree. UBC’s student enrollment tripled, from about 3,000 in 1943 to nearly 9,000 in 1947. Students were accommodated in old army huts taken from camps throughout the province; row upon row of huts soon peppered the campus, where there had been almost no new construction for two decades. The huts were temporary, of course, and were slowly joined by sturdy buildings in the new “international” style of modernism that gave tangible expression to the new mood of reconstruction. The surge in enrollment forced the university to take the second step of hiring more faculty to teach veterans, and to replace recently vacated positions. UBC’s first generation of professors was retiring, taking their authoritarian and elitist teaching styles with them.

The third step in expansion was to add new curricular options, particularly in professional areas. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, new departments that had been proposed decades earlier were now possible: Home Economics, Social Work, Forestry, Commerce, Physical Education, Pharmacy, and others. Nursing and Physical Education soon became “Schools,” Forestry and Commerce soon became Faculties, and the long awaited Faculties of Law and Medicine finally came into existence, admitting students in 1945 and 1950 respectively. New courses in social sciences – psychology split from philosophy in the mid-1950s – new programs in modern languages, and new programs in fine arts (music and theatre) were also added, typically with a professional orientation. The largest addition to the university came in 1956 when UBC superseded the provincial normal schools by establishing a Faculty of Education as the pre-professional home of all the province’s teachers. Some of these curricular expansions responded to government policy and professional demand, but others were aided by philanthropic funding by the likes of pharmacist George Cunningham (Department, then Faculty of Pharmacy), the Rockefeller Foundation (Slavonic Studies and Theatre), and local brewer Robert Fiddes (Department of Music). With the encouragement of MacKenzie and his cronies, old friends who were hired as Deans and Department heads, UBC became through the 1950s a broad, comprehensive university with a typical complement of professional schools.

The provincial government encouraged this expansion by providing more opportunities for students from across the province to gain university admission. Thanks to election promises made to parents seeking educational opportunities for their children, the government adopted the recommendations of the Cameron Report and reorganized and consolidated the province’s school districts to provide for greater access to high schools, and leaned on UBC to enroll more students from the general population. Thanks to President MacKenzie’s involvement on the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission), the federal government also began providing funding to universities in the early 1950s, intervening in an area marked constitutionally as a provincial jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, this new government support for higher education responded to several beliefs about the value of higher education held in influential circles across Canada. First, university education was an investment in the economy, since well-trained professionals in almost any field would become efficient and effective technical leaders or managers of both private and public institutions. Second, as the Massey Commission members indicated, western nations had to strengthen their cultural defenses in an age of external threats, notably from the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. As well, President MacKenzie and his colleagues at UBC and across Canada were imbued with a modest sense of social reform in the manner of the social gospel. MacKenzie, a staunch federal Liberal who believed in progress through social management, was a paternalistic figure greatly admired by students for his relaxed authority, accessibility, and support for diverse curricular options.

Students during the ‘fifties thus enjoyed greater social opportunities and were free to develop the student culture they wanted. A greater number of young people from far-flung parts of the province found their way to UBC, as did more students from outside Canada. The new era of universal human rights supported an increase of students – and even a few new faculty members from outside the Anglo-Canadian cultural mainstream. As attitudes to authority relaxed a little, some students took advantage of their freedoms by drinking to excess, renewing freshmen hazing, and performing outrageous (and sometimes dangerous) pranks. Men had begun to dominate the student body in the 1930s, but the arrival of the veterans had pushed the gender ratio strongly out of balance, giving the era a decidedly male orientation. Panty raids in the new women’s residences by men living in the old Fort Camp army barrack were symptomatic of the gendered campus at that time (although young women involved themselves in pranks and stunts, too). MacKenzie and other administrators tolerated most of the outrageous behaviour, and only occasionally intervened; faculty could be more critical, but were not very effective in curbing the occasional excess. Other students took social reform very seriously, growing increasingly vocal in their criticism of university governance, the military (especially nuclear arms), religion, and other traditional conventions. UBC, to the distress of more conservative observers, was home to atheists, socialists, peace activists, and social critics. Columnists in the student newspaper became so outspoken by 1955 that a clergyman at Windsor’s Assumption College called the Ubyssey “the vilest rag you can imagine, and the best argument for censorship that could be produced.”

Along with expansion of the undergraduate program and its cultural trappings came an expansion of research and graduate studies. Physics, the science that had “won” the war and ushered in the atomic age, was the first to expand. UBC’s nuclear physicists were among the country’s best, and the Department of Physics soon obtained important equipment grants from revitalized federal funding agencies to help train Canada’s first generation of nuclear scientists. Zoology, a research department since the 1920s, was not far behind in introducing a doctoral program, as was Mathematics and other science departments. By the1960s, most science departments had grown in research activity and doctoral education, with engineering departments close behind. Social sciences and humanities were less oriented toward research and doctoral degrees, and assumed a heavy burden of undergraduate teaching, but professors in these areas nonetheless embraced, if slowly and sometimes grudgingly, the new trends.

The spirit of social reconstruction began to wane in the late 1950s. The Social Credit government, first elected in 1952 and in power for the next 20 years, was less generous in its support for UBC than administrators would have liked. Operating grants were never quite enough to keep up with the university’s growth, resulting in the usual crowded classrooms and overworked faculty. But the Socreds couldn’t ignore the university even if it was a low priority: the federal government took Canadian universities seriously, and the provincial electorate wanted a university for their children; everyone knew that a surge of baby-boomers would reach university age in the mid-1960s, and UBC would have to be ready. Additional facilities were necessary, but funding for capital expenditures took on a new twist in 1958: the Socreds required UBC to find partners to match government grants. Fortunately, MacKenzie had friends among British Columbia’s leading industrialists — Leon and Walter Koerner, H. R. MacMillan, P. A. Woodward — who helped make the 1958 funding drive a great success. More significantly, though, UBC’s Board of Governors had new government appointees with new ideas for the direction of the university. Much of British Columbia still lay undeveloped, and the industrialization of the province had to catch up with global standards. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, education systems in the west were partly blamed with the apparent lag in western science and technology. Schools had to get “back to basics” and emphasize the “hard” academic skills that would reclaim scientific and industrial supremacy. UBC’s new Governors agreed, and ousted President MacKenzie in 1962, a few years before he intended to retire, and brought in a new President who shared their vision. John B. Macdonald, a young dental microbiologist, had great plans to build UBC into a strong research and development university.


President Macdonald was not alone in his vision to reform both UBC and the province’s entire system of post-secondary education. Soon after taking office, he endorsed a study to recommend new institutions for British Columbia, including new universities, community colleges, and an institute of technology. The recommendations of the “Macdonald Report” found immediate political support, resulting in the University of Victoria (1963), Simon Fraser University (1966), the British Columbia Institute of Technology (1964), and myriad community colleges. (Planning for BCIT, however, predated the Macdonald Report.)

However, it was not the intention of Macdonald and his supports simply to add new institutions to the system. In his view, they were to have slightly different roles, with UBC becoming the premier research and graduate university. In this regard, the government had misinterpreted — or ignored — Macdonald’s recommendation that UVic and SFU be strictly undergraduate colleges; instead, they were founded as comprehensive universities. Nevertheless, Macdonald and his supporters proceeded to reorient UBC to its new role as the research/doctoral institution of the province, despite ongoing government under-funding. By the end of the decade, all program areas offered a graduate (master’s) degree, and most offered a doctorate. Enrollment requirements were raised, and undergraduate degree requirements were adjusted to encourage a slightly greater degree of specialization. “Dilettantism,” claimed a report in 1965, “is a waste of time and talent.” “Low-level” courses in several program areas were dropped with the expectation that the new technical institute or colleges would assume responsibility. Scholarly activity was focused by drawing new administrative lines around academic disciplines such as linguistics, economics, political science, and even creative writing. Federal funds for health education made possible considerable growth and new developments in the Faculty of Medicine, to which was added a Faculty of Dentistry, a School of Audiology and Speech Sciences, and new programs in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine; however, plans for UBC’s acute care hospital met with additional delays and would not open until 1980. By the end of the 1960s, UBC administrators thought that it was time to cap enrollment at the university (at about 20,000), but the provincial government disagreed and student numbers continued to climb.

Research had become the new imperative, fed by an increase in federal grant money available to scholars across Canada. This was particularly notable in the various pure and applied sciences, where UBC faculty were quite successful in obtaining grants. One consequence of the new focus on research was that faculty hiring put scholarly potential above cultural background, resulting in new faculty with diverse ethnic backgrounds, and particularly from the United States. (Within a few years, this American presence in Canadian universities provoked heated debates about national scholarly and cultural sovereignty, resulting in federal policy encouraging Canadian universities to hire Canadian academics.) Perhaps the most visible indicator of UBC’s new scientific status was the founding in 1968 and subsequent construction of the world’s largest cyclotron on the southern part of the campus. The Tri-University Meson Facility (TRIUMF) involved the three British Columbia universities (later joined by the University of Alberta) and established UBC as a site for internationally significant “big science.” The social sciences were not far behind, as UBC faculty pressed the federal government for increased funding for their work in sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and other fields. Even the humanities and fine arts faculty increasingly produced scholarly or creative work, often exhibited in their own publications like Prism or Canadian Literature or on campus stages like the new Frederic Wood Theatre.

Supporting the surge in scholarly activity was growth in UBC’s library. Since its beginning, the UBC Library had been considered a small but well-organized and well-chosen collection. As a research library, however, it was a very distant third in Canada at the opening of the 1960s. Fortunately, one of UBC’s long-time supporters, lumber baron H. R. MacMillan, donated a princely $3 million for library acquisitions that provided much needed support for research in many areas, particularly humanities and social sciences.

UBC’s new emphasis on scholarly seriousness (which included research and graduate education) was taking hold, but the transition had to contend with a very different set of reforms. As the 1960s progressed, the students of the baby boom quickly swelled the ranks: by 1967 there were some 18,000 students enrolled at UBC in the winter session. Men’s hair grew longer, women’s skirts shorter, and attitudes more defiant. Illegal drinking, by now quite common, was joined by marijuana smoking and occasionally LSD consumption; a UBC teaching assistant in Spanish was even jailed for six months for possession of marijuana. Rock and roll music challenged jazz and big band as the sound of the younger generation, and became infused with the protest tradition of folk music. The sexual revolution, thanks in part to the contraception pill, unleashed student libido as never before, while the numbers and proportion of women students at UBC were rising for the first time since the 1920s. Many of these boomers were compliant and studious — some were even reactionary in their views — but others were pushed to a rebellious mood by overcrowding across campus, while a significant minority espoused the radical views of the New Left that combined youthful rebellion, moral outrage toward western industrial (particularly American) society, and a demand for improved civil rights.

The student radicals were not pleased with Macdonald’s reforms, believing that “their” university was being sold to the interests of the so-called military-industrial complex. They demanded better teaching, a voice in university administration, better accommodation, better food at Fort Camp residence, and lower tuition. Some of the new, young faculty agreed — they too wanted a voice in university administration, a reorientation of teaching styles, a redirection of educational goals, and greater access to the university by students of lower socio-economic status. The Faculty Club confronted President Macdonald on several matters, but were forced to back down given the content of the University Act. Other faculty protested the American response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Faculty introduced teaching innovations as well, such as the new Arts One program, an interdisciplinary first-year program conducted as a student-centred seminar. But the student demonstrators were the most publicly vocal, growing increasingly strident during Macdonald’s presidency: when he had first arrived, they were eager to support his calls for better university funding, but five years later many were openly antagonistic to the President. Macdonald had had enough: after five years in the job, he was frustrated with provincial under-funding and a change in the federal transfer arrangement, and in no mood to become a mediator among groups of activists. He resigned in 1967, leaving his successor, Kenneth Hare, to deal with the volatile popular movements. In the fall of 1968, with President Hare away on a short sick-leave, American Jerry Rubin visited the campus to lead a group of some 1,000 unruly people (not all of whom were UBC students) to a sit-in at the Faculty Club. The crowd did little damage, drinking faculty liquor, playing rock music, and swimming in the fountain, but raised a good deal of tension. Hare, only a few months into his presidency, returned to UBC soon after to deal with the issues, but eventually found it overwhelming. Hounded by militant students and under additional pressure by faculty to introduce reforms, Hare found his situation next to impossible. Citing a lack of external resources to deal adequately with the problems, he stepped down less than eight months following his investiture.

Walter Gage, a well-liked mathematics professor and veteran administrator, stepped in as President to keep the peace. He and other administrators continued with UBC’s scholarly reforms, but also with administrative reforms responding to the protests of students and young faculty. New policies were introduced permitting students onto many university committees, including Senate. Departments adopted regular external reviews, which revealed both lively and exciting departments as well as fractious and unproductive ones. Heads would no longer be appointed without term, but elected for fixed terms. New legislation introduced after the 1972 election of British Columbia’s first social democratic government, the New Democratic Party, made it possible for the Faculty Association to seek certification as a union; after several tense meetings and votes, UBC faculty opted for a “special plan” of bargaining rather than certify as a union. Support staff, however, succeeded in creating several new unions on campus. New provincial legislation also provided faculty, students, and support staff the right to elect representatives to the Board of Governors. However, the Board was no longer in direct communication with the government for financial negotiations. Instead, a Universities Council (proposed by an earlier Social Credit government) would act as an intermediary between the province’s universities and the provincial government, and liaise among the universities themselves.

UBC’s cultural atmosphere became much more casual following the student movement, as shown in student and faculty attire, the use of first names instead of formal titles, and increased informal social interaction between faculty and students. Feminism’s “second wave” joined leftist critiques to inform scholarship, course content, and attitudes across campus. Students took a new interest in evaluating their courses and programs, and participated in the new “Master Teacher Award” competition popular during the ‘seventies. The new student residences, most constructed during the enrollment surge of the 1960s, had fewer formal rules and fewer prohibitions on students’ social activities, although students could now find themselves facing arrest for illegal behaviour. Students embraced cultural diversity, although racist attitudes lingered. Aboriginal students, long overlooked, became the focus of new programs in the early 1970s, especially in education and law. Engineering students, so long on the forefront of campus mischief, agreed that some of their recent pranks had been excessive, but continued to outrage feminists with their annual “Lady Godiva Ride” that featured a scantily clad woman on a white horse. Conservative and progressive students continued to debate their positions earnestly, but never quite at the levels of intensity seen in the late 1960s. A greater number found an outlet in the new intramural sports events reinvigorated in the early 1970s.


The surge of change during the 1960s and early 1970s soon stalled: enrollment in 1972 declined for the first time ever, and the post-war economic growth that encouraged university funding was replaced with rampant inflation and unemployment. Many of the liberal reforms of the previous era were well entrenched, but the economic and political background was changing. New federal transfer agreements introduced in 1977 demanded less accountability from the provinces; critics charged that British Columbia’s Socreds, back in power after only three-years as opposition, never spent the transfers as intended and steadily decreased the real funding of universities in British Columbia for over a decade. Like governments across the industrial world, the Socreds were re-thinking government involvement in state services, and opting for more “market” solutions to demand for education and other social services. UBC scrambled to adjust by reducing salary increases of its faculty and staff, putting some new projects on hold, and increasing access for women, mature students, students with families, ethnic minorities, and other non-traditional students. By the late 1970s, the morale of many students dropped as costs increased, prospects for future employment decreased, and crowding once again became a very real issue.

The economic situation presented a grim situation to university research. Although the earlier academic reforms meant that scholarly and artistic production had increased both in quantity and quality, the numbers of doctoral students was leveling off and even declining in some programs, putting in question the supply of personnel needed to continue with crucial research.

UBC had to find some way to continue its teaching and research programs in the more conservative political and economic atmosphere. UBC’s new President, Douglas Kenney, had several plans in mind. First was to continue with the academic agenda, particularly at the graduate and faculty research level; some Faculties and Departments had grown quicker in numbers than in quality during the ‘sixties, and this had to be addressed. New areas of knowledge and technology were growing quickly, particularly the fields of computers, telecommunications, and biotechnology; UBC had to keep up as the “information revolution” accelerated. Kenney also encouraged faculty to obtain more research contracts, and to participate in collaborative research ventures. One of the first industrial collaborations was the government’s Discovery Parks initiative that brought university and industry scientists together for applied research projects, using facilities built on or near university campuses. UBC’s scientists entered into the arrangement in 1981 once their concerns and conditions were met, and despite student protests against the “unholy alliance.” In a similar vein, the Asian Centre, built in stages through the 1970s, was created both to foster cross cultural study and understanding, and to encourage trans-Pacific trade. It was made possible in part by financial and material donations from Japanese corporations and grants by the provincial and federal governments. National and provincial funding councils also reoriented to emphasize practical research problems and industrial cooperation; UBC’s researchers in many fields were soon familiar with the new imperatives and obtained a good share of the grants. A few faculty experimented with private companies, but the university placed limits on the amount of time permitted on outside commercial interests.

Organizationally, Kenny created a system of “vice presidents” at UBC that promised to provide the university with a more centralized, business-like administration than the system of independent Deans that had hitherto held considerable power. UBC’s great size (over 34,000 students in total registered in 1980-81) demanded a more professional administrative bureaucracy, but an expanded President’s Office would also help to centralize power and coordinate university policy.

Core funding, meanwhile, continued to wane. By 1983, with the provincial government in full restraint, public sector unions were starting to fight back. A massive coalition of unions and activists dubbed “Operation Solidarity” attempted to stem the tide of government retrenchment through strikes and other job action, but achieved only modest outcomes: after key unions won some concessions, the movement fell apart. Some of the unions involved were active at UBC with strikes and picket lines, meeting with a mix or reactions from support to disregard to open antagonism. Although the Solidarity strikes touched the university in small ways, the threatened budget cuts announced in the winter of 1985 promised to have a stronger effect: not only would university budgets be frozen, but part of the funding would be withheld for special projects and allocated at the government’s discretion. UBC’s Deans were instructed to review programs and decide which could be cut. UBC’s new President, seasoned administrator George Pedersen, resigned to protest the erratic funding leaving other administrators to continue the review. In the end, several dormant and low-enrollment programs were cut, several others were combined, and some were simply cancelled because they were deemed less important to the university. Despite new policies to reduce faculty through retirement and a hiring freeze, several tenured faculty in Education, where financial cuts were perhaps strongest, were dismissed. Faculty and students were incensed; not since 1932 had government intervened so directly in university business nor made such severe cuts. The Faculty Association voted “no confidence” in the administration and called in the Canadian Association of University Teachers to investigate the dismissals.

The Entrepreneurial University

In the wake of the retrenchment fracas, UBC’s Board of Governors hired David Strangway, former NASA geophysicist and Head of Geology at the University of Toronto (and briefly its acting President) to serve as the university’s President. Strangway came ready to expand UBC as a research and graduate university in an atmosphere of reduced government support. After settling the immediate issue of layoffs, he began to implement his vision.

One of the first steps was to obtain the provincial funds held back for special projects. UBC faculty proposed and subsequently developed three provincial “Centres of Excellence” in biotechnology, computer and robotics systems, and advanced materials processing. As well, UBC scientists became prominent participants in the new federal “Networks of Centres of Excellence,” with the university hosting several of the Centres. Unlike earlier interdisciplinary research centres at UBC (often hosted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies), these ones had explicit economic implications for the province’s new high- tech industries. The federal program was intended to mix researchers from university, industry, and government laboratories.

Another important step was to raise money from philanthropists, benefactors, alumni, and special interest groups. Anyone could help with UBC’s bid to become “Second to None.” The World of Opportunity fundraising scheme held between 1989 and 1993 raised some $262 million in private and matching government grants, allowing UBC to fund new buildings and facilities, academic Chairs, student services, and technological upgrades. Strangway and the Board were quite successful in attracting overseas investors as well, especially those in Asia.

Yet another crucial step was to obtain new funds through increased commercial activities, ranging from research contracts, patents on new technologies, and high-tech spin-off businesses to property development, facility rentals, parking fees, tickets to sports and cultural events, and sales of memorabilia. UBC was successful in all these areas, although critics were particularly concerned about the commercialization of research and the development of UBC property for lease-hold condominium sales. Fees were yet another way to increase revenue: students outside the traditional undergraduate and graduate categories — so-called “other” enrollments including Continuing Studies and diploma programs — almost doubled from 10,500 in 1990 to 19,897 in 2000. Some of these programs were offered as distance education courses distributed on CD-ROM or via the internet. Coincident with an immigration boom from Asia to British Columbia, UBC encouraged foreign students to enroll, paying a little more than domestic students.

Finally, where money couldn’t be made, expenses were curbed and ancillary services made to operate on a cost-recovery basis. Automation of information services helped reduce staff numbers: students after 198x used a new telephone registration system (Telereg), while library and information services were increasingly digitized and managed on the internet as the new technology developed. UBC’s unions were on guard to protect its members, confronting the university administration on several occasions in the early 1990s, but they were not always successful in their attempts to prevent downsizing of staff requirements.

New funds helped to make UBC an outstanding research university by helping the university to recruit and support outstanding scholars. Competition for the best faculty was heating up across the country, but UBC already had attractive academic strengths, new administrative arrangements to cross-appoint faculty, assistance with relocating to the region (whose natural beauty has long been coupled to a high cost of living), and, at times, assistance with spousal hiring. The Faculty of Medicine emerged as one of the powerhouse research Faculties, but other science and applied-science Faculties were also doing well and promising more success in the new competitive environment. Some recent scholars were cross-appointed among departments in several Faculties, making interdisciplinary studies the buzzword of the era. Of course, faculty had always crossed disciplinary boundaries, but now there were new economic as well as intellectual reasons to do so. Other Faculties were less able to tap into the new research funds, particularly Arts, where the economic spin-offs were less obvious. (One exception was in theatre or creative writing fields that were made more employment-relevant as the province’s film industry boomed.) Consequently, a number of departments began to replace retired faculty with sessional instructors, a move that was financially necessary but less than ideal for students or the instructors themselves. These Faculties and Departments also found ways to link with those where funding was more abundant, resulting in research projects in (for example) the legal and ethical dimensions of the business applications of new medical technologies.

The emphasis on research meant that graduate programs had to grow, as intended by university administrators. As well as new graduate research teams in more traditional areas, many departments during the 1990s developed new graduate programs serving scholarly specializations or niche demand. For example, Applied Science launched its new job-oriented M. Eng. degrees; Nursing, after a long campaign, launched a doctoral program; Pharmaceutical Sciences launched Canada’s first D. Pharm.; and Education launched a reorganized Ed. D. in educational leadership. Between 1990 and 2000, graduate enrollment rose from 4,862 to 6,397, an increase of nearly 32 percent.

The infusion of new funds also led to the first great increase in physical development in over a decade. Many new buildings were built on campus during the 1990s, some of which had innovative designs: the C. K. Choi Building for Asian research was a model of sustainability with energy-efficiency heating and lighting, composting toilets, and recycled materials (including posts from the recently dismantled UBC Armoury); and the Chan Centre, with its excellent acoustics, became a centerpiece for the performing arts. UBC even released a new Campus Plan in 1992 to chart a course for physical development, presenting a vision for a more unified, cosmopolitan campus in a beautiful natural setting.

New facilities were matched with a rise in student enrollment. For several years in the late 1980s, student demand at UBC was stemmed by the creation of new higher education institutions in central and northern British Columbia. But in the early 1990s, following growing immigration to the Vancouver area, enrollment at UBC began to climb. Between 1990 and 2000, undergraduate student enrollment rose from 23,490 to just over 26,778 students (an increase of 14 percent), encouraged by policies introduced by the new NDP government (1991-2001) which compelled the university to accept all qualified applicants; the government even froze fees for the years 1992-93 and 1996-2001, a move that appealed to students but not to university personnel. As had happened numerous times before, classrooms burst at the seams and faculty met with increasingly heavy workloads. Because of the new priorities in graduate studies, students and faculty were concerned that the undergraduate program would suffer. The Faculty Association had earlier initiated a program for faculty development, and this was soon supported by the President’s Office. A portion of students’ fees were subsequently allotted to faculty teaching programs and new teaching technologies. In 1990, a student representative on Senate proposed an administrative review of teaching evaluation; Senate agreed, prompting Faculties to develop new teaching evaluation questionnaires and other methods to encourage good teaching, and to re-introduce Faculty teaching prizes. Nonetheless, expansion during the 1990s brought difficulties to the undergraduate teaching programs, highlighted by accreditation problems for several units which were subsequently solved.

The student body changed in two significant ways during the 1990s. One was gender. The proportion of female students had been rising since the 1960s, and by 1987 females had surpassed males. Women faculty were also growing in numbers, but campus-wide they still lagged behind the numbers of men. As the numbers of women at UBC grew, feminist sensibilities had a more pronounced influence on campus culture. Chauvinistic traditions like the Engineering student’s Lady Godiva Ride and their annual Red Rag newspaper (which often presented offensive articles) were targeted for removal. Calls for gender equity were strengthened by the massacre of women engineering students at Montreal’s L’Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, which touched university campuses across the country. President Strangway and other administrators agreed that such excesses had no place on the campus and introduced policies to discourage poor student behaviour. Subsequently, UBC launched the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies in 1991 and the Equity Office in 1994. Women were now a majority in most undergraduate and many graduate programs, and a strong presence in areas once considered strictly male preserves.

At the same time, the cultural origin of students (and to some extent faculty as well) was shifting markedly. As Pacific-rim immigration to the Vancouver area rose, many students at UBC were themselves immigrants, or sons and daughters of immigrants, who maintained the tastes and sensibilities of their home culture. Soon UBC could point to many student clubs based on cultural origin, student publications in Asian languages, and a more international cuisine at campus food outlets. International students added to the cosmopolitan mix.

The early 1990s also saw a resurgence of political activity reminiscent of the 1960s. Students and faculty resumed their protest of discriminatory practices that continued at the university and beyond the campus. International and immigrant students were understandably concerned about events in their homelands, and they responded forcefully but carefully to such events as the Tiananmen Square protests and the Gulf War. Other students protested the creep of the new “globalization” and UBC’s alleged participation in it through various research alliances, curriculum, and investments. The issue of global environmental degradation also took on new urgency, with students and faculty producing important research (for example, establishing measures of our “ecological footprint”) and insisting on new conservation-oriented courses in Forestry and other areas. UBC signed the Talloires Declaration in 1990, an agreement by universities worldwide to work toward environmental sustainability; a few years later, UBC opened a sustainability office to initiate programs in resource conservation. However, the issue that grabbed the most media attention was the allegation of discrimination in the Department of Political Science in 1995 and the subsequent suspension of graduate admission to the Department. An external review supported the allegations, prompting heated confrontations between faculty, students, and administrators who supported contrasting perspectives. (Eventually, the external report and the allegations were dismissed.) Two years later, in the fall of 1997, UBC was once again receiving unflattering media attention when student protestors at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting were doused with pepper spray by security police.

A World Contender

By the end of the 1990s, UBC had established itself as a major Canadian university, both for its teaching programs, its research, and its extra-curricular achievements (such as student sport and engineering competitions). Financially, it was on shaky ground as were public universities across the country. The federal government had cut its commitment to higher education, reducing transfer payments and support to national funding councils, and forcing provinces to replace lost revenue. British Columbia’s government continued to increase funding proportionate to increases in student numbers, meaning that there was no relief to the strain of high student enrollment. In a desperate bid to raise revenue, UBC tripled the fees for foreign graduate students early in 1997.

Yet relief of a sort was on the way. Thanks to effective lobbying by scientists and university administrators across the country, the federal government announced in early 1997 a new program to provide funding to university research teams, providing they could find matching donations from other sources. With the encouragement of UBC’s new President, Martha Piper, who began her term in the summer of 1997, UBC’s researchers soon found donors and won more Canada Foundation for Innovation grants than any other Canadian university. The province had created a fund to match CFI grants (up to 40% of a projects capital costs), with private donors providing the remainder. Fortunately for UBC, a number of benefactors stepped forward with multi-million dollar donations for research infrastructure. Soon after the CFI began operation, the federal government announced its new program of Canada Research Chairs, an initiative that President Piper herself had helped to create. The research chairs provided salaries for scholars at universities across Canada, allocated according to research funds previously obtained. Since UBC was a major research university already, it obtained a large number of Chairs (195 in the first round). Unlike CFI grants, which were mostly intended for scholars in pure and applied sciences, the Canada Research Chairs also supported scholars in social sciences and humanities. The provincial Liberal government (which ousted the NDP in 2001) created another research fund that mixed government with private contributions, available to UBC and other universities in the province. Additional provincial funding was made available in medicine, engineering, and computer science, areas where demand and perceived social importance were high. From the point of view of some students, a new federal scholarship scheme was providing some help as were the expanded co-op programs begun in the early 1980s which allowed students to mix their studies with paid work terms.

These new sources of revenue combined with traditional ones to help UBC gain new ground as a research university. The university’s curriculum continued to adapt to meet demand and had upgraded many of its classrooms with the latest in high-tech, computerized teaching aids, and new social services for students. With a new mission statement that included internationalization and community engagement along with “world-class” research and teaching, UBC by 2003 was not simply a Canadian powerhouse but an international contender as well: 35th in the world, according to the European Commission. The university also expanded beyond its usual campus area to open a downtown campus at Vancouver’s Robson Square. Other educational institutions (notably Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Institute of Technology) already had a downtown presence, and UBC sought to join them. In 2005, UBC opened a branch campus in Kelowna at the behest of the province.

The accolades were well deserved, but some faculty and students continued to criticize an academic culture unduly influenced by commercial application and corporate funding that paid less attention to teaching and social justice. Critics were further upset in 2001 when the Liberal government removed the tuition freeze and student fees began to soar, especially in professional programs were costs in some cases tripled. International students, promoted by administrators as an important aspect of “world class” status, were facing huge cost increases as well. And adding to the criticism were objections to the massive new physical development projects on Point Grey. New research, library, and residential facilities for members of the university community made sense, but many of the new buildings were campus “neighbourhoods” of lease-hold condominiums and commercial shops. Asking prices were high — half a million dollars or more — and encroached upon the UBC Farm, the last vestige of UBC’s earlier agricultural emphasis and a popular symbol of environmental sustainability. Was UBC not large enough already? There had been some friction between the local regional district and the university over campus plans, but new agreements permitted the Point Grey campus to grow. Parking lots became residences, condominiums sprouted up around the theological colleges, and grocery stores opened for business.

Nonetheless, when Stephen Toope succeeded Martha Piper as UBC’s President in 2006, he came to a large university with considerable strengths in many areas. Although British Columbia was by then home to a number of good, comprehensive universities and several smaller, mostly undergraduate institutions, UBC had a stature unmatched in the province if only by the scale of its activities: it was the only “medical” research university in the province; it had more research faculty, with more research activity, than any other BC university; its course and program offerings were vast; and students continued to flock to the university. Many of these faculty and graduates were internationally recognized for their achievements in arts, sciences, music, drama, and literature. UBC continued to rate favourably with leading Canadian universities and those in other countries. Although UBC since the mid-1960s had shared some of the educational leadership in the province, it continued to exercise a profound influence on education in the province.

* * *

For over one hundred years, UBC has provided educational leadership in various ways. Initially, it was a small teaching university serving a handful of students mainly from the south-west corner of the province. These students were largely Anglo-Canadian and middle class, but a rather impoverished middle class by today’s standards. The initial curriculum was quite narrow, clinging strongly to a British heritage in humanities and social sciences, providing basic degrees in science, and offering very limited options for pre-professional education. But social and political pressures forced it to adapt, and to expand the curriculum and diversify its student body. Young men and women during the Depression chose to attend UBC rather than face unemployment, voting with their feet for more practical courses in applied science, forestry, commerce, or social services. Numbers of students expanded most dramatically following the Second World War, attending from outside the province’s Lower Mainland and from outside the country; a greater number were from outside UBC’s usual Anglo-Canadian appeal, and growing affluence meant that families could send their sons and daughters to university for the first time ever. Curricular expansion multiplied what was taught and learned, and an increasing number of occupational groups looked to the university for professional programs. Reforms of the 1960s brought both academic and cultural changes to UBC, changes that were sometimes antagonistic to each other. On the one hand, UBC increased its scholarly seriousness and academic production, particularly in research of industrial relevance; on the other hand, many younger students and faculty — members of the “baby boom” — critiqued this vision harshly and demanded democratic reforms to the university and society at large. The university emerged from these reforms as a large institution with some very disparate parts, but also as a home to serious scholarship in sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the fine arts. Following a painful period of government retrenchment and dwindling financial support, UBC in the mid 1980s reoriented itself as a more active participant in the economic life of the province, engaged more directly with commercial activities. During all the ups and downs, UBC maintained an enviable reputation as a learning community.

UBC’s story is far from over. Social, political, and industry leaders more than ever look to UBC to help solve contemporary problems and to provide higher education to tomorrow’s citizens. But today, as always, there is disagreement — sometimes profound disagreement — about which knowledge is of most value, who should have access to it, and how it should be provided. When resources for research are finite, should UBC’s research personnel put their superb talent into basic or applied science? Into the social or biological determinants of health? Should UBC encourage new social and economic models to help us through our environmental crisis, or “green” technologies? Or can it all be done? And who should have access to the knowledge, benefit from it, and at what cost? Is there an alternative to high student fees that make UBC (and other universities) less accessible to the less affluent? These and many other important questions will continue to influence the nature of UBC’s educational leadership.

Researched and written by Eric Damer
Based on “UBC: The First 100 Years” by Eric Damer and Herbert Rosengarten (Vancouver: The University of British Columbia, 2009).