2016 Year in Review: UBC's second century: moving from excellence to eminence

The holiday season is a time both for reflection and for looking ahead to the future. For me and my family, the highlight of 2016 was the warm welcome we received from British Columbians when I took up my position as 15th president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

In many ways, coming to UBC has been a homecoming. I was born in Vancouver, at St. Paul’s Hospital, during the time my father was a UBC mathematics professor. Coming back to UBC this year to serve as the university’s president has been a humbling experience.

I am proud to lead such an outstanding institution. UBC was founded a scant 101 years ago, but today it is acknowledged as one of the world’s top universities. The 317,000 graduates of UBC excel in practically every field of human endeavour, with Nobel Prize winners among its faculty and prime ministers and Olympic medallists among its alumni.

The university now spans two magnificent campuses in Vancouver and the Okanagan sprawling over more than 1,500 acres.

UBC is known as a global research centre. UBC clinician-scientists are leading the global effort to eradicate AIDS. Our work in sustainability and land use is at the forefront and our scholarship in the humanities and social sciences and the liberal and performing arts is stunning in its breadth and depth.

But we cannot just reflect on the past; we must begin planning for the future, to enable UBC to move from excellence to eminence. Accordingly, UBC has launched a new strategic planning process.

It is early days yet, but already there are common themes emerging.

First, we want to expand our global leadership role in innovating ways of teaching. At UBC we do not see education as a credential or commodity. It is the transformation that occurs within our students that allows them to think critically and creatively.

At the same time, we want to ensure that the education we offer is responsive to the concerns of indigenous people. An understanding of indigenous history – and a full and accurate understanding of Canadian history – must be part of the education of all students, whatever their field of study. The development of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC is a major commitment in moving toward this goal.

Second, we will strengthen our existing areas of research excellence and invest in new and emerging areas of research and scholarship.

For example, we should commit ourselves to solving some of the grand challenges that face humanity: clean water, sustainable and renewable energy, chronic diseases and global food availability. We don’t just want to be a great university; we want be a great university that does good.

Third, we need to focus on innovation. Currently we are ranked as Canada’s most innovative university and among the top 50 most innovative universities in the world. But we aspire to do even better. We envision a future UBC that is a catalyst for many more new technologies and spinoff companies, with an even greater economic impact on Vancouver and Kelowna. In so doing we will elevate Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and the world.

Fourth, we will enhance our connection within British Columbia and our standing as Canada’s most international university. Universities have a responsibility to forge strong connections with their communities.

Finally, we must be true to the mission of research universities. Although universities such as UBC have multibillion-dollar budgets and even larger economic impact, universities are not businesses. Universities are incubators for future leaders and universities are venues for critical inquiry and debate.

As I begin my first full year as UBC president, I am excited by the potential for the UBC community to work together to develop a vision that will truly lead us from excellence to eminence. •

Prof. Santa J. Ono is president of the University of British Columbia.