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Change of Guard at UBC

Stephen Toope dug up the truth about Maher Arar. Now he's UBC's president. A Tyee interview.

By Stanley Tromp 29 Sep 2006 |

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Dr. Toope: Human rights sleuth. Photo Martin Dee.

Dr. Stephen Toope, who took over as the 12th president of the University of British Columbia on July 1 for a five year term, reads a lot of contemporary fiction, but doesn't watch much TV beyond the national news. He's a big fan of Leonard Cohen and classical music, and his hobbies include hiking and bicycling. Asked for his favourite recent film, he replies "I loved Finding Neverland, about the man who wrote Peter Pan. I thought it was a brilliant little film, and Johnny Depp is my favourite youngish actor."

In fact, Toope looks to be peering at the world through his narrow glasses a bit like an amiable, quizzical possum in a British children's story book. But behind the countenance, one senses an iron will to survive and succeed. After working for the United Nations to thwart massacres abroad, and enduring a grievous personal tragedy at home, political disputes at UBC might seem relatively manageable.

Toope, who is also valued for his fundraising prowess and his connections to the federal government, expects a smooth transition from era of former president Martha Piper, without radical changes: "Martha's charge to me to Dream Big is one that I share."

Praise of UBC's presidential choice is widespread. "He is a rare combination of somebody who is brilliant, humane, considerate and fearless," his friend, Madam Justice Rosalie Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada, told The Globe and Mail. "UBC should be electrified."

Toope has been working UBC this summer to forge better relations with students and the university's civic neighbours, and is now off for a short holiday to the gulf islands. Just before that, although after five months of negotiations, I managed to snag a 20-minute interview, in which Toope sounded frank, witty, and very confident.

Topped 150 candidates

Stephen Toope, age 48, the adopted son of an Anglican minister, was raised in Montreal. With a law degree from McGill and a PhD from Cambridge, he served as dean of McGill's faculty of law from 1994 to 1999. He has also conducted human rights seminars around the world, was a UN observer at the first post-apartheid South African elections and was a research director on the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People.

Toope was chosen from a field of more than 150 names and a short list of five, said UBC chancellor Allan McEachern, who led the search committee that spent seven months on the task. Toope told the Vancouver Sun that he was "immediately intrigued" by the job when he was approached by an executive headhunter, and that he, his wife Paula Rosen, and their three children, were excited about moving to Vancouver from Montreal. Rosen is a speech pathologist who may pursue her passion of playwriting and songwriting, he said. While president, Toope will also hold a UBC academic position as tenured professor of law.

Asked about UBC's greatest challenge, he replies, "Finding a very healthy balance between our commitment to research and our commitment to teaching." Yet some students surveyed have described UBC, despite its slogan of Tuum Est (it is yours), as cold, bureaucratic and alienating. It is hardly surprising that the institution's size and power can seem intimidating to a teenager coming from a small town to a 400 hectare campus with 46,500 other students, 4,000 faculty, and an annual revenue well over $1 billion.

Toope readily agrees. "I share the concern. I said the undergraduate student experience was a top priority. We just published on our website, "The National Survey of Student Engagement." And that survey -- because we want to be completely transparent -- has some pretty worrisome things in it.

"So the mantra is 'make the big small.' Some is retooling for smaller group classroom experiences, and improving teaching. I've also been talking to the wonderful students that run our orientation program, which is hugely successful in the first week, and asking them how we can roll it out across the whole first year."

Alma Mater Society (students' union) president Kevin Keystone told me that Toope met with the AMS executive for an hour in August. "We believe he is on the right track," Keystone said. "We are thrilled he has prioritized the student experience on campus." For one thing, Toope agreed to meet with the full AMS executive regularly, every two months. (The AMS's main contact with Piper had been through the vice-president for students.) "We disagreed on tuition policy, but he agreed with us that the community is dissatisfied with the current governance model, and that it must change."

I asked Toope how democratic will his leadership style be. It's too early to say, he replies. "I don't see myself as a heroic leader charging off into the future. I am a person who, if you look into my background, has always cared a lot about consultation and learning from people. I hope it will be a combination of leading and learning."

Two years ago the National Post obtained UBC administrators' private memos that the newspaper said proved that they "pressured faculty members to manipulate course enrolments and in some cases capped class sizes" to improve UBC's annual ranking in Maclean's magazine. The article rocked the campus, but Toope said he didn't follow the story and can't comment on it.

Many schools, including UBC, placed great weight on their Maclean's ranking, and a strong showing was often used in promotional and fundraising campaigns. Yet last month, UBC under Toope, and ten other Canadian universities, published a letter rejecting Maclean's Magazine's invitation to join in its rankings exercise again, citing its "flawed methodology." "I actually don't think Macleans' is that influential," said Toope. "I think most students make their decisions on a range of considerations, and a lot of them want to look at specific programs they might want to take, and Maclean's doesn't get to that level of detail."

On a perceived lack of student spaces at UBC, he says "I don't think that's a major issue. The latest stats show the student numbers may not be as great as was projected. So there's an opportunity there to rethink the balance between graduate and undergraduate programs. And finding adequate financial resources is a challenge for all universities. Another is attracting and keeping good faculty in Vancouver, with the high housing costs and competition from very wealthy institutions, especially American."

For more than a decade, activists have loudly protested what they call the corporatization of universities, of their becoming too "profit driven," and that the tradition of "pure" research -- that is, the pursuit of knowledge solely for its own sake -- is passing away.

"I don't think its true," said Toope. "Universities are not profit driven entities, although there have always been competition for grants, since the 19th century. They are and must always be fundamentally committed to basic research. Loads of my colleagues at UBC are engaged in that. Most don't have a lot of external support, and even those who get outside grants have them for basic research."

A more neighbourly UBC?

With UBC's controversial surge of high-priced housing construction, residents of UBC lands and University Endowment Lands could number 18,000 by 2021. Yet soon these people will want a municipal government, said two members of a special committee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, the reluctant government for the UEL area. (Gary Gibson, the director from Electoral District A, said he would prefer the creation of a new municipality to amalgamation with Vancouver.) Some local politicians have long chastised UBC as "a bad neighbour."

I ask Toope how he hopes to improve UBC's relations with its civic neighbours.

"I don't have an answer to that yet, because I've just arrived and I don't want to be presumptuous and declare what I think the relationship should be. But, despite our global reach, universities are strongest when they're clearly rooted in their local community.

Toope has met with Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan and the city manager. "I've really been trying to say 'we want to be an effective partner, and work closely with you in improving the quality of life for people in Vancouver, and Kelowna and the Okanagan campus. What we're looking for is a change in attitude, because I think there have been pressures and tensions that have arisen on a number of scores, and that's bound to happen. Remember that we have an overarching agreement with the GVRD on the framework of development within the UBC area. So I hope we can have that serve, at least in the interim, as the basis for all planning here."

Of UBC's illegal tree-cutting on GVRD land last spring, he replies that he only knows about it through media reports: "It's not something I want to defend, but we said we're sorry to the GVRD and we want to go forward. I don't think anyone made a conscious choice to do it as far as I'm aware."

Arar investigator

Toope's wide global political experience and contacts were major factors in his being sought by UBC headhunters. From 2000 to 2005, he served as chair of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, investigating cases linked to the activities of state security agencies.

A year ago, the group met in Bangkok, convening the meeting in Asia for the first time because "the problem is growing in Asia," said Toope. With 40,000 cases filed from 60 countries the group's task is enormous, but the goal is straightforward - find out what has happened to the missing people.

Toope's team has studied political disappearance in Iran, Latin America, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, China (the biggest category there being Falun Gong members) and other states. Last December in Nepal, for example, Toope said that he would trace the whereabouts of those missing at the hand of the state at any cost, adding that his team had a "serious and lengthy conversation" with Nepal's King Gyanendra, and urged Nepalese authorities to act to stop forced disappearances.

He also played a key role in a Canadian human rights case, with his report last year as the independent fact-finder appointed by the Maher Arar inquiry. Canadian citizen Arar was deported to Syria after trying to return to Canada in 2002, following a visit with relatives in Tunisia. U.S. immigration authorities detained him in New York, held him as a terrorism suspect and then sent him to Syria through Jordan.

Toope's report said there was no doubt Arar was tortured in Syria. After conducting lengthy interviews and studying secret evidence and government documents, he concluded that Arar suffered severe physical and psychological trauma and economic ruin as the result of his ordeal. Arar said Toope's report proved his story, which allowed him to start his healing process.

With his passion for human rights, one might wonder how Toope would have dealt with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference held at UBC in 1997. Police used force and pepper spray against non-violent protesters, who objected to the presence of dictators such as Indonesia's president Suharto.

Asked if holding APEC at university was a mistake, Toope declines to say, because "it's ancient history" -- and when asked if he would have welcomed Suharto to UBC, he bursts out laughing: "Oh, I'm not going to comment on that!" Yet he admits that, although the APEC event is long past, what he calls "a very significant question" that it raised remains - that is, what sort of ties if any should Canadian universities forge with authoritarian nations?

"That's a tough one. There's always an argument between what some people call 'constructive engagement' -- trying to be involved in a society as it's changing, versus an cutting off linkages because they are unremittingly bad. Right now, would I try to organize a UBC engagement with Myanmar? I don't think so. But each case is unique. If UBC can be engaged at the academic level, it can bring a leavening influence to some societies."

Since 2002 Toope has headed the private, non-partisan Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which uses a $125-million endowment from the federal government to promote research on the humanities. Although Trudeau keenly admired Cuba, Toope seems a bit more ambivalent.

For example, in 1999 Toope opposed sending computers to Cuba, saying at that time, "We would be helping a very repressive regime to improve its operation." Yet UBC and most Canadian universities still have academic ties to Cuba. "I was in Cuba six months ago and I made a major speech at Havana University in which I actually challenged the Cuban regime on its human rights record. I had students come up to me afterwards and they said it had been one of the most inspiring thing they had ever heard -- not to flatter myself -- and I was moved by their response. But there are questions about where that engagement can take place. Would I throw a lot of money at the security services of Cuba? No."

'Stephen held his ground'

As testament to Toope's mettle, McGill law professor Rod Macdonald told the Globe and Mail of a time when Toope, as editor of the student publication the McGill Law Journal, ran an article defending then-B.C. Supreme Court justice Thomas Berger's decision to say publicly that Canada should include natives in its nascent Charter of Rights. Mr. Justice Bora Laskin of the Supreme Court at the time felt the article and some accompanying materials should not run, Macdonald said: "[Judge] Laskin called up the journal, but Stephen held his ground," he said. "Stephen told a Supreme Court justice to take a hike. He's not a person who is well liked because he is a pushover."

Toope's fortitude may also be evidenced from his surviving a grievous personal tragedy. In 1995, his parents were bludgeoned to death in their Montreal home by three teenagers armed with a baseball bat and a beer bottle in a random attack that shocked the nation.

Three years after the event, Toope called for better services to help people at risk of committing violent crimes. "There were so many indicators that showed these boys were in trouble, but nobody really knew how to deal with it," he told a Calgary church's seminar on violence. All three had previous criminal convictions or arrests, and behavioral disorders.

Toope said at that time that his faith was what enabled him to continue, and he decided not to let the killers make a victim of him, too. "Evil exists and we can't always prevent it," Toope said. "But I never wanted to be a victim. Some people choose to do that by working proactively for victims. But I chose to go on with my life."

The Montreal tragedy was not mentioned at the upbeat event of March 22 announcing Toope's appointment, which was attended by hundreds of people, mostly UBC administrators, professors and students, in the atrium of the new Life Sciences Building. (His full installation ceremony is set for September 29 at UBC.) Visitors said Martha Piper was visibly moved by the applause and standing ovation she received. Introducing Toope, she described him as a distinguished scholar and a tireless promoter of the values of a civil society.

The University of British Columbia (from which I graduated in 1997) has long been praised and rebuked locally as both a great institution and a great paradox -- described alternatively as generous and selfish, confident and insecure, benign and arrogant. Beneath its cool placid surface, the search for truth, justice and enlightenment contend unceasingly with the drives for prestige, power and profit. Any incoming president will likely find the new job to be politically complex and turbulent, but rarely dull. At first glance, Stephen Toope appears ready for the formidable challenge that he sought.

Toope's installation ceremony will be held at the Chan Centre on Friday, September 29 at 10 a.m., by invitation only, but the public can watch a live webcast at

Stanley Tromp is a Vancouver-based journalist and regular contributor to The Tyee. Read his previous stories here.

Monday: Outgoing UBC president Martha Piper talks to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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