No Stephen O, the university can never live off its land

Stephen Owen, UBC’s vice-president, external, legal and community relations, is a man of high integrity, credibility, and respect, with whom I agree on most issues.  I however, happen to fundamentally disagree with some of his premises in his latest article in the Vancouver Sun, in defense of the new UBC land use plan.

In “Why UBC is building a community?” Owen succeeds in making a good case for why and how UBC can build a vibrant, lively, fun, and green community.  However, he blew it completely once he started talking about the financial rationale behind developing the land. He writes:

… Although those legislators couldn’t have foreseen the growth of the region, they did have an idea of how they could finance their educational ambitions. It was simple and it was elegant: land on the sparsely populated Point Grey peninsula. Build a university town and, as you do, use the proceeds of the land to pay for a better university that will in turn more rapidly develop the province economically and socially.

First, there is no conceivable way, in which the land proceeds can ever suffice to run a first class university such as ours. It is true that UBC’s property development has so far substantially augmented the endowment (almost $300M), and that the new development may add to that almost $30M every year (for the next few years), but this pales compared to UBC’s current operating budget of almost 1 billion dollars per year, most of which coming from the provincial government.

Why is it important to dispel this notion of “UBC living off its land”, at this very moment in time? Because, it is simply dangerous to mislead the BC taxpayer into thinking that the university is sitting on prime land, which can eventually make it sufficiently rich to be independent from provincial support.

Yes, the proceeds of the land development have been and will continue to be a substantial component of the university’s endowment. The latter will be used to improve substantially the student experience, and to help UBC move to the next international level in few selected areas of research and innovation, but this endowment will never be able to cover even a single year of operating funds that this major university righteously requires.

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