The business community to the rescue of the research community

Tuesday’s UBC Board of Governors meeting was the best I’ve witnessed in my last four years on the Board. A worthwhile agenda loaded with potentially transformational items, a great display of sound “governing” by the Governors, a magnificent presentation by the CEO of Mitacs, Arvind Gupta, on the state of Canadian innovation and the potential role of post-secondary education in its future, and much more. Each item deserves a blog post of its own, but the mathematical muses have been calling, so an abbreviated version should do for now.

One of the agenda items was, of course, dear to my heart – a UBC Housing Action Plan that “my” task group is overseeing. Under the leadership of the extraordinarily competent Nancy Knight, the folks at UBC’s Campus and Community planning had prepared a comprehensive analysis of the options at hand. It was a moment that the Board should always be proud of. I will.  Claims that UBC is only building condos for millionaires will never again be tolerated.

On several projects submitted by the Administration, the Board demonstrated exactly the right amount of push-pull.  To me, it was a textbook example of how Boards should function. It was important that the pushback was coming from the appointed members, who are mostly representatives of the Business community. I loved it!

Arvind’s presentation and the ensuing discussion was another highlight. I kept asking myself: why is he making such an impact? The impressive Mitacs success story is of course part of the reason the presentation was so well received. That he had data on the tips of his fingers to showcase the strength and weaknesses of Canada’s record on productivity and potential made it both credible and enlightening. His passion and long personal quest for a better Canada through education, training and entrepreneurship, coupled with a laser-sharp academic analysis of what needs to be done, is rare to see at such an “empowered” level.

But it was the level of interest and participation in the room that made my day. What a pleasure it is to find oneself surrounded by a group of knowledgeable, successful and committed people who care so deeply about Canada’s global outlook. Most had already made it and climbed the success ladder, but it was the future and the well-being of the country that mattered.

Then came Arvind’s two notes of gratitude to the Board. The first was for its role in bringing Mitacs to UBC, and the second for the opportunity of “stealing” Brad Bennett, the previous chair of the UBC Board. Both items got me thinking.

First of all, I had to tell the Board that the move to UBC was also the best thing that ever happened to Mitacs. Why? Because the relationship between Mitacs and the universities is complex and fraught with potential pitfalls, and only Stephen Toope could make it as simple and as seamless as it now looks. Indeed, it is seldom that an ordinary president is able to understand and tolerate, let alone facilitate, that an organization such as Mitacs works for the benefit of all Canadian universities, without any preferential treatment for its host university. Not trivial at all! Stephen Toope understood early on that Mitacs should not be stifled by a counterproductive territoriality, requesting total loyalty to its host institution at the expense of a national agenda. Toope understood that Mitacs should be working for all of Canada’s postsecondary institutions, and that UBC wins if and when, all of its sister institutions do too.

Last but not least was Arvind’s reference to the importance of having prominent members of Canada’s business community involved in overseeing, if not managing, all of our institutions for advanced education and research. As he was mentioning Brad Bennett, an impressive member of the British Columbia Bennett political dynasty, who has been a tremendous Chair of the UBC Board, and who is now playing an equally impressive role as Chair of the Mitacs Board, I thought of Karen Prentice.

For the past 3 years, Karen has been the chair of the Board of the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS). And what a treasure she has been. It suffices to say for now that the world’s scientific community owes her… big time.

Another prominent Canadian will soon take over the BIRS chairmanship. Karen helped us recruit him for the cause of overseeing, promoting and – let’s say it – “protecting” BIRS. Unfortunately, you may have to wait a bit more to know the new Chair’s identity. All that I can say for now is that the BIRS Board is extremely fortunate to have another great leader of both the Canadian sports and business communities join us – a self-made man who has spent countless hours giving back to the communities lucky enough to have him.

And as I was announcing the scoop to my wife today, she smiled back and said that she also has news for me: Ryan Kesler had just committed to be a spokesperson for one of the many social issues she cares about personally and is involved in professionally. “What man is a man who does not make the world better?”

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2 Responses to The business community to the rescue of the research community

  1. Greg says:

    Hi Nassif,

    I check your blog regularly for updates on the UBC faculty housing action plan, as it appears the university is not doing much to regularly update (this is the first I have heard about the meeting). I am happy to hear the Action Plan was brought before the board though. Can you comment more on what went on at the meeting, the next steps in the process, and a potential timeline for when the board might actually move on the issue so I can update the other faculty concerned about the issue?


    • Ghoussoub says:

      Sorry Greg for not answering earlier (I was planning to, then forgot!). The final decision of the Board on which options to go for, will be announced in September.

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