From coast to coast, a celebration of academic excellence at three Canadian universities
From coast to coast, a celebration of academic excellence at three Canadian universities
In a darkened room on a busy corner of the University of Toronto sits a million-dollar piece of magic. In the lingo of those in the department of materials science and metallurgy, it is known as a high resolution scanning electron microscope. But that prosaic name does not begin to render due homage to the awesome power of the device, which permits mere mortals to peer at—and manipulate—the basic building blocks of all matter. And there is nothing quite like it anywhere else. “Certainly not at Oxford,” says Dr. Martin Castell, a research scientist from the British university who has crossed the Atlantic Ocean just to tinker with the machine. “You can see right down to a single atom,” explains graduate student Simon Kim as he uses the microscope to examine the atomic structure of a computer-enhanced chunk of aluminum. “It’s one of the things,” he adds, “that make this place such a great university.”
With 51,000 students taking classes in 300 undergraduate and 81 doctoral programs, and a faculty that includes Nobel Prize-winning chemist John Polanyi and political scientist Thomas HomerDixon, Toronto is an intellectual powerhouse. And for the fourth consecutive year, it tops the list of Medical/Doctoral universities in the Maclean’s annual ranking. While renowned in many areas, the “essential ingredients” of its success, in the words of president Robert Prichard, are threefold: “a stunningly strong faculty, an incredibly diverse and academically well-qualified student body and
the resources to ensure we remain one of the finest public research institutions in the world.”
There is perhaps no better illustration of Toronto’s strengths than the impressive electron microscope. It was acquired 18 months ago as a result of the concerted efforts of Douglas Perovic, 35-year-old chairman of the department of materials science and metallurgy. Perovic obtained the bulk of the money required to purchase the device by winning a prestigious grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. That, in turn, allowed the university to help retain its place on the cutting edge of advanced materials research. And perhaps most important, says Perovic, “it is available to students in their second year—it’s not one of those exotic pieces of high-level gear that remains locked away from undergrads’ hands until it is safely obsolete.”
That commitment to students is cultivated in faculties across the main campus as well as at two suburban ones, in Mississauga and Scarborough. English literature and philosophy major Manav Ratti, 22, remembers being struck on his arrival by the fact that “a lot of the people I had read were right here on the faculty, suddenly available for me to listen to their views, and just as prepared to listen to mine.” At the University of Toronto, accessibility and excellence combine to make a first-rate institution of higher learning.
Perched atop Burnaby Mountain, Simon Fraser University enjoys one of the most spectacular views in Canada.
Northward lies the blue heart of the Coast Range. To the south and east stretch the townships of the Fraser Valley. Past busy Vancouver harbor, the sun gilds the surface of the Strait of Georgia. Yet Simon Fraser is known not only for its views, but for its vision. “Our first strength is our faculty,” asserts acting president Jack Blaney. “In research and teaching, but also in attitude, we have a university where we think anything is possible.” That spirit of adventure pervades both the main campus, and satellite institutions far from the mountain peak. Harbour Centre, opened in downtown Vancouver in 1989, now serves 2,200 students a year, half of whom study part time. In a unique partnership with the Shuswap First Nation, Simon Fraser operates a campus in Kamloops, 250 km to the northeast. And the university’s well-established distance-learning program uses telephone lines, home computers and television to teach 7,100 students across British Columbia. But however far it reaches, Simon Fraser is a university determined to stretch itself ever further. “It’s important to keep being innovative,” says Blaney. “The major challenge is not to rest on what we’ve done.”
That commitment to excellence has put Simon Fraser University at the top of the list of Comprehensive Universities in the Maclean’s annual rankings for the second consecutive year. And in its 34-year history, Simon Fraser has pioneered not only new ways of reaching out, but imaginative opportunities for inviting people in. Its long-standing trimester system accommodates students whose schedules conflict with more traditional timetables. Ian Yagi, a third-year student of political science, lessens his course load in the fall and winter semesters, making up the difference in the summer. That leaves him ample time for extracurricular work with the Japanese Cultural Society and the university senate, where he is a student representative, as well as easing the burden on the health of the 22year-old diabetic. ‘The system gives the most flexibility,” says Yagi.
In the fall of 1995, meanwhile, Simon Fraser became the headquarters for the national TeleLearning Research Network, whose goal is to explore the potential of high-tech, on-line communication. Among its projects is Virtual University, which joins 750 students and 25 researchers at 12 test sites. The university is also a leader in co-operative learning where students alternate more traditional course work with relevant job experience.
The past year has seen both new successes and important setbacks for Simon Fraser’s reputation. Engineering Prof. Tim Colling received acclaim when his V-chip channel blocking device was accepted as the industry standard across North America. And the university’s acquisition of an original copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species confirmed Simon Fraser’s commitment to amassing top-notch academic resources. But the school’s policy on sexual harassment came under scrutiny when administrators first fired and then rehired swim coach Liam Donnelly, who had been accused of harassment by student Rachel Marsden. Now, uncertainty hangs over the man who first dismissed Donnelly: Simon Fraser’s board of directors will decide in December whether to allow president John Stubbs to return to duty when a six-month medical leave expires.
But storms have struck the hilltop before. And with Darwin, Simon Fraser clearly believes it is the fittest that survive. For one thing, the controversial harassment policy is undergoing a comprehensive review, to be presented to the university senate in December. Meanwhile, a new venture will see market-value housing built on campus, with the aim of developing a yearround community of full-time residents, and extra shops and services for students. That is another demonstration of Simon Fraser’s determination to reach out from the mountaintop, and take a leading role in the world at its feet.
"W” ▼ ▼hen Montreal-area native Eric Lapointe was huntB * / ing around for the best place to pursue a bachelor of
M /B / arts degree, he had two clear priorities. First, he l/l/ wanted a university with a reputation for academic W W excellence. But just as important, Lapointe, who then ? ? spoke mostly French, hoped to find a campus, and a
community, where he could immerse himself in Canada’s other official language. Mount Allison University, in picturesque Sackville, N.B. (population 5,400), fit the bill on both counts. Because of the school’s small size—it has 2,209 students—and an impressive student-professor ratio of 16:1, Lapointe says he has received the kind of personal attention that would be unthinkable at much larger institutions. Now in his third year, and well known on campus as a star running back with the Mounties football team, Lapointe is equally enthusiastic about the residents of laid-back Sackville, who have helped him in his quest to become bilingual. “Everyone is so friendly,” he says. “If I have difficulty expressing myself, people take time to listen and help.”
Mount Allison, ranked the top Primarily Undergraduate school in the Maclean’s university rankings for the sixth consecutive year, prides itself on providing a first-class education. “One of the secrets of Mount Allison’s success is that it has refused to grow,” says president Ian Newbould. “Another is that we put all of our energy, all of our resources, towards undergraduate students.” And as it has faced up to government cuts, 154 year-old Mount Allison has chosen to continue to play to its historic strengths in the liberal arts and sciences—a tradition that has helped produce more Rhodes Scholars per capita than any university in the British Commonwealth.
Last year, the university’s senate agreed to eliminate two programs—a post-bachelor teaching diploma and an engineering program—so that money could be allocated elsewhere. In 1996, officials launched a five-year campaign to raise $20 million. The money will be mostly earmarked for scholarships and bursaries: while Mount Allison is selective about the students it accepts—looking for academic achievement and a strong involvement in extracurricular activities— Newbould wants to ensure that money is never a barrier. “We’re not out just to get the rich kids,” he says.
Over the past five years, Mount Allison has also plowed $25 million into refurbishing and augmenting many of its decaying sandstone buildings. (Ironically, because of problems with Sackville’s water supply, residence students have been periodically plagued this fall with black, silty muck dripping from their shower taps). As well, every classroom and residence room has been wired to the Internet. But in the end, it is the intense interaction between staff and students that sets Mount Allison apart. As Lapointe puts it: “You are not just another number in your class. You never feel like a nobody here.”
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