The luxury of learning

Ann Dowsett Johnston June 21 1999

The luxury of learning

Ann Dowsett Johnston June 21 1999

The luxury of learning

Ann Dowsett Johnston

As chief of geophysics at NASA in the early ’70s, he was involved in astronaut training, experiment selection and choosing a landing site for the Apollo missions. During his 12 years as president of the University of British Columbia, he shot for the moon as well, taking the art of fund-raising to new heights. So why, at 65, is David Strangway investing his considerable energy in creating a small liberal arts institution—Canada’s first non-religious private university—in Squamish, B.C., of all places? A jewel of a school, charging as much as $25,000 in tuition, in a struggling coastal logging town halfway up to Whistler? Even Strangway appreciates the irony. “It started with the vision,” he confesses. “I spent a number of years in the U.S., specifically on the admissions committee of MIT, and I became aware of the extraordinary uniqueness of the American liberal arts colleges and the quality of their graduates.”

Three weeks ago, that vision grew roots: Amon Lands Ltd., a Vancouver-based real estate investment firm owned by the Tiampo family, offered 400 hectares of land in Squamish to serve both as a campus and an investment stake. Scheduled to open in 2002, the yet-to-be-named university will use 40 hectares for its campus and housing, selling the remainder to jump-start capital and an endowment. Within weeks, Strangway will be hiring both architects and a senior academic official. But the academic blueprints are already in place, modelled after such American schools as Cornell and Colorado colleges. Both use the so-called Block Plan, immersing students in a single subject in 3V2-week stints.

Given the rotational nature of the program, Strangway believes that he will be able to attract major international figures as guest faculty. He is promising a 10:1 faculty-student ratio, with a maximum of 1,000 students, half of whom will be drawn from other countries. All graduates will be required to master three languages: one Asian, one European and English. And since the school will operate year-round, students could potentially complete an undergraduate degree in two years. “There is an enormous societal pressure to study something that gets you a job,” says Strangway. “We will be grooming global citizens whose career-entry point will come later.” Peter Emberley applauds Strangway’s initiative as “the most exciting thing happening in liberal arts in this country.” A particularly interesting opinion, given that Emberley, 42, has resigned as director of the elite College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa. Emberley was the founding director of that program, the one who created the curriculum and cherry-picked the students—who had an average entering grade of 86 per cent last year. A political philosopher, he has just returned from a one-month teaching stint at Colorado College—where Strangway himself went shopping for

ideas last summer. While Colorado charges $32,126 in annual tuition, it has an endowment of $430 million and offers financial aid to 56 per cent of its students. The richness of such an experience—exemplary faculty, lectures by Nobel laureates, a superb offering of cultural events—impresses Emberley. What is so remarkable about Strangway’s plan? “Having successfully convinced business of the value of the liberal arts,” says Emberley, “he’s now restoring what lies at its heart: the notion of a small, scholarly community. It’s particularly bold and creative, given the current focus on business and applied studies.”

That learning-earning connection has become paramount to many students. As the cost of higher education has soared, we have witnessed a generational—perhaps societal—shift in how we value a university experience. Last spring, when applicants to Ontario universities were asked to rank their main reasons for choosing a particular school, getting a high-quality job was a top priority. Meanwhile, corporate and political players alike have been tooting the vocational trumpet.

Still, in a knowledge economy, a country’s major resource is what sits between its citizens’ ears. Need it be said that all are not drawn to computer engineering or commerce? Champions of a liberal education may cringe when they hear the language of the marketplace being used to underscore its value. But does it hurt to remind the public that, at its best, a liberal arts degree hones critical thinking, teaches the most transferable skills of communicating and problem-solving? This year, Dalhousie University in Halifax launched its Career Portfolio program, designed to help arts and science undergrads identify the skills they are in the process of developing.

What happens to a society that devalues areas of study that lack obvious professional links? Statistics may tell us that the death of the liberal arts has been greatly exaggerated. Traditionally, Canada has the highest enrolment in the humanities in the OECD. But as fees force stricter choices, many high-school students have come to view a liberal arts education as a privilege, rather than an option. How do we account for those potential philosophy or literature majors who, spooked by the spectre of student debt, steer themselves elsewhere? How many donors are willing to follow in the footsteps of financier Hal Jackman, who handed $5 million to the University of Toronto last fall—for the humanities?

When Strangway opens his doors three years from now, the elite will be lining up to take their places—along with a small group on scholarships. “In the long run,” he vows, “we will be the best-endowed Canadian university on a per-student basis.” Translation: for a handful of fortunate students, the learning will be rich, and the world will unfold as it should.