The Tried-and-Trusted Tenure of Stephen J. Toope

UBC’s outgoing president is described as outrageously smart, deeply principled, and highly personable. But his family won’t let it go to his head.

It’s late spring 2009 and a huge and luxurious bus has just pulled into the sprawling driveway at Norman Mackenzie House, the official residence of the President and Vice‑Chancellor of the University of British Columbia. On this day, that president is Stephen J. Toope, and his wife, Paula Rosen, has been told to expect an advance team preparing for the coming visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan. But while Rosen thought she was prepared, she is still surprised by the orderly army that is now disembarking the bus: “40 people in dark suits.” Later, she will admit that she learned the hard way that the Japanese Emperor and Empress are “very, very handled.” She’ll say that the seasoned staffers at UBC Ceremonies have told her the Imperial visit involved “more of a rigmarole than there was for Queen Elizabeth.” But on this day, Rosen is standing at her front door in a bit of a flap, trying to imagine what all these people might find behind the drapes and under the carpets of one of Vancouver’s most elegant and storied homes.

At which moment, another vehicle pulls into the drive, quickly disgorging a bulky and bedraggled high schooler. Rosen and Toope’s eldest and usually diminutive daughter, Hannah, is returning from a year‑end school camping trip, much of which has occurred on a mountain glacier – a location that was both much colder and much sunnier than Hannah had expected. As a result, she is still wearing layer upon layer of clothing – every stitch that she had brought for the trip, even her pyjamas as long johns – and her face is radiating evidence of a nasty sunburn. Dragging her gear, picking her way through the legion of perfectly pressed Japanese protocol officers, she walks up to her mother and says, “Can we not just live in a normal house?”

Even in such a frustrating moment, Hannah Toope would have understood the question to be rhetorical. She is, after all, the daughter of President Toope, whom Wikipedia describes, too narrowly, as an “academic, lawyer, legal scholar and pedagogue.” But he’s also a dad, and for the past eight years, a small but influential group has depended upon him balancing his duties as a de facto mayor of the City of UBC (daytime population, 60,000) with his evening and weekend role as peacekeeper in a house full of adolescent children.

The dignitaries Stephen Toope has met during his tenure include Queen Elizabeth II, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and the Dalai Lama.

It’s a balance he appears to have maintained with aplomb. Straying for the time being from home life, reviews of the Toope presidency are uniformly warm, perhaps best encapsulated by Dr. Nassif Ghoussoub, mathematics professor and, from 2008 to 2013, the faculty representative on the UBC Board of Governors. Ghoussoub says simply: “Stephen Toope is a class act. He’s a man of great personal and professional ethics and someone who is genuinely interested in everyone he meets.”

This, from a mathematician, may be taken as the standard polite and politic description of an outgoing senior administrator. Indeed, Ghoussoub admits his hard science bias when it comes to judging managerial potential, saying that he had been skeptical at first of a big‑brained intellectual’s ability to serve as the CEO of an organization as complex as UBC. And yet, “It was astonishing how well (Stephen Toope) handled this part of the job.”

“We often think that only scientists or engineers have the capacity for analytical thinking,” Ghoussoub says. “But we forget: lawyers are also very analytical.”

If you ask the president himself about his highest priorities or proudest legacy, he points to the efforts he made to enrich the undergraduate experience. For example, the quality of teaching is now included more strongly in assessments for tenure or promotion. The classroom experience has also been transformed. In an age when notes can be downloaded more easily than recorded in a lecture hall, more students are challenged to work together in class, to develop their critical thinking skills – to learn, in Toope’s words, “how to process information into knowledge, maybe even something you might call wisdom.”

But Ghoussoub says that President Toope was equally engaged in a host of university issues that were “not glamorous, but essential.” There was the expansion of student housing. There were major investments in deferred maintenance and a complex program to upgrade the university’s district energy system.

“No one will remember Stephen Toope as the guy who converted (the energy system from) steam to hot water,” Ghoussoub says. “But it was all part of a systematic, patient and purposeful effort to prepare the campus for the next 50 years. It was surprising that this intellectual thought leader has really concentrated on the nitty gritty.”

The apparent arts/science dichotomy comes up frequently in the way people describe the Toope approach and style. Ross Beaty, a mining entrepreneur and philanthropist who has donated close to $20 million to UBC, describes the experience of working with a then‑new President Toope to raise private‑sector funding for the Earth Sciences Building. (They ultimately raised $35 million, of which $10 million came from Beaty, directly or through companies such as his Pan American Silver.) “I had also worked very closely with (presidential predecessors) David Strangway and Martha Piper,” Beaty says. “They were both scientists and they both had a black and white, firm set of objectives, with the outcomes always clearly identified. With Stephen, it was more about balance, more of a discussion leading to a conclusion.”

Stephen is a very strong presence. He is outrageously smart and can be pretty intimidating. He also has an amazing level of preparation, notwithstanding the gazillion things he has to deal with.”

Although not in any way an acolyte of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Toope also incorporated a managerial style for which Trudeau was quite famous. Pascal Spothelfer, whom Toope recruited from the private sector to act as UBC’s Vice President of Communications and Community Partnership, says that in meetings, Toope’s approach was always the same: “He would let everyone else have their say before he made his comments. And then he would invite everyone to react.” Spothelfer goes on: “Stephen is a very strong presence. He is outrageously smart and can be pretty intimidating. He also has an amazing level of preparation, notwithstanding the gazillion things he has to deal with.” The consultative style seemed calculated to bring out the best from those around him.

Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Chair Sarah Morgan‑Silvester mentions Toope’s style as one of the things that convinced her to accept her role as UBC Chancellor. “It’s not often that you find people who actually, truly do listen,” she says. “Stephen always listened and then he asked really fantastic questions – not to demonstrate what he knew, but to probe.”

The other trait on which people agree is Toope’s deep integrity.

“He is a very principled person,” says Bijan Ahmadian, a former president of the Alma Mater Society (2010‑2011) who also served for a year in the President’s Office as a research assistant. “When (Prof. Toope) made a promise, you knew he would deliver,” Ahmadian says. “And it was easier to take a ‘no’ from Stephen, too, because you knew the decision was based in principle. People appreciate that in a leader.”

It’s thanks in part to Ahmadian that people also know Stephen Toope to be an incredibly good sport. In 2010, in a promotional effort to fill the Chan Centre for the first iteration of a reality show called UBC’s Got Talent, Ahmadian convinced Toope to join him in a duet if enough people bought tickets. The promotion worked and after sifting through half a dozen choices, the two decided to attempt the old Eurythmics song, “Sweet Dreams.” According to Ahmadian, “He’s a much better singer than I am, but I am a much better dancer.” The video evidence, which you can still find on Youtube, suggests that Ahmadian’s review is, at best, relative. It’s good they have day jobs.

Clearly, Toope is more at home on a provincial stage – or a federal one. Provincially, he represented UBC on the Research Universities’ Council of BC (RUCBC), including five years as chair. The challenge, there, was to represent the best interests of all members, including the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, the University of Northern BC, Thompson Rivers University and Royal Roads. “The amazing thing about Stephen is that he’s not subjective,” says RUCBC President Robin Ciceri. “He brings a huge component of rationality and objectivity and a unique ability to synthesize perspectives. He struck a perfect balance between being a leader and being an advocate for UBC, which garnered him a large amount of respect and regard from senior officials (on the council) and from politicians.” Thanks again to his ethical framework, “people trust Stephen on a personal level.”

After a long drought in new federal funding, Toope was instrumental in negotiating the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, in which the Harper government committed $1.5 billion to post‑secondary research in the coming decade.

That played equally well on the national stage, where Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada President Paul Davidson says Toope was seen, at first, to be carrying some troublesome political baggage. Although Toope points out that he has never been a political partisan, Davidson says the UBC president was still seen as “one of those Montreal Liberal elites.”

He’s unquestionably a Montrealer. He grew up there before heading to Harvard for his undergraduate degree, returned to study law at McGill University, and then returned again to teach at McGill after receiving a PhD from Cambridge. At age 34, he became the youngest Dean of Law in McGill history. As for being a Liberal, his most obvious association came when he was appointed as the first head of the Trudeau Foundation, which is non‑partisan by policy, but which carries a name that is anathema to the current federal government.

Stephen Toope meeting Al Gore in 2006.

Yet, Davidson says, “Stephen quickly established himself as a national leader. He worked tirelessly to promote UBC – in the context of excellence for Canada.” After a long drought in new federal funding, Toope, as Chair of the AUCC, was also instrumental in negotiating the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, in which the Harper government committed $1.5 billion to post‑secondary research in the coming decade. Davidson, who was party to much of the negotiation, says it was clear that the late federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty “reached out to Stephen out of a strong sense of respect.”

The respect was mutual: Toope says Flaherty was “a gentleman who was genuinely interested in the role of universities.”

Even so, it was a surprise to Ottawa insiders when the ultra‑partisan Tories invited Toope to the 2014 budget lock‑up, and another surprise when Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Toope to act on the government’s behalf in resolving a dispute with military veterans who had launched a suit in protest of the federal clawback of military pensions.

These, apparently, are the rewards that accrue to someone who likes a challenge and isn’t afraid of failure. Indeed, failure seemed a reasonable possibility when the president kicked off the start an evolution campaign, which was, at the time, the most ambitious university fundraising campaign in Canadian history – and linked it, for good measure, to the most ambitious alumni engagement effort. Both of these categories came with numbers against which the president was sure to be measured: fundraising of an almost unimaginable $1.5 billion and the engagement of more than 50,000 alumni in a single year – both goals to be reached by 2015. Toope steps down in the knowledge that the campaign has just crested the $1.3 billion mark with a year left to go, and that over the past year the university has interacted with more than 50,000 alumni – through their participation in activities such as student mentoring, dialogue around issues affecting our communities, and making financial contributions towards research that addresses something they care about. Barbara Miles, VP, Development and Alumni Engagement, says: “We had done our homework, and our models showed that this was possible although there were many unknowns. But to reach these numbers this early is just remarkable and something Stephen has dedicated himself to throughout. It really is a landmark legacy for him and UBC.”

It’s also remarkable, in light of these many pursuits, that Toope the professor continued to find time to conduct research and write on issues of international law and justice. His most recent book, with University of Toronto Acting Dean of Law Jutta Brunnée, is Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account, which won the American Society of International Law’s 2011 Certificate of Merit for Creative Scholarship.

Paula Rosen and Stephen Toope in the living room of Norman Mackenzie House.

Even more remarkable, he did all this while he and Paula Rosen were parenting the up‑and‑coming Toopes in the casual second living room of Norman Mackenzie House. Rosen, a speech pathologist and musician, might stand as the best evidence of Toope’s good judgment, a bright and vivacious foil to his more earnest persona. They met in Montreal on an evening when they had, by coincidence, each arranged to go to a movie with the same mutual friend. Toope says they stopped afterward for an ice cream “and Paula was doing impressions with a cow puppet; she is extremely funny.” It’s clear he was hooked in an instant.

“I can probably – sometimes – get overly serious,” Toope says, unable to get through even that sentence without making it judiciously conditional. “You could probably allow yourself to feel, ‘Here I am, this big, important guy – a university president.’” But no worries, “Paula makes fun of me.” And if she lets up, there are the kids. Although Hannah, now 21, has just returned to Canada from studying at the University of Edinburgh, Alex, 19, is at McGill and Rachel, 17, will be joining him there in the fall. So, when Stephen takes over the directorship of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, he and Rosen will take up residence as empty nesters.

They leave behind a UBC that is, in the words of Research Vice President John Hepburn, “unambiguously a world‑leading university.” This was not exclusively Toope’s doing, Hepburn says. “He was building on what Strangway and Piper had already done. But it became completely obvious during his time here that we are, without question, one of the leading universities in the world.”