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University of Victoria president leaves a lasting legacy

For 13 years, David Turpin has been working to raise the profile of the University of Victoria. So it’s probably no surprise that the university is using his departure as president this month to further those efforts.
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University of Victoria president David Turpin at First PeopleÕs House, one of 18 new buildings established during his time at the helm of the school.

For 13 years, David Turpin has been working to raise the profile of the University of Victoria. So it’s probably no surprise that the university is using his departure as president this month to further those efforts.

To that end, there is a 20-page booklet and companion video marking the school’s accomplishments during his reign. A Celebrating Discovery dinner for alumni, business leaders and non-profit organizations was held in the Crystal Ballroom at the Fairmont Empress last week to further highlight the school’s successes. And, in case anyone didn’t get the message, a Celebrating Shared Achievement event and ice-cream social will provide additional emphasis this Friday, when the university wraps up its 50th anniversary celebrations and bids a final farewell to Turpin.

The more than $40,000 worth of promotions and events is designed to market UVic, attract more money for student scholarships and strengthen the school’s relationships with its community partners.

In many ways, the strategy mirrors Turpin’s efforts over the years to elevate UVic to national and international prominence.

Friends and colleagues argue that Turpin has been instrumental in the school’s transformation from regional university to leading research institution.

This week, the British magazine Times Higher Education ranked UVic the top university in Canada under 50 years of age and among the top 20 in the world.

“His leadership really helped to catapult UVic from, I would say, an also-ran position nationally and internationally as a research player to a prominent player,” said Martin Taylor, who served as vice-president research for seven years under Turpin.

“Under his leadership, we established a number of peaks on our plateau, a number of areas where we really excel, where we have a niche nationally and internationally.”

Critics complain that the school has also adopted the trappings of a private company, where over-paid managers are increasingly focused on finances rather than education.

But Taylor says the institution now conducts leading research in oceans, climate, addictions, genomics and proteonomics and other disciplines in large part because of Turpin’s ability to loosen government purse strings.

“David has a very engaging style. He’s forceful enough without being arrogant or aggressive. It’s a fine balance to strike. But he strikes it very well.

“As a consequence, when he leaves the office of a deputy minister in Ottawa or Victoria, they’re not saying ‘I don’t want to talk to him again.’ They’re more likely to say, ‘There’s somebody that’s part of a university that’s going places that we’d like to support.’”

Board chairwoman Susan Mehinagic puts it down to Turpin’s ability to inspire. “I’ve just seen rooms think something wasn’t a good idea and all of a sudden think it is a good idea.”

The money has flowed in over the years: $200 million for Ocean Networks Canada, $90 million for the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions — the single largest endowment to a university in Canadian history — $10 million for the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

In the process, the university opened 17 new buildings on campus to house the research projects as well as its expanding faculty, which has grown by 300 to 860 — more than half of whom arrived after Turpin did in 2000.

Construction of an 18th building — the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities — was briefly stalled after UVic came under attack for failing to properly consult with the public. The university eventually reduced the size of a controversial parkade and the $75-million centre is now slated for completion in 2015.

Other new buildings on campus include a number of residences so that students from across Canada are guaranteed a place to live during their first year. The school now has the highest percentage of out-of-province students of any university west of Quebec.

Meanwhile, the university moved to more than double financial assistance for undergrads from $4.5 million a year to $10 million, said Lori Nolt, director of student awards and financial aid. “[Turpin’s] role in reducing financial barriers is a really significant part of his legacy here,” she said. “We get to say yes to students more often than we did years ago.”

Indigenous students, in particular, have benefited from increase support. Enrolment has grown tenfold from fewer than 100 students when Turpin arrived to more than 960 today.

Taiaiake Alfred, director of the Indigenous Governance Program, said UVic leads the country in the number of indigenous faculty, their prominence and the breadth of what they teach. He also cites the building of the First Peoples House on campus as a major achievement.

“Initially, the university was resistant to it,” he said. “I don’t think they believed that it could be built and they didn’t really see the rationale. I think Dr. Turpin was in that same camp — very cautious and not convinced that this is a thing that would be benefiting the university.”

But over time, and after advocacy by indigenous faculty, Turpin came to see that it would benefit both students and the university, Alfred said.

“If you look at the increase in the hiring of indigenous faculty members, the support for the growth of indigenous programs and the building of [the] First People House, his tenure has to be looked at as a success.”

Not everyone, however, is enamored of the changes on campus in recent years. Union and faculty leaders, while reluctant to criticize the president directly, bemoan the increasingly corporate style of his administration.

Melissa Moroz, a labour-relations officer with the Professional Employers Association at UVic, says that style has emerged as governments have reduced support for post-secondary institutions. She said the university has been forced to replace government money with new sources of revenue, such as higher tuition, donations and more foreign students. In the process, Moroz argues, education has become less accessible for students, who often are paying more for less.

“In many ways, they’ve restructured under president Turpin’s leadership into a more private-sector model,” she said, pointing to the “astounding disparity” between the compensation of front-line workers and senior executives like Turpin, who earns a base salary of $373,700 a year.

Doug Baer, president of the UVic Faculty Association, said faculty are among the lowest paid in the country and the growing divide with administrators will come to a head this fall when members vote on whether to unionize.

“The developments over the decade have involved a change in the campus community from a community that was pretty collegial ... to one where that isn’t the sense,” he said.

Mehinagic acknowledged that the board of governors is concerned about the divide between faculty and the administration. But she and Taylor, Turpin’s former vice-president, say the tensions have more to do with budget constraints than the president’s leadership.

“You’re catching a mood of the moment,” Taylor said. “Don’t overplay that. These things come and go. There are cycles and we have to live with them, and naturally, a faculty association is doing its job in saying, ‘We wish it were better.’ ”

Taylor points out that Turpin has been a strong voice urging greater investment in post-secondary education. He was a key spokesman last year for the “Opportunity Agenda” put forth by B.C.’s research universities that recommended government create a space for every student, increase financial assistance for students in need and support research.

So far, the B.C. government has yet to respond, despite warnings that the province will face a shortage of skilled labour in coming years. It remains a sore point for Turpin as he prepares to leave his post.

“I have to be honest,” he said, “I feel some frustration that what I think is pretty much apparent isn’t being responded to at the provincial level.”

UVic understands that the province faces economic challenges at the moment, he said. “But universities, and post-secondary education generally, are absolutely critical to the success of British Columbia and this country. In my view, there’s never been a more important time to maintain investment.”

It’s crucial, he said, that politicians never forget the vital role of post-secondary education.

“Universities are where the current generation learns the ideas of the past, and universities are also places where the current generation generates ideas for the future. And that’s why universities are so important. They’re absolutely critical for the development of a just and caring democratic society and for support social, cultural and economic development. That would be my advice to politicians: Don’t forget the importance of universities.”

Over 13 years, he has made it increasingly difficult for politicians or anyone else to forget about UVic, and he leaves, he says, with a sense of pride in the school’s stature and attitude.

“Today, there’s a sense of confidence about the place,” he said. “People know this is a destination university, this a world-class institution where bright people from this region, from across the province, across the country and around the world come deliberately for an education.

“It’s that sense of confidence and self-assuredness that I’m really proud of.”