Clad in cap and gown, seated in the Farquhar Auditorium, a new class of university grads listened to five distinguished alumni – a photographer, a CEO, an athlete, a grand chief and an author – reflect on their experiences at the University of Victoria.
UVic president David Turpin heard a distinct theme emerge during that November convocation ceremony.
“Each one of their successes was a result of two things: how to work with people and how to look at things in different ways,” said Turpin, whose words could be applied to his tenure at the university, which draws to a close in 2013.
But Turpin, the biologist who moved from his post as the academic vice principal at Queen’s University to the sixth president and vice-chancellor of UVic in 2000, is reluctant to philosophize on his personal accomplishments at the university. Instead he looks at the goals and challenges his successor, Jamie Cassels, will inherit.
UVic, a fixture of Maclean’s magazine’s top universities list upheld it’s academic reputation in 2012, but hit a low among some faculty and staff when names, banking information and social insurance numbers of 11,841 employees on UVic’s payroll were stolen last January.
“Clearly it was a very unfortunate incident,” Turpin said. “It caused a real disruption to our employees. What we’ve learned is something that other institutions are emulating. Unfortunately, we were the ones to which this breach happened, but we’re trying to take the lessons that we’ve learned and allow others to benefit from them.”
When the breach faded from the headlines, the institution was left with a new set of security protocols to meet, along with outreach, infrastructure and funding goals for the future. Meeting those needs amidst a climate of cutbacks will be the biggest challenge, he added.
Goal No. 1: Outreach
Attracting new students, underrepresented students and local students, continues to be a top priority. Progress has been made, but there’s still much further to go.
“If you look back 10 to 12 years, we had about 80 Indigenous students and now we have over 800. That’s really a hallmark of the University of Victoria: reaching out to underrepresented groups, encouraging them to attend and supporting them to succeed.”
No. 2: Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities, CARSA
UVic’s new $59-million home of the UVic Vikes and sports and recreation programs, is also the headquarters for CanAssist, a university organization that develops customized technologies and programs for people living with disabilities. After a year of tumult, Saanich council okayed the design for the centre, including the now-notorious CARSA parkade plan – a detail that Turpin is able to laugh about despite the stalled planning process that finally drew to a close last September.
Site preparation is to begin in 2013, with completion of the first phase planned for spring 2015.
“One of the things that you learn in a job like this is it’s all about communication,” Turpin said. “It doesn’t matter how good a job you think you’re doing, you can always do better and I think the outcome of the CARSA initiative was very positive. We ended up developing a new consultation mechanism that I think will serve us well into the future.”
No. 3: The Opportunity Agenda for B.C.
This October, Turpin joined forces with his counterparts leading post-secondary institutions across the province, to ask the B.C. Legislature’s standing committee on finance for system-wide commitment toward improving post-secondary education. The strategy calls for ample space for every student, increased financial funding and support for research.
“We know that we are not educating as many people as we should at the post secondary level,” Turpin said. “We don’t want to see any student in this province not have access because of financial constraints.”
Turpin, a father of two university students, regularly meets with the UVic Student Society directors and has been impressed with the commitment and enthusiasm from the student leaders. While he doesn’t appear terribly invested in the student-led initiatives – he chuckles while acknowledging the gender neutral washrooms and the water bottle ban within the Student Union Building – Turpin is up on the campus news and supportive of student action.
“One of the things that I see from myself and my colleagues is when their kids end up going to university, they get a very different appreciation for the institution and it allows you to see it through some other eyes,” he said. “It makes all of us feel all the more committed to making this the best institution that we can.”
Linda Hughes, chief executive officer for the United Way of Greater Victoria, got to know Turpin through his time as chair of the fundraising campaign cabinet. Hughes commended Turpin on his leadership, and understanding for the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their communities.
“He’s a good communicator, he’s open and he sees the value that the university is not just a thing unto itself,” She said. “It is a part of the community and it goes both ways. The people who work and teach at the university live in this community, so they’re a part of this community.”
Part of that vision has included support and expansion of the University 101 program, in which professors volunteer their time to teach not-for-credit courses that wouldn’t otherwise be available to those outside the university.
More than a half a million visitors come to UVic to engage in cultural activities, sporting events and lectures each year. It’s an institution that opens its doors to the public and encourages people to take advantage of the resources, Turpin said.
“We’ve got a decline in the youth population,” Turpin said. “There’s a need for the next generation of talent and the university is a way to bring those students here.”
Turpin was selected from a field of 46 candidates for the position in November 1999. Turpin, 43 at the time of his appointment to UVic, was hailed at as one of the top plant physiologists and biochemists in the world. His list of honours includes the Steacie Fellowship, election to the Royal Society of Canada, membership in the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Turpin was born in Duncan in 1956 and obtained a bachelor of science in cell biology and later a PhD in botany/oceanography from University of British Columbia in 1980. He served as head of the department of botany from 1991-93 at UBC before serving as the dean of arts and science at Queen’s from 1993-95.