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UBC: The First 100 Years

By Herbert Rosengarten

Review By Patricia Roy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 166 Summer 2010  | p. 109-11

With its heavy glossy paper, large format, and copious illustrations, this looks like a celebratory coffee table book. To classify it as such would be wrong. Drawing on previous histories of the University of British Columbia (UBC), the student newspaper (the Ubyssey), the university archives, and oral histories, Eric Damer and Herbert Rosengarten have written an excellent overview of the history of UBC, its problems and controversies as well as its successes. They have set everything within the context of the histories of the province and of higher education generally. 

Those who have read Harry Logan’s Tuum Est, which commemorated UBC’s first fifty years, will be familiar with much of the early story, but Damer and Rosengarten, who acknowledge their debt to Logan, have taken a more analytical approach. Although they mention many individuals by name, lists of members of the Board of Governors, presidents of the Faculty Association, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), and other bodies are consigned to appendices (though the concluding chapters incorporate lists of donors and their projects). Biographical sketches of important individuals, such as presidents and noteworthy faculty, appear as sidebars, often written by scholars other than the authors. 

Damer and Rosengarten built their book around six themes: (1) the BC context; (2) government attitudes to the university, especially relating to funding; (3) administrative decisions; (4) the growing diversity of undergraduate studies; (5) the growth of graduate studies and research; and (6) student life. Because they had to paint with a broad brush, they regret their inability to give more attention to the ams (the student council) and the essential work of the staff, much of it behind the scenes. 

That the university has always depended on the good will of the government is abundantly clear. The vagaries of its funding reflect fluctuations in politics and a resource-based economy; increasingly, the government has encouraged ubc to seek more funding from philanthropists and industry. UBC was also subject to conflicting views of the value and nature of higher education. Was there a place for liberal arts or should the emphasis be on applied sciences such as agriculture, engineering, and nursing? As the university grew, especially in the two decades after the Second World War, new professional programs such as law, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, and education were added, and offerings in engineering and commerce expanded. At the same time the arts side grew with the addition of music, the fine arts, and more foreign languages. Although UBC has not neglected the teaching of undergraduates, during the war it began moving from being primarily a teaching institution to one whose faculty engaged in research on their own and with graduate students. That trend, which greatly accelerated in the 1960s, created conflict in the professional schools between advocates of “science” and those who favoured “practical” studies (190). 

Students and student life are an essential theme. UBC students have followed their motto, “Tuum Est” (“It’s up to you”), on many occasions in dealing with government, as, for example, in the Great Trek of 1922, which helped to convince the provincial government to open the Point Grey campus, and the “Back Mac” campaign of 1963, which persuaded the government to slightly increase the university’s grant. 

The number of students grew almost steadily from 379 in 1915, ubc’s first year of operation, to almost fifty thousand in 2008. In its first decade, UBC acted as loco parentis. When students failed, their parents were notified. By the late 1920s, despite concerns of deans of women (a position that was not abolished until 1978), the university was doing less to regulate the morals of its students, a policy that it could seldom enforce effectively. Hazing has largely disappeared, along with many traditions designed to foster school spirit (though some new ones were introduced in the late 1990s). Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, and again since the late 1980s, some students engaged in political protests, but conservatism generally reigned. In another respect, student life changed little. The text and illustrations capture much of the flavour of clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities. 

The demography of the student body has changed. Although female students were always present in significant numbers (except in engineering and a few other programs), by 1980 they were predominant in arts; formed about a third of the enrolment in commerce, medicine, law, and science; and were more than token numbers in engineering and forestry. The first students were “overwhelmingly Anglo-Canadian, Christian, and middle class from homes in Vancouver or the Fraser Valley” (40). By the late 1920s, a few Asians, Americans, and continental Europeans had enrolled. Since the Second World War, the student body has become more diverse as international students began arriving in number in the late 1950s and as immigration changed the face of the province. The student body in the first years consisted largely of the children of the business and professional classes, but, even in the 1930s, some children of blue-collar workers were present, as is illustrated by diverse complaints. Some objected to the lack of parking facilities; others, to long streetcar and bus rides. Despite special funding for students with limited financial resources, the offspring of the middle classes still predominate. Efforts to encourage the First Nations to attend have not fully succeeded: as of 2003, UBC had not reached its target of having one thousand self-identified Aboriginal students. 

In sum, putting up with the inconvenience of the awkward format of this physically heavy volume will repay the reader, who will come away with a great appreciation and understanding of how UBC evolved from a branch plant of McGill to a multiversity with its own satellite at UBCO in North Kelowna. And, incidentally, because of the broad context within which the book is set, readers will learn much about British Columbia’s history. 


PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 166, Summer 2010