Befitting a school where international students compose a large chunk of the student body, Stephen Toope brings a global perspective to his job as president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia.
For one, Prof. Toope is a renowned international legal scholar and a champion of human rights. From 2002 to 2007, the Montreal native was North American and Western European representative on the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
He also has a topnotch international education. Besides two law degrees from McGill University - where he served as dean of the faculty of law - he holds an AB from Harvard and a PhD from the University of Cambridge.
At UBC, which Prof. Toope joined in 2006, he strives to foster communication between people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. In 2009, he launched a new strategic plan called Place and Promise, one of whose nine pillars is intercultural understanding.
By breaking down barriers to dialogue, Prof. Toope says, UBC gives Canadian students a crucial skill set. Applying those skills in our own culturally diverse society is just the start, notes the former president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which supports research in the humanities and social sciences. "As we get out into the world and we try to do our best in terms of international trade, we also have to understand cultural difference if we're going to be effective salespeople, marketers, tellers of the Canadian story."
When they pitch that story to prospective international students, professors and research partners, Canadian universities should think carefully about positioning, Prof. Toope says. On his frequent trips abroad, the vice-chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada faces questions about where UBC falls in the global rankings of universities.
In fact, Canadian universities do well: The University of Toronto and UBC placed 17th and 30th, respectively, in the 2010 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. But Mr. Toope notes that developing countries such as China are investing vast sums to improve their own post-secondary institutions.
To stay competitive, Canadian schools must decide where and how to exert global influence, Prof. Toope explains. "Universities across Canada are actually making strategic choices about major investments in certain areas where they can be strong, both in terms of our teaching and learning situation, and in terms of our research productivity."
Either way, Prof. Toope believes this country is well placed to attract the best foreign students, partly thanks to its resilient economy and public investment in advanced education. "We have a moment right now where Canada is relatively stable financially, where we have strong universities, and where if we make a very concerted effort to reach out to top students, we have an opportunity to attract real talent to our country."