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The blindfolded walk is the foundation of Cornerstone taken by every first-year student at Quest University. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The blindfolded walk is the foundation of Cornerstone taken by every first-year student at Quest University. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

PROFILE

The great experiment: Quest University’s radical step in higher education Add to ...

I'm blindfolded and barefoot, standing on a cool mossy patch with one arm grasping the trunk of a hemlock tree in a futile attempt to feel somewhat secure. The forest is quiet except for a river flowing nearby. Suddenly the oppressive silence (I’m a dedicated urbanite) is broken by the sound of a slow drum beat seemingly hundreds of metres away. I reluctantly let go of my hemlock and take an uneasy step toward the sound.

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Toran Savjord, vice-president, operations and development of Quest University and leader of this exercise, has assured me and my 13 classmates that making our way through the forest in this manner will be worthwhile. We’re meant to reflect on how it feels to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and how we can tackle any challenge no matter how uncomfortable or unfamiliar. The students later describe the experience as meditative, enjoyable, even revelatory. All I can think of as I paw my way over logs and roots is how gross it would be to have a slug squished between my toes.

For the past 10 days I’ve joined a class of first-year
students at Quest University to get a firsthand taste of the unique education offered at this unusual school. Little did I know when I began this assignment that, in addition to reading Rousseau and relearning how to calculate square roots, I would gather firewood and jump in a glacier-fed lake. It has not been a week of armchair journalism.

To reach Quest University, drive an hour and a quarter north from Vancouver to Squamish (population 17,000), take a right, and head into the mountains. You’ll find the campus, which boasts a panoramic view of glaciers and craggy peaks, just before the road ceases to be paved. The scenery is not the only thing that is far from ordinary at this five-year-old university. The student body, at 430, is tiny. The focus is entirely on undergraduate education. Tuition is $29,000. Instead of typical semester-long courses, students study in intense, month-long interdisciplinary blocks. Quest is Canada’s only private, non-profit, secular university, and arguably its most radical experiment in higher education since the university expansion and transformation of the 1960s.

The blindfolded forest escapade is part of a two-day outdoor segment of Cornerstone, the first block taken by every Quest student. Most of the outdoor activities require working as a team to solve some problem. For example, we rigged up a contraption with twine and bungee cords to haul and pour a bucket of water while staying five meters away from it at all times. For the culmination of our two-day adventure, we lit a fire on one side of a fast-flowing river, swam across − helping each other when necessary − while the strongest swimmer carried hot embers to restart the fire on the opposite bank: Part rite of passage, part Survivor U.

The intent, as Savjord explains during a debriefing session with the class, is to raise issues students will encounter during their education: things like communicating effectively, dealing with frustration, trusting others, asking for help, problem-solving from different perspectives and reasoning out solutions before acting. If it seems like the stuff of cheesy corporate team-building retreats, you’re on to a defining feature of a Quest education: it’s about much more than the hard facts of a disciplinary expertise.

Quest was conceived by David Strangway, a physicist and former long-time president of the University of British Columbia. When he retired in 1997, he launched an ambitious undertaking to build a new university according to his view of what an undergraduate education should be. Strangway believed that most universities in Canada fall victim to mission creep: small, teaching-focused schools strive to become large research institutions in pursuit of funding and prestige. Instead, he wanted to create a school where professors are rewarded for teaching excellence rather than their number of published academic papers.

My experience in the Cornerstone class reveals hints of the founding philosophy behind Quest. Within 15 minutes of the first class, the 18 students and two professors are deep into a debate about the definition of nature. “Are we assuming humans don’t belong to nature?” one student chimes in. “Ahh!” says David Helfand, a leading astrophysicist from Columbia University and president of Quest since 2008. “Well, is my laptop part of nature?” He goes on to explain his mechanistic view of nature, which provokes another student to argue with him.

In the block system, there’s no time for dilly-dallying; by Day 11, students have read three books and multiple short pieces, written two essays, analyzed science and philosophy papers, created a model predicting otter populations, written a report about the feasibility of a proposed hydro project to power the campus and tackled other assignments. The coursework ping-pongs between reading the Book of Genesis and the novel Homo Faber to gathering field data and deconstructing scientific arguments – all designed to show students different approaches to the theme of humans and nature. Class discussion replaces lectures, collaboration is encouraged, and quantitative reasoning and critical thinking are expected.

Strangway expected to welcome Quest’s inaugural class in 2001 or 2002, but setbacks plagued the project. He struggled to sell the concept to British Columbia’s New Democratic government, which viewed private education as analogous to two-tier health care. Having rebuffed public funding, he had to raise an initial $120-million from private sources. The university’s seed funding was in part a real estate gamble similar to how Strangway built UBC’s endowment by developing campus land into high-end
residential, so Quest’s financial future looked shaky when housing prices softened just as it finally opened its doors in September, 2007.

Without the safety net of public funding, Quest charges much higher tuition fees than other universities. So its biggest test was whether its teaching model was exceptional enough to lure students. At first, students and their parents were skeptical. Seventy-four students enrolled in 2007, less than half of the 160 target.

Now, five years later, those days of uncertainty seem to be over: 560 applicants vied for 156 first-year seats in 2012, an 84-per-cent increase in applications over the past three years. Although Quest’s principal funder, geologist Stewart Blusson, had to extend funding from four years to 10, the school is now on track to be self-sustaining by 2015. While some Canadian universities initially resisted recognizing Quest degrees, graduates have since been accepted into competitive programs, including law school at the University of Calgary and a PhD in physical anthropology at Stanford.

When Quest faculty are asked about indicators of success, they usually first mention their students. In the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), in which most Canadian universities participate, Quest routinely outperforms every other school. For example, in 2011 according to surveyed fourth-year students, Quest scored 69 on the benchmark for student-faculty
interaction, more than 20 points ahead of the next highest scoring school, Bishop’s University, and more than 28 points above the average. Large research-intensive universities such as the University of Alberta, McGill
University and the University of Toronto typically scored in the low 30s.

“Even when we’re working on technical tasks, like building mathematic models in Excel, students ask great questions,” says my Cornerstone professor James Byrne, who taught at Princeton before joining Quest in September. “They are extraordinarily engaged.”

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