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Former UBC president David Strangway was celebrated as visionary

David Strangway of the University of British Columbia is shown in this November 1995 file photo. (CP PHOTO) 1997 (Files-VancouverSun-Nick Didlick)

Nick Didlick/Vancouver Sun / CP

A scientist and strategist, David Strangway left the University of British Columbia transformed in ways that still reverberate, including buildings such as the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and UBC's reputation for research excellence.

"I know a lot of university presidents, and he will go down as one of the best in the last 50, 60 years in this country," former UBC president Martha Piper said on Wednesday.

"He had a vision," Dr. Piper added. "A vision of what universities should be and what role they should play – not just within the province, not just within the country, but in the world."

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Dr. Strangway died on Tuesday. He was 82.

As president of UBC from 1985 to 1997, Dr. Strangway spearheaded new programs and strategic directions, such as developing campus real estate, building connections in Asia and securing research funding, including through the Networks of Centres of Excellence, which was founded in 1989.

Some strategies – such as courting private-sector donors and securing matching funds from the government – are now part of the administrators' playbook, but were innovative when Dr. Strangway pursued them, Dr. Piper said.

"He saw the role of research and academic inquiry and the need to turn up the standards and move the university from being a very acceptable provincial asset to world class," she said.

UBC's endowment has grown from about $100-million when Dr. Strangway came on board to about $1.3-billion today, Dr. Piper said.

Dr. Strangway championed a graduate course in entrepreneurship, pushed for new buildings and programs and was a tireless, well-connected fundraiser, said UBC graduate, venture capitalist and entrepreneur Haig Farris.

"He changed the university from sort of ho-hum to one on track to become a world-leading university," Mr. Farris said. "And he did it through innovation and hiring really smart people in many different faculties."

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Rick Hansen, a UBC graduate, says Dr. Strangway encouraged him before he started his Man in Motion Tour, a two-year journey to raise awareness of the potential of people with disabilities.

When Mr. Hansen got back in 1987, Dr. Strangway urged him to join UBC as an advocate for accessibility and spinal research, work that has gone on to encompass the Rick Hansen Institute, the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre and scores of programs and physical changes on campus.

"He was a motivator and someone who inspired people to think that they could achieve big things," Mr. Hansen said. "He brought me in and started me on a pathway that has become an incredible partnership with UBC."

Before joining UBC, Dr. Strangway, a geophysicist, worked for NASA during the Apollo space missions. He also was president of the University of Toronto.

After leaving UBC, he joined the Canada Foundation for Innovation, where he was president and chief executive officer between 1998 and 2004.

Dr. Strangway also founded Quest University Canada, a private non-profit liberal arts and sciences university in Squamish, B.C.

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Doing so required Dr. Strangway to surmount financial, legal and logistical challenges, says former Quest president David Helfand.

"The word 'visionary' often means someone who has grand ideas about the future which may or may not be achievable, and probably not by the person who has the vision," said Dr. Helfand, who last year returned to his former role as an astronomy professor at Columbia University in New York.

"The difference with David is … he had an absolutely meticulous understanding of everything one needed to know about the present to make that future come true."

Dr. Helfand's first contact with Dr. Strangway came in a cold call, in which Dr. Strangway peppered the American scientist with questions about his campaign to introduce a science class to Columbia's renowned core curriculum that all students take in their first two years.

That conversation led to the first of many trips for Dr. Helfand to B.C. and, ultimately, his stint at Quest University.

In a statement, Premier Christy Clark said Dr. Strangway's tenure at UBC is widely recognized as a turning point that transformed the university into a world-leading centre of research, development and learning.

Dr. Strangway was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1997.

"Throughout his distinguished career in the field of exploration geophysics, including the Apollo missions, his contributions as a researcher, teacher and author have been of the highest calibre," reads the citation announcing his appointment.

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