Can UVic be a global brand? A Q&A with president Jamie Cassels

UVic President Jamie Cassels | BCBusiness

Cassels grinds with Chip and schmoozes with the PM in a bid to build a national profile

University of Victoria president Jamie Cassels is on a mission to press flesh and even sweat for the sake of his institution. Today he’s fresh from a 7:15 a.m. Grouse Grind with Chip Wilson—his first time meeting the Lululemon founder (and enduring the hike, for that matter)—and a recent meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper surrounded by UVic’s new technology in Nunavut.


1. “I’ve always loved Indian food so I enjoy going to Vij’s restaurant for dinner (1480 W. 11th Ave., Vancouver).”

2. “The best coffee in Victoria is Discovery (various locations) so I’ll try to go there—my favourite is Americano or cappuccino.”

3. “I go to Swans Hotel & Brewpub (506 Pandora Ave., Victoria). It’s a craft brewery and, well, we own it, a gift from a local developer.”

“Chip’s a friend of the university, so it was a nice way to chat—and if the prime minister wants to see some of your science, then the president of the university better go,” says Cassels of UVic’s cabled ocean observatory, which features an instrument to measure ice thickness and sensors measuring temperature and salinity, based at Cambridge Bay. “It was a great opportunity to profile the university, and even in this digital world there’s still nothing like rubbing shoulders with people.”

The 58-year-old Cassels—who has been at UVic since 1981, first as a law professor and dean, then vice-president academic and provost before becoming president in 2013—was also instrumental in creating the Akitsiraq Law School in Iqaluit in 1999, a partnership between the university and the surrounding northern communities.

Thinking nationally, indeed globally, is in his DNA. As Cassels notes, 70 per cent of the university’s 21,000 students now hail from off-island, with increasing numbers from China. “It’s interesting that our reputation to some extent is stronger in other parts of the country and world than it is in B.C., solely because Victoria is not a media centre. We do need to get out and broadcast the university.”

Part of that push is what brings him to Greater Vancouver today, to put his school on a media map dominated by UBC and SFU. While he calls his Vancouver counterparts “fantastic,” he’s quick to throw somewhat of a gauntlet. “Quite frankly, we can go toe-to-toe with them any time,” says Cassels, mentioning the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, where UVic rose from the unspecified 201-225 section to 173 (based on such assets as teaching and research), while UBC slipped from 31 to 32 and SFU stayed at 226-250. “We’re good, so I have to go against my own grain and do what I just did now which is brag about the place.”

Beyond UVic, Cassels argues that a university education is as crucial as it’s ever been—despite the provincial government’s drive for more LNG training programs and fewer funds for liberal arts. Universities should be in business for the long game, not just for shorter-term economic plans.

“We need it all,” says Cassels, who lives with his lawyer wife Erin Shaw in the capital (they have three children aged between 15 and 23). “I don’t see it as binary; we need to de-stigmatize the trades because it’s a fantastic pathway for lots of young people, but LNG is going to bring as many opportunities for university-trained people like accountants, geophysicists, environmental managers as it is for the trades.”

While the Toronto transplant has a degree in law and philosophy from Carleton University, a bachelor of law from Western and a master’s from Columbia, he says he’s surprised to have ended up in academia.

“My career path was wonky—I had a philosophy degree and yet I was exploring uranium,” he says, laughing, of his year in the mid-’70s working in the Yukon bush for the Geological Survey of Canada (he also canoed in parts of the Northwest Territories before it became Nunavut). “I was just a young man exploring different paths, but I was attracted to law and then something during my law degree just lit me on fire.”