Stephen Toope, President of UBC

Stephen Toope is a prize catch for President of UBC, which tapped him to take over from Martha Piper when she steps down as president on June 30.

Stephen Toope is a prize catch for President of UBC, which tapped him to take over from Martha Piper when she steps down as president on June 30.

Toope would seem to be tailor-made to fill the sizeable legacy left by Piper. During her 12-year tenure, Piper oversaw the development of UBC’s “Trek 2010” vision, pledging to prepare students to become “exceptional global citizens.” For the past four years, Toope has followed a parallel path; as founding president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in Montreal, he oversaw scholarships and programs aimed at encouraging dialogue between tomorrow’s leaders and today’s policy-makers in government and industry.

At only 48, Toope has an impressive track record in academics and human rights. He joined the McGill Faculty of Law in 1987, and in 1994 became the youngest person ever to be named dean. In 1995, Toope’s world was shattered when his parents were murdered in a random attack in their Montreal home by three teenagers. Despite media reports, he says his pursuit to further human rights began long before the senseless tragedy, which he declines to discuss. From 2002 to 2005 he served on the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and gained some notoriety in 2005 when he confirmed Maher Arar’s story of torture in Syria.

Having learned only in January that his name had been put forward for the position, Toope is now scrambling to pack up for the move. BCBusiness recently caught up with him by phone.

When did you learn you were in the running to be the next president of UBC? I was headhunted. I first learned that my name had been put forward in early January. They were looking at a whole bunch of names and had a long shortlist at that time, and asked whether I would be willing to be considered.

Have you spent much time in Vancouver? I’ve never lived in Vancouver, but I’ve known people at UBC and I’ve had ¬occasion to come out and speak at conferences. A number of people at the Trudeau foundation are in B.C. Philip Owen has served as a member of the foundation and Mike Harcourt was a mentor for some of our students. I was quite excited about what I was seeing at UBC and what I was seeing in Vancouver.

Was it a hard sell to your family? Not a hard sell. But it’s a big decision. My family has really been rooted in Montreal. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outside of the city, but my wife has lived here most of her life and we love Montreal, so we really did have to think that through. And we have three children aged 13, 11 and 9. We had to talk with them about issues around moving. Have you got a house in Vancouver? It looks as if we will be living in the house that is provided by the university. So luckily we don’t have to house hunt in Vancouver, which is a great relief.

Why did you leave your academic post at McGill in 2002 to become the founding president of the Trudeau Foundation? I never completely left McGill. I have been on leave and I continued to supervise graduate students when I was at the foundation. I also continued with my academic work and writing and publishing. That’s one of the reasons the job with the Trudeau foundation was very attractive to me – it expanded from the base of an academic life and opened up possibilities for stronger interdisciplinary contacts.

What would you say is the legacy you leave at the McGill Faculty of Law? First, I was very interested in a significant reconsideration of the curriculum of the faculty to make it more attuned to global realities. The second thing was building a brand new law library, which required a major capital campaign – at that time it was the largest capital campaign in Canadian law school history.

What’s your greatest strength as an administrator? I listen to people carefully, but I’m also decisive. I try to gain as much information as I can to form whatever decisions have to be taken, and try to listen to people who have something to offer, but I am comfortable making decisions. I’m also comfortable thinking in the longer term.

The outdated law building at UBC has been a bone of contention for years. Any plans to upgrade or replace the building? It is entirely dysfunctional. I hope that as part of the next phases of UBC growth we can work to create a new, far more congenial space for the law faculty.

Any plans to contribute to international law and human rights at UBC? I think that the UBC Trek 2010 plan really emphasizes the importance of trying to create students who become citizens with a global perspective. My background will build on the connections that UBC has already developed and, I hope, further the vision of UBC as a major international institution.

What about your own research, publishing and contributions to international panels? Realistically, given the nature of this job, I won’t have time to be involved in a more detailed way but I’ll always have a strong commitment to civil liberties and equality. So I’m sure that will infuse the work I do, and I hope it will, to some extent, infuse the university as a whole.

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend? Sadly, there aren’t enough of them. A perfect weekend might be bicycling with my children, going to see a museum with them. I love art. The only other thing that I would add is some time to listen to music and to read. I’m a classical music buff. I’m very interested in the Classical period, Mozart, Haydn. And contemporary classical music.