Presidential beginnings

In 1913, when UBC was still at its Fairview campus on the site of today’s Vancouver General Hospital, Frank Wesbrook became the university’s first president after a long, judicious selection process. A Winnipeg native, he was the dean of medicine at the University of Minnesota before moving back to Canada to become UBC's president. He spent the first years of his tenure working with the provincial government to lay the foundations for the establishment of UBC. Before the outbreak of the First World War, Wesbrook was promised by the government almost unlimited funding, with the intention of making UBC a world-class facility for learning.

Photo via UBC

“Unfortunately, a little thing called the First World War got in the way,” said UBC archivist Erwin Wodarczak. “There was no money, no resources, no workers — and any company that would have bid for the work to build the university were brought elsewhere or were enlisted in the armed forces.”

Money was tight and financial markets were finding it hard to get the adequate funding to follow through on their plans. Eventually the government contributed the bare minimum required for the university’s construction, and thus UBC was born.

“Wesbrook was unique in that he came in in the very beginning,” said Wodarczak. “His public profile was very high, as his situation was that he was building the framework of the university.”

President Wesbrook was an excellent diary-keeper. Wodarczak’s project for UBC’s centennial included tweeting Wesbrook’s daily entries as though they were occurring in real time.

“He was incredibly busy,” said Wodarczak in reference to his documents. “I always find it amazing that he found time to sleep — his diary pages are almost always full of engagements, things to do. Sometimes what he writes for a particular day will go for five, eight or 10 messages of 140 characters each.”

The Twitter entries detail Wesbrook’s hectic work schedule — meetings, travel and professor recruitment — but also his chronic health issues.

“Wesbrook suffered from chronic gum disease during his entire tenure here,” said Wodarczak, noting one circumstance in particular where Wesbrook delivered a speech just hours after having multiple teeth pulled. “He didn’t think twice about going and doing his work as a university president as he saw it — which was growing and leading the university, and building its connections with the wider community.”

President Wesbrook passed away in 1918, shortly before the WWI armistice. His presidency was succeeded by his long-term friend and colleague Leonard Klinck, who had been a professor at UBC since 1914 and remained as president until 1944, shortly before the end of the Second World War.

UBC and the war

UBC students in uniform stand in front of Main Library (now Irving K. Barber Learning Centre) with Walter Gage, Leonard Klinck and Gordon Shrum.
UBC students in uniform stand in front of Main Library (now Irving K. Barber Learning Centre) with Walter Gage, Leonard Klinck and Gordon Shrum. Photo courtesy UBC Library

The Great War had a huge impact on UBC’s development. The economic boom that had lasted in British Columbia for a decade collapsed with the outbreak of war in 1914, and work on the new campus (to replace Fairview) was suspended. Students and faculty became involved in the war effort, with 697 members of the student body enlisted in the armed forces over the entire course of the war. Seventy-eight died in service.

Photo via UBC

Several UBC presidents were involved in the wars. Wesbrook was Officer Commanding in the Officers’ Training Corps in addition to his UBC activities, and Norman MacKenzie — UBC’s third president — fought in WWI and earned the Military Cross and Bar before beginning his own tenure as president. In 1915, military training was included in UBC’s curriculum for the duration of the war, and again in the 1940's for WWII. This training included proper gas mask use, physical fitness training and weapon handling. Students and faculty who were part of the army waived their army pay over a 15-year period to support UBC’s war effort. This money was used to build the UBC Armoury.

The Armoury was constructed in 1941 and extended into 1943 during Klinck’s tenure, costing the university a total of $79,000. Before its demolition in 1994, the building was used for registration, sessional examinations, AMS assemblies and graduation ceremonies. After its demolition, materials were recycled and used in the C.K. Choi building’s construction.

As Canada declared war in September 1939, president Klinck wrote in a statement:

“From the day of the declaration of war, the university has been prepared to put at the disposal of the Government all possible assistance by way of laboratories, equipment and trained personnel, insofar as such action is consistent with the maintenance of reasonably efficient instructional standards. To do less would be unthinkable.”

President Klinck was present at UBC for portions of both World Wars, and fulfilling his duties as president was not easy. The chronic shortage of funds following the First World War combined with a severe reduction in the university’s governmental grant after the Great Depression made his work consolidating the university more difficult than usual.

“He was president during the Depression when funding was cut again, then was here for the beginning of the Second World War,” said Wodarczak on Klinck’s drawn-out struggles during his 25-year tenure. “A lot of construction that was done at the time — the Old Gymnasium which was on the site of what is now Buchanan Tower, the original stadium which is where the old SUB is now and Brock Hall — that was all under his watch.”

UBC’s input in both wars was substantial, and affected the university both positively and negatively. While the post-war years resulted in an influx of veteran students, the financial impact the university suffered was significant.

Archives of The Ubyssey from the period show students' appreciation of Klinck’s leadership. By 1939 the university had its own 548-acre site, hosting 121 faculty and 2,520 students, and had taken a leading position in the intellectual life of BC. The high standard of the faculty, which was reflected in the scholarship and eminence of the students, was widely recognized as due to the leadership of Klinck.

Most popular presidents

The qualities of a great leader are debated thoroughly when selecting a new president for the university, and according to Wodarczak, the most successful presidents were those who interacted closely with students.

“Gage was one of the most popular presidents because he was here as a student, he was a professor, he was an administrator, he was a dean. He held just about every administrative position that you could think of, including that of president,” said Wodarczak. “He was well-known among the student body and was very generous with his time even as president. Even during his tenure as president he would always take the time to teach first-year mathematics.”

Although the task of teaching a full course might today be too much for a university president, UBC’s 15th and current president, Santa Ono, has hinted that he’d like to guest lecture across a number of faculties.

“It’s one way that I can remain active as a teacher,” he said in an interview with The Ubyssey. “If you don’t teach you get rusty.”

“Wesbrook was, of course, at the very beginning and he was very well-respected among students,” said Wodarczak, acknowledging that the university was so small in its earliest days that Wesbrook was able to get to know almost every student personally. “He also made a point of keeping in contact with students who went overseas as soldiers to fight in the war, and he was always remembered for that as well. He was remembered, loved and respected for the time he took and the interest that he took in the welfare of the students under his tenure.”

Sustenance and Growth

The role of the university president has remained largely unchanged over time. According to UBC’s website, the role of the president is said to be, with the framework and directions provided by the Board of Governors and the senate, to provide oversight and direction for the operation of the university. The University Act makes a president a requirement — someone who must be the chief executive officer and generally supervise and direct the academic work of the university.

Presidents are high-profile figures — prominent not only in the university bubble, but in the community that surrounds it. Wodarczak notes though that while their standing might be fairly steady, he finds their roles usually alternate between building and expanding the university, and consolidating past work.

“Wesbrook established the university, he was very involved, very high-profile — president Klinck was more of a consolidation and overseeing and guiding the university as it grew gradually over the 26 years of his tenure,” said Wodarczak.

He identified the other major periods of growth as during Mackenizie’s presidency near the end of WWII, John B. MacDonald’s time at the university, and David Strangway’s tenure — all of which involved either major expansions on campus or high levels of involvement in the community, leading to increased fund raising for research and development.

“In terms of high profile and involvement with the community it depended in part on the personality of the president and also on the times,” said Wodarczak.

Their high-level responsibilities mean that presidents generally are quite distant from the majority of campus. While Wesbrook may have been able to have a relationship with all members of the then quite small faculty and a rapport based on direct interaction with the student body, the president of UBC’s now 40,000-strong campus would have a much harder time.

UBC students in the mid-1920s.
UBC students in the mid-1920s. Screenshot via UBC Libraries.

The student-presidential connection is one that has been aided by social media in recent years. Within 24 hours of the announcement that Dr. Santa Ono would be taking over as UBC’s president in August, he had Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts where students could contact him.

Despite this, when looked at with a wider lens, the president is an impersonal figure to most members of the university community.

“The president is sometimes a very distant figure. So students aren’t necessarily dealing with the president — they’re dealing with various administrators at a lower level,” said Sheldon Goldfarb, AMS archivist.

Biggest Controversies

However, as distant as UBC’s president may seem from everyday student life, in times of conflict and controversy they are central as the bridge between the university and the wider community. Whether the issue of the day is a battle for funds with the provincial government or students protesting their lack of representation in university governance — the president has been fundamental.

This is evidenced in UBC’s latest presidential scandal — the abrupt and debated resignation of President Arvind Gupta. Gupta was hired in hopes that his entrepreneurial experience and unique background would allow UBC to grow more than a more academically-based hire would allow. Instead, a little more than a year later Gupta resigned and the university was embroiled in a crisis that led to the intense scrutiny of the system of governance and academic freedom more generally.

File Photo Cherihan Hassun / The Ubyssey

Arvind Gupta’s resignation wasn’t necessarily the biggest controversy to ever embroil the university. As Wodarczak argued to The Ubyssey, that occurred in the 1930's.

In the 1930s, the university’s budget was cut progressively deeper until 1932 when the entire university’s budget was $250,000. While that amount was still substantial (about $4 million in today's dollars, accounting for inflation), it was not enough for a post-secondary institution with a student body that numbered several thousand, with numerous budding major research programs. The distribution of those limited funds left Klink, who was a former dean of agriculture, with accusations of favouritism with some arguing he was biased towards his own field.

In 1932 both the Alumni Association and the Board of Governors gave a vote of no-confidence in the president. After a government enquiry, Klink was overall vindicated.

Unity was brought back to UBC when another government commission was launched to look into the university. That commission recommended that UBC shut its doors, and the money saved be used to provide students bursaries to study in other Canadian universities.

“That was probably the best time for that to happen to the university because ... it unified the whole community against that proposal and against the government and it brought everybody back together,” said Wodarczak.

Klink remained as president until 1944.

Not all of UBC’s other presidential controversies ended with the president staying on. Two presidents in the 1960s firmly resigned in relatively quick succession. Goldfarb noted that presidents Macdonald and F. Kenneth Hare left prematurely because of problems dealing with student activism in the 1960s.

Before the 1960s there were was next to no student representation on academic bodies such as Senate, business affairs such as the Board of Governors or student input in the evaluation of teachers. Students created teaching evaluations and pushed for a voice on campus.

“Students were for the first time saying, ‘In a democracy, majority rules — we should run the university,’” said Goldfarb. “Well, some of them — I mean the radicals.”

Both Macdonald and Hare were sympathetic towards students, but found it difficult to handle the pressure that they were facing from all sides.

For example, shortly after Macdonald’s appointment, calls were being made for more funding for the university. The students were (unsurprisingly) very supportive and launched what was known as a Third Great Trek — marching around campus holding up signs saying “Back Mac.”

Protestors in the Back Mac campaign in 1968.
Protestors in the Back Mac campaign in 1968. Screenshot via UBC Libraries

Given their new president’s commitment to raising more funds, Goldfarb noted that students quickly felt quite close to him, despite the fact that he was quite new and students didn’t really know him. Students saw him as so properly representative of them and their concerns that they asked him to come speak at their rally — alarming Macdonald.

“The students thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to support you — don’t you love that?’ and he’s like, ‘Don’t get too wild here,’” said Goldfarb.

While Macdonald made it through a five-year term (which was considered very short at the time), Hare quit after less than a year, saying he wasn’t cut out to be a university president.

UBC moves into its 15th presidency with a history of complex and diverse leaders. Its presidents have led us both into and out of troubled times as over the years, they fought through complete lack of support from the provincial government, student uprisings and two world wars. As we move out of another controversial time, UBC moves forward once more.