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In some respects, he symbolizes the strength of his alma mater - and its hopes for the future. Robert Birgeneau, the University of Toronto's new president, graduated from U of T's St. Michael's College in 1963. Then, like so many promising young minds, he headed south to do graduate work.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 20, 2000

University Rankings

MEDICAL DOCTORAL: University of Toronto

In some respects, he symbolizes the strength of his alma mater - and its hopes for the future. Robert Birgeneau, the University of Toronto's new president, graduated from U of T's St. Michael's College in 1963. Then, like so many promising young minds, he headed south to do graduate work. At Yale, he emerged as a top-flight physicist. He later joined the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he rose to become dean of science and won international recognition for his research. Now, the gangly grey-haired virtuoso wants to earn the same global acclaim for Toronto, vowing to build it into one of 10 top public-research universities in the world. "We're already the leader in Canada," says Birgeneau, 58. "But as a matter of national pride, Canada should have at least one university among the world's best."

Ranking first in the medical-doctoral category, Canada's largest university might be forgiven for resting on its laurels. With 32 libraries, 6,200 faculty and an endowment fund that exceeds $1.2 billion, it already offers unparalleled opportunities. But Birgeneau is not stopping there. Only months into his mandate, he has raised the university's fund-raising target to $1 billion by 2004, and is overseeing the progress of several key projects. The creation of the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre is designed to make Toronto a world leader in biomedical and genetic research, while the $88-million, state-of-the-art Bahen Centre for Information Technology will clear the way for an expected doubling of enrolment in computer science and computer engineering.

With 52,000 students spread across 10 colleges, the prospect of further growth might scare some prospective applicants. But like the diverse city that surrounds it, the university is a community of many communities. "I rarely cross campus without encountering someone I know," says Liza Miller, a 22-year-old engineering student from Trinidad. University life offers abundant opportunity to learn both in and out of class, adds Peter MacLeod, 22, a political-science student from Cambridge, Ont., and the brains behind The Big Rink Project, a 15,000-square-foot, doughnut-shaped ice surface set up last year in the heart of the downtown campus. "U of T," says MacLeod, "offers an enormous stage to learn and to grow."

Birgeneau's priority is to ensure that this special environment is accessible to all. The university guarantees that no qualified student will be refused admission or forced to quit for financial reasons. Last year, an impressive $57 million was spent on student financial aid; next year, it is expected to reach $75 million. In the coming years, Birgeneau is committed to improving the student experience. He has set up a committee to consider significant changes to the undergraduate curriculum. The results could expose students to a wider range of disciplines and give them more time to choose their specialty. "We have to rethink what constitutes an educated person," he says. "We want to train people who are going to be leaders in the 21st century." Clearly, the University of Toronto is already on the cutting edge.

COMPREHENSIVE: Simon Fraser University

When Wai-Kay Ho-Ching graduated from British Columbia's Port Moody Secondary School last year, her grades in the mid-90s gave her a choice of universities. What she was looking for, instead, was a choice of futures. "I didn't know what field I wanted to go into," the 19-year-old recalls. Now in her second year at Simon Fraser University, Ho-Ching has narrowed her search down to computer science. But on a campus where thinking outside the academic box is actively encouraged with a focus on cross-disciplinary studies, more choices lie ahead. Before graduation, Ho-Ching can continue to follow her interests, expanding her computing knowledge by using it to study other fields, from philosophy to crime. "I came here," Ho-Ching says, "because there was a lot more freedom."

Simon Fraser University, placing first in the Comprehensive category this year, has long valued freedom. Founded amid the liberating ferment of the 1960s, it continues to pride itself on breaking down academic barriers. But the Burnaby, B.C., institution has matured into one of the country's leading centres of scholarship. "The Maclean's criteria measure some important things," acknowledges president Jack Blaney, whose university reclaims first place this year after slipping to second in 1999. Still, Blaney believes one factor more than any other explains Simon Fraser's perennial top showing: "Good faculty. We have recruited exceptionally well. We've recruited people who've had offers from the Big 10 universities in the United States." The rankings bear out his boast: SFU faculty score highly for academic awards and research grants.

Simon Fraser is blessed with something else: good students. Minimum entering grades at SFU have been creeping steadily up: it now takes at least 82 per cent to get into an arts program, and 89 per cent or better to enter engineering studies. But among the academic barriers Simon Fraser takes pride in trampling are rigid entry regimens. Second-year anthropology student Jonas Salzberg has particular reason to be grateful. His parents' jobs at the University of British Columbia meant that he could have studied there for free, but his marks on provincial exams were half a point below UBC's requirement. Simon Fraser looked further and also considered his high achievement in creative writing. Salzberg calls Simon Fraser's decision to accept him "the best thing that ever happened to me."

Students find other reasons to like Simon Fraser. The university has some of the country's most successful athletic programs. When he's off the mat pursuing his degree in criminology, Olympic gold medallist Daniel Igali hangs his wrestling shoes in a beige SFU athletics-department locker. The university's exceptionally well-connected co-op work/study program is another winner in the eyes of many. Wai-Kay Ho-Ching's sights are set on a co-op placement like the one her older sister, Wai-ling, also an SFU computer science student, had last summer: as a program manager at Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash.

With a dramatic but isolated hilltop setting, Simon Fraser University is very much a commuter campus, and most students find their focus is firmly on the books. Access will improve in 2002, when a light-rail transit connection from downtown Vancouver reaches Simon Fraser's doorstep. (Students will still have to take a shuttle bus up Burnaby Mountain.) Within 18 months, 4,500 new homes - many with rental suites aimed at students - will begin to rise on campus land, in a development that should lead to more after-hours services.

Challenges lie ahead for Simon Fraser. As its ambitions expand - especially in lab-intensive fields like engineering - SFU's Arthur Erickson-designed quarters are still elegant, but feel increasingly cramped. Competition for topflight teaching talent is getting tougher, too, as all universities grapple with a generational rollover in senior faculty. How will SFU hold its own? Chemistry department chairman Mario Pinto has wooed a half-dozen academic stars by stressing something SFU doesn't have. "We're not fettered by tradition," he explains. "We can offer programs very differently." Don't think that matters? Just ask Salzberg or Ho-Ching.


Monday at 1:30 p.m. and the lair of the Wild Toads, a second-floor laboratory in Mount Allison University's Barclay Chemistry Building, is already hopping. Inside, eight students busily mix compounds and test their abilities to cure cancer, heart disease and anemia. Blind Melon blasts from the CD player; a collection of goofy snapshots of former research-team members - the Wild Toad Wall of Fame - takes up one corner. The Toads themselves, who sport nicknames like "Boom Boom" and "Acetone Girl," eschew traditional white lab coats for what looks like the latest rave wear. But the lightness of mood in the room belies the seriousness of the research: while they search for the newest miracle drugs, their 37-year-old guru - a bearded chemistry professor named Steve Westcott - bustles around the room, kidding and cajoling as much as he instructs. "My job," he says, "is to make research fun for these guys."

When it comes to looking after the needs of its students, few do it better than the tiny Sackville, N.B., university school that has topped the Primarily Undergraduate rankings for nine straight years. The lab scene speaks volumes about why Mount Allison is so clearly the head of its class. There is, for starters, the precious intimacy that makes for a close-knit campus. At Mount Allison, with its belief in the overall development of the student, as much emphasis is placed on learning in the lab and studio as in the classroom. The school also ranks number 2 in its category in terms of first-year classes taught by tenured faculty. Despite its small size, the university's faculty even comes in fourth in science and medical research grants. And, with an $80-million endowment fund sitting in the bank, keeping the Wild Toads in test tubes is not likely to be a problem anytime soon. "It sounds corny," declares Caeli Lynch, a 22-year-old science student from Toronto, "but anybody who comes here is a lucky kid."

Since Ian Newbould took over as president in 1991, he has turned around a university that was $3 million in debt and running an annual deficit of $2.5 million. Newbould ordered tough cutbacks. That earned him enemies, but also wiped out the debt by 1994 - and allowed the university to spend $50 million sprucing up the campus throughout his tenure. More important, says Newbould, who steps down next summer, being in the black means that Mount Allison can afford to keep its academic standards high and its student numbers low - 2,267 this year - while clinging to its liberal arts and science roots. "The real challenge for my successor," he says, "is to resist the temptation of mediocrity."

Having some of the brightest students to choose from should help the new president. Mount Allison's average entering grade for incoming students is the highest in its category. The school has produced a long list of Rhodes Scholars - the highest on a per capita basis of any university in the British Commonwealth. Says fourth-year science student David Norman, a member of the Wild Toads who hails from Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld.: "Mount A. is a place where students can grow and thrive, where everyone is part of everything."

Maclean's November 20, 2000