This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 23, 1998
University Rankings 1998
Medical/doctoral: University of Toronto
Fourth-year molecular genetics student Rachel Geddy is spending her free hours injecting a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish into plants. Cross-fertilization? You might say that. In the world of genetic research, it is becoming ever more common to splice together the living strands of seemingly unrelated flora and fauna in the hope of finding that elusive cure, or a plant that can withstand the temperature extremes of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the same technique that the University of Toronto is trying to achieve on a grand scale with the whole field of genetic research. Not content to rest on its laurels, the University of Toronto has set its sights on a brand-new Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, a powerhouse facility that is to harness the gene-divining talents of three faculties: medicine, applied science and engineering, and pharmacy. "We are not trying to reinvent the university around some trendy flavor-of-the-month topic," says president Robert Prichard. "We believe in the depths and discipline of vertically organized departments. But at the same time, we want to use every trick available to bring about collaboration across those disciplines."
Some trick. According to Cecil Yip, vice-dean of research in the faculty of medicine, the new $80-million facility, with its multi-department focus on basic genetic research, will be the only one of its scale in North America. According to the students, it can be built none too soon. The existing labs in the Medical Science Building are fine, if a little cramped, notes grad student Vanita Sood, 25, with a sly smile: "In some of the stairwells, you can smell the lab animals on another floor." The university is known for its broad range of collaborative study, says Sood. But both she and Geddy, 22, agree that it is still not easy to track down the right mentor or guest seminar when they are scattered about so many buildings. Says Geddy: "You have to make a lot of effort to find out what is going on."
The new health-sciences facility, awaiting a funding decision from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is the biggest single project to spring from Toronto's $400-million fund-raising campaign, something that itself dwarfs the total budgets of most Canadian universities. But everything about the University of Toronto is big, with its roughly 53,000 students, 3,000 academic staff and 32 libraries - not to mention block after city block of stone and mortar. It is easy to overlook the university's intimate side: tiny Trinity College with its 1,400 students; the rule that mandates at least one 20-student seminar with a tenured professor for first-year students; the crowded workbenches in the genetic research lab that make neighborly courtesy an academic necessity.
The proposed new genetic facility is designed to house up to 70 researchers and their teams - a third from outside the faculty of medicine. Its biggest attribute, says Yip, is that "it will give us the ability to recruit." It may also form the marker for other departments that want to scrabble together scarce research money for common projects - including those in the not-forgotten liberal arts. Courtesy of a soon-to-be-announced $5-million gift from financier and U of T chancellor Hal Jackman, the university will put together a $15-million endowment for the humanities - again, the largest of its kind in the country. This special fund will finance a movable feast of five chairs in departments that want to compete - or collaborate - for the honors. "It's where I wanted to leave my money," says Jackman. "You can have a university without professional schools. But you can't have one without arts and sciences and humanities. That's the essence of the place."
Comprehensive: Simon Fraser University
The autumn, when many students first get to know their new school, is unkind to Simon Fraser University's hilltop campus. The stunning view of Vancouver and its suburbs, spread out like a twinkling play rug at the foot of Burnaby Mountain, is blotted out beneath a blanket of vapor. The campus buildings - interlocking planes of glass and incised grey mortar - look like a star base from a distant galaxy. Most of the time it is very, very quiet. "On some days, you're right up in the clouds," admits Catherine Connors, 28, who spent 3½ years on campus earning her honors BA in political science and communications. But that very isolation may be one small part of Simon Fraser's strength. "The environment really encourages interaction among students and faculty," says Connors. "That's what makes it such a nurturing community for learning."
It is a mission Simon Fraser tackles with zeal, and with a break-the-rules personality rooted in its beginnings. Shortly after it opened in 1965, political ferment on the new campus led to a student occupation of the administration office. Since then, Simon Fraser has made pushing the limits of convention, calendar and geography into a core institutional value. "What differentiates us," believes president Jack Blaney, "is attitude. It is far more open. And that really does go back to the Sixties."
The Burnaby university was an early pioneer of three-semester classes, and offers one of the country's widest range of co-op programs - two ideas aimed at making it easier to earn both a degree and a living. It places a priority on interdisciplinary research. No fewer than 15 academic specialties are co-operating in one current attempt to put a price tag on such costs of international migrations as the Canada-U.S. brain drain. The university has also steadily reached out from its mountaintop retreat to downtown Vancouver, where the Harbour Centre satellite campus delivers 15 per cent of all SFU graduate degrees, and to dozens more-distant communities in the B.C. Interior, through remote-learning programs. Like many, Connors took advantage of the university's accommodating approach to transfers from community colleges, completing two semesters at Vancouver's Langara College before enrolling at Simon Fraser. After following her interests across several disciplines at SFU, she jokes: "I think there's a little of everything on my transcript."
Reaching out is only part of the story, of course. Simon Fraser also rises to the top of the rankings by reaching up. Its research activity rivals older and larger institutions with large affiliated faculties. Simon Fraser has no law or medical school, but its scientists are breaking ground in the search for a vaccine against HIV. Working with an international group of scientists from several disciplines, molecular biologist Jamie Scott is discovering ways to prompt the human body to selectively produce only antibodies that will be most effective against the virus that causes AIDS. "The group of people they have collected here," says Scott, "is fabulous."
For all the university on the hill is plainly doing right, Blaney maintains there is much it can still do better. A wave of retirements among its faculty in the next few years will force Simon Fraser to find creative ways to compete against better-funded U.S. institutions for the brightest and best academics of the future. Other improvements are more prosaic. "We should have more students in residence," says Blaney. "And we will." Simon Fraser has developed a strong sense of community, despite having one of the smallest populations of resident students of any Canadian campus. Blaney wants to change that by doubling residence spaces to 2,500.
Sometime early in the new millennium, the community on Burnaby Mountain will take on yet another form. And for perhaps the first time, it will be a conventional one. Up to 4,500 open-market residences and a commercial centre are to be built inside the campus ring road, transforming the commuter campus, for the first time, into a true, round-the-clock neighborhood. "It's going to make the campus a very exciting place," enthuses Blaney. Some might say it already is.
Primarily undergraduate: Mount Allison University
When Ian Newbould took the presidential reins seven years ago, Mount Allison University was $3 million in debt and running an annual deficit of $2.5 million. The cutbacks he introduced to eradicate that red ink were anything but popular: Newbould endured two bitter strikes by faculty and unionized support staff. Today, his name still evokes anger in certain corners of the leafy campus in Sackville, N.B. But, with the debt now paid off, Newbould feels vindicated. "You don't get your fiscal house in order because you want to have a tidy-looking bottom line," he says with a note of triumph. "You do it because of what you can achieve once you reach that point."
This year, Mount Allison hired 12 tenured professors, and the university brass have spent $30 million in the past seven years sprucing up the campus. Being out of debt means something even more basic for the school: Mount Allison can afford to keep its academic standards high, while clinging to its liberal arts and science roots. "I went to a small, intimate high school," explains Allison King, 21, a fourth-year political science student from Upton, Mass., whose father and uncle are alumni. "I wanted a place where I would feel comfortable and not overwhelmed."
With 2,146 full-time students, Mount Allison is a veritable metropolis compared with the tiny school founded by Methodist Christians in 1839. But the administration has resisted the ever-present pressures to increase class sizes, add new faculties and open newly minted graduate programs. The end result: a remarkable level of academic achievement that stretches back decades. Mount A. boasts 41 Rhodes Scholars, the highest on a per capita basis in the British Commonwealth. Its alumni include artists Mary and Christopher Pratt, playwright John Gray and Purdy Crawford, chairman of Imasco Ltd., who also serves as head of the school's $20-million fund-raising campaign.
The quality shows no sign of waning. This year's crop of freshman had an average entering grade of 83.8 per cent. Competition is fierce: despite the tuition fee of $4,040, one of the highest in the country, 2,000 students applied for 650 places. No Canadian university attracts a larger percentage of out-of-province students. And those travelling to Sackville know what they want: a small, quality school where the student is encouraged to flourish. Vancouver-born Sam Millar, 22, a fourth-year economics and art history major, is president of the student union, as well as a member of the board of a local economic development corporation. In previous years, he has been a member of the campus cross-country team, news director at CHMA, the campus FM radio station, as well as a member of World University Service of Canada, an international development agency. "The atmosphere provides a real opportunity for excellence," says Millar. "It's about more than academics; it's about going to your professor's house for potlucks, and having opportunities you can't get anywhere else."
Despite its size, Mount Allison has all the resources to broaden the learning experience. Every residence and classroom is wired into the Internet. Its library holdings are second to none among schools in the Primarily Undergraduate category. With a $55-million endowment, Mount Allison can offer things that schools twice its size can only dream of. At the 103-year-old Owens Art Gallery, director Gemey Kelly's art history class is held amid Group of Seven oils, 19th-century seascapes and expressive abstract works from up-and-comers. "Sometimes, it's hard to believe we have all this, right here," marvels Kelly. Considering Mount Allison's reputation, maybe no one should be surprised.
Maclean's November 23, 1998