How a former UBC president and NASA geophysicist is building Canada's first private, liberal arts university
KEN MACQUEEN | Feb 27, 2006
David Strangway -- no woolly-headed academic, this guy -- is standing in the muck of a $100-million construction site in Squamish, B.C., oblivious to the pounding rain and the din of machinery. On a clear day, this hilltop redoubt offers a spectacular view of forest, glacier and the dagger point of Howe Sound. Today, without a hint of metaphor, Strangway's head is in the clouds. But his improbable dream -- Quest University Canada, the country's first private, non-profit secular liberal arts and sciences college -- is finally within sight. His eyes sweep across the raw brown scar of playing fields, the silhouette of the gymnasium, and a corps of hard hats stooped in the rain, as if pulling the skeleton of a building up from the mire. "This," Strangway notes, "says it's real."
Real enough to start hiring faculty for a planned opening date of September 2007. Strangway, 71, is the son of African missionaries, and a geophysicist by training. He has the kind of resumé that suggests all things are possible: teaching stints at MIT and the University of Toronto; chief of the geophysics branch at NASA during the days of the Apollo moon missions; 12 years as president of the University of British Columbia, where he oversaw a boom in construction. But analyzing the origins of moon rocks is one thing; if you want a challenge, try establishing a private university in the land of public education.
Strangway retired from UBC in 1997, with the aim of having a small liberal arts college open by, oh, 2002 at the latest. This proved a tad optimistic, lacking as he did both money and land. He hit, however, a motherlode of skepticism, and a slag heap of genteel academic hostility. The Canadian Association of University Teachers warned a private institution could undermine public education and open the door to foreign, for-profit degree mills. The provincial NDP government of the day likened it to the horror of two-tier health care. But today, the critics are largely silent. Strangway would like to think they're won over by the visionary power of Quest's academic plan. Or it may just be that Quest is too small a fish to fry. It will open in 2007 with 160 students -- less than some first-year classes at UBC -- aiming for 640 students by 2010. "This is not a threat to the public institutions," says Strangway. "In fact, we're likely to be major feeders into their graduate programs."
Squamish, pop.16,000, located on the Sea-to-Sky Highway midway between Vancouver and Whistler, has lost hundreds of railway and forestry jobs in recent years. It sees the university -- a $30-million-a-year operation -- as key to an economic shift to tourism and knowledge-based employment. "Even with everything going on in the [Sea-to-Sky] corridor with the 2010 Olympics, I still feel that Quest is probably the biggest thing that's going to happen to Squamish," says Mayor Ian Sutherland, a native of Fredericton. "I grew up in a university town and I know the impact it has."
Quest is financing construction without public money. It has permission to develop 960 units of market housing on its hilltop site. Its foundation has also received millions in donations, including a gift, believed to significantly exceed $30 million, from geologist Stewart Blusson, co-discoverer of a massive diamond deposit in Canada's North. The university hopes to raise millions more for a scholarship program to bring the annual cost of tuition and board(estimated to be $25,000-$30,000)more in line with public institutions.
Why does the country need a pint-sized private university? Strangway is smitten with the high standards and broad sweep of U.S. liberal arts colleges. It was while working at NASA that Strangway began to appreciate the linkages among disciplines. He hopes to attract half the students from Canada and the U.S., and the rest from around the world. The draw, he hopes, will be the intimate size of the campus -- with an unheard-of student-faculty ratio of 10:1 -- and a restless curriculum: from plate tectonics to neuroscience; from economics to bioethics. The courses, a first in a Canadian university, will be studied one at a time, in 3 1/2-week blocks, allowing an intensive focus. Strangway believes only private institutions can set the kind of uncompromising standard of excellence he wants to achieve at Quest. "Yes, it will be tough," he concedes. "But if you have an ideology that basically says only public universities are appropriate, you're going to miss the chance to reach for the stars." The moon, he might have added, has already been taken.
To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org