Being the president of a large, modern university is often a thankless job. You persuade donors, placate professors, and chart out grand plans—but ultimately, there’s plenty of responsibility with very little direct power. In theory, a president is the head of a place that educates the minds of tomorrow and researches the great questions of today. In practice, the president acts like the CEO of a complex company, except quarrelsome shareholders surround you and the board of directors is changed based on the government in charge.
If you’re lucky, you last a decade, avoid major scandals and get two or three big things done. Then everybody forgets you.
And if you’re really lucky, years later they’ll name something on campus in your honour, which sophomoric students then will attach nicknames too.
Like “P.P. Fountain”
Today, UBC announced that the intersection of Main Mall and University Boulevard (containing a big honking fountain) will be named “Martha Piper Plaza.” No doubt, in the years to come, tens of thousands of students will pass by it daily in a hurry, thinking “OH GOD WHY DID I THINK HAVING BACK TO BACK CLASSES ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF CAMPUS WAS A GOOD PLAN?” And they’ll probably never think about who the fountain was named for, or if they do, probably assume it was an old person who gave money, if current UBC naming conventions are any future indication.
But every president worth his salt (sorry, Kenneth Hare! [sorry, readers, for making this piece even more impenetrable!]) gets something named in their honour, from roads (Wesbrook) to buildings (Klinck, MacDonald, Strangway, Kenny) to housing (MacKenzie, Gage). The decision carries a certain amount of symbolism with it, as something people will casually associate with the person for decades to come.
And in that sense, Martha Piper Plaza is both a wonderful tribute to UBC’s 11th President, in both a sincere and snarky way.
First the sincere: The UBC you know and love today is the vision of Martha Piper. The focus on being “world class”, the prioritizing of research, the international push, the partnerships far and wide, the intense branding—all things that came to fruition during Piper’s term as President. Also Bort. Oh, Bort.
(Please google “martha piper bort” now for understanding.)
When you imagine the “UBC experience”, whatever that is, it probably involves students heading to class on Main Mall, going to a shiny building of some sort, trying to balance class with being a global citizen of tomorrow… and something about passing Martha Piper Plaza along the way makes sense.
But, it’s also a fountain. A fountain with no practical value. A fountain that looks nice, has no offensive qualities, but if you took it away, nobody would really notice or complain.
(This is where the snark comes in)
See, while Piper was UBC’s President for nine years, her tangible legacy is actually quite short. The new things UBC did under her watch are relatively few, because it was in most ways a continuation of the reign of David Strangway, who was UBC’s President from 1985 to 1997.
Strangway saw a mid-sized university getting less and less money from the government, and decided the solution was selling large tracts of UBC land on 99-year leases, launching giant fundraising campaigns, putting a priority on research over undergraduate teaching, and made UBC one of the first North American universities to develop partnerships in Asia.
Those, more than anything, are the giant blocks on which UBC is built today, and Piper herself has admitted this, saying her main job was to continue Strangway’s legacy. Under Piper, UBC built a bunch of new buildings, advertised itself to the world, but really didn’t change what it was about or improve in many discernible ways. Heck, even Piper’s only scandal, the 1997 APEC protests, is really due to Strangway: He had approved the arrangements detailing UBC’s involvement, and Piper, just months into her term, couldn’t really do anything about it.
And the thing named for Strangway? Just that building on the corner of University and Wesbrook. Right at the entrance of campus, mixed-use, but sort of unassuming. Home of an Oral Health Centre that allows for vertical integration of UBC’s academic/research aims, and Mahony and Sons, an expensive restaurant guaranteed a monopoly and not really designed for undergraduate students at all.
Martha Piper will have a plaza with a nice fountain in the middle of campus named for her. That’s nice. That’s pleasant. And while virtually no one who passes it will realize it—it’s an appropriate tribute to a competent, yet forgettable, president.
Justin McElroy is former Coordinating Editor of The Ubyssey, and currently writes the news for Global BC.