Premier's sister fights for regional university

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      Most people don't think of Capilano College as a university. But that could change if a high-profile public-relations campaign persuades Premier Gordon Campbell and Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell to redefine the North Vancouver academic institution. In a strange twist, the premier's only sister, Catherine Vertesi, is involved in the campaign to designate Capilano College a "regional university".

      Capilano College president Greg Lee confirmed to the Georgia Straight in an August 13 phone interview that Vertesi, Capilano College's vice-president of education-management and international programs, is part of the senior management team trying to get the definition changed. "All the vice-presidents are involved," Lee said. "In fact, all I've got to say about that is she is a skilled professional. If you look at her background, she was an associate dean of business at UBC; she's dean of business here. This is a professional relationship. I'm sure she's in a professional relationship with her family."

      When asked if he had asked Vertesi to call the premier, Lee replied, "I have not, and I would not." Vertesi was on holiday as the Straight went to press and was unavailable for comment.

      Last April, Capilano College unveiled a new slogan, "Capilano all about U", immediately after B.C.'s former attorney general, Geoff Plant, issued a report on the future of postsecondary education. The words Capilano U are prominently displayed in the college's campaign, which aims to persuade the provincial government to rebrand the institution. Currently, the college is prohibited by law from describing itself as a university.

      Plant's 102-page report, Campus 2020: Thinking Ahead, called on the provincial government to redefine three postsecondary institutions–Kwantlen University College, Malaspina University-College, and University College of the Fraser Valley–as regional universities. Plant decided against recommending transforming Capilano College into a regional university.

      "My view is that University College of the Fraser Valley and Kwantlen are the two best candidates for this, because they have a longer experience granting degrees and because they both operate in jurisdictions where there are significant [university] participation issues," Plant told the Straight by phone. "I get that Cap College reaches way up–its region goes up to Pemberton–but the core audience of Cap College is the North Shore of Vancouver, which is within very easy reach of UBC and SFU. I don't think it's the right place to create a regional university today."

      Lee said that Capilano College is worthy of being called a regional university by virtue of its long history in awarding degrees and because it operates regional campuses in Sechelt and Squamish. The college has a goal of collecting 10,000 signatures for its campaign to become a regional university, and it has already gained the support of all the region's MLAs, and several mayors.

      "If the purpose of a regional university is to take students from adult basic education and trades right through to undergraduate degrees, then that's what we've been doing," Lee said. "Therefore, we should be one."

      Plant's report recommended stripping community colleges, including Capilano College, of their authority to issue degrees. Instead, Plant suggested that colleges should only be awarding degrees in partnership with a university. Plant, who was once a roommate of Gordon Campbell's, said it didn't concern him that his report's recommendations could have an impact on a college that employs the premier's sister.

      "I know that Catherine is there, but it never entered my mind," Plant said.

      The NDP's critic for advanced education, Rob Fleming, told the Straight in a phone interview that he doesn't take issue with the premier's sister working to get the college's designation changed. Fleming said that University College of the Fraser Valley launched a high-profile lobbying campaign to have its designation changed, so he isn't surprised that Capilano College is trying a similar approach.

      "The significance would be if there was an expansion contemplated for those regional universities," Fleming said.

      He also criticized Plant for suggesting colleges not award degrees, and claimed it demonstrated a misunderstanding of the history of the B.C. college system. "The minister was very quick to distance himself from that recommendation," Fleming noted.

      Susan Witter, president of Douglas College in New Westminster, told the Straight that she doesn't support Plant's recommendation to create several regional universities. "A lot of the colleges feel that they would be quite vulnerable if there were three more regional universities, because obviously salaries are higher in regional universities," Witter said. "We would have a harder time attracting faculty."

      Witter said she supports a regional university in the Fraser Valley, which has traditionally had a low university participation rate. She added that she doesn't support Kwantlen University College and Capilano College becoming regional universities, because of their proximity to SFU. "Personally, I don't think that's going to happen," she said.

      Plant said that his terms of reference required him to consider the mandates of postsecondary institutions. He claimed that the system has evolved in an "ad hoc" manner in recent years, which isn't in students' best interests. "So what I tried to do was suggest a way of giving more clarity and definition without reinventing the whole thing," Plant said. "My concern is that if all of the province's postsecondary institutions grant degrees”¦you are sooner or later going to have something that looks like a hodgepodge."

      Lee said that Capilano College could have difficulty attracting international students if it isn't called a university. "Therefore, that has huge revenue implications not only for us, but for the province as a whole," he said. "At a minimum, it's $25,000 a year [per student] that they bring into the province."

      Skip Triplett, president of Kwantlen University College, told the Straight in a phone interview that Kwantlen graduates will be recognized more broadly if the institution is called a university. He added that this could enhance Kwantlen's ability to raise funds. "There is more cachet in donating to a university than to anything else," Triplett said.

      Advanced Education Minister Coell was unavailable for comment on whether or not he will accept Plant's recommendation regarding the creation of regional universities or if he'll support Capilano College's efforts to join the club.

      Charlie Smith previously taught in the Kwantlen journalism program.