Stephen Toope is a public intellectual, a world-renowned international-law scholar, and a champion of the tortured, the abused, and the dispossessed. He was the youngest dean in the history of McGill University's venerable law school. The novelists he's reading these days are Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, and Ian McEwan. Toope is only 48, but even so he looks a lot younger, and on July 1 he becomes, officially, the big man on campus on Canada's West Coast.
“I'm the new guy in town,” Toope said during a recent conversation. He wasn't being cocky. If anything, he was being a bit shy about all the fuss that accompanied the news that he had just been named president of the University of British Columbia.
Recently, Toope has perhaps been most widely known as the independent fact-finder appointed by the federal government to look into the scandalous case of Maher Arar, the Canadian who was arrested at JFK Airport in New York in 2002 and spirited away to a Syrian prison. Arar said he was tortured and beaten in that prison for a year. Last October, Toope confirmed Arar's harrowing version of events and also corroborated the torture claims of three other Canadians wrongly jailed in Syria.
Toope came to his conclusions owing, at least partly, to an intimate familiarity with suffering. Toope is the chair of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. He also lost his own parents to a horrible, random murder in Montreal several years ago.
On March 22, when UBC announced that Toope had been picked to replace outgoing president Martha Piper, the decision was met with high praise from every quarter. In a rare public statement for a judge on the bench of the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Rosalie Abella said: “UBC should be electrified.”
Toope, however, wasn't sitting around being groomed for the cameras. Right up until the announcement, he was serving as one of seven special UN rapporteurs who were casting a spotlight on an eruption of arrests, jailings, and dissident-truncheoning being carried out by the thuggish government of Belarus.
Toope's sojourn at UBC should be rather more serene than that kind of work, but don't expect him to be dull.
He comes to UBC directly from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, an independent forum on public policy for scholars, politicians, senior civil servants, students, and leaders in business and the arts. During our interview, he said he intends to carry on with Piper's focus, which was heavy on fundraising, research, and public citizenship. “I don't see a radical shift in me coming on,” he said.
But, clearly, Toope intends to make his mark.
“There's a real need to work hard to enhance the quality of student life,” he said. “This isn't just supporting the football team. How do you reach out beyond that and figure out how universities redefine some social purpose?”
Part of the work that UBC needs to do to reach out beyond itself involves integrating the institution more effectively in the growing cosmopolis of Vancouver, he said. The UBC campus is notoriously dead on the weekends. It's hard to get to, and it's hard to get around once you're there, Toope said. Even the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, which is a fabulous space, remains far too much on the edge of Vancouver's consciousness.
But Toope sees a university reaching out beyond Vancouver, as well.
“I'm convinced that the university has a lot of building blocks already in place to make UBC truly a world university,” he said. UBC must be defined by its place in Canada, and on the West Coast, but at the same time it should be working to enhance its global stature as one of the world's top research universities.
“You have to be rooted where you are,” Toope said, noting the university's growing profile in Vancouver's downtown, with the Robson Square campus and its involvement with the Great Northern Way consortium. But the world is so intricately interconnected on a global scale that UBC has to take a leadership role internationally, he added.
The “crucial question” of the role of the university in society is something that concerns Toope deeply. Through all the upheavals of the ages, two institutions of civilization have survived: religions and universities. “It's strange,” Toope said, “but the university is extraordinarily adaptable.”
Universities are obliged to make immediately relevant contributions to the great challenges of the ages, Toope said: “There's the purpose of passing on knowledge that has persisted down through the centuries, as well as doing research into problems we understand, and understanding problems we have not even identified yet,” he said.
“It seems to me the university should play both of these roles.”
UBC has a unique role to play, not only because of its commitment to research and the distinctive strength of its various faculties but also because of the distinct culture within which it is rooted, Toope said. Vancouver is evolving from a “new set of partnerships among all kinds of different groups,” he said. “B.C. has that in a way that other places haven't.
“There is a constellation of people here who have got really serious about environmental issues, about sustainability issues,” he said, “and that is different than anything you see elsewhere in Canada””a kind of a critical mass of people thinking about climate-change issues and environmental issues, broadly, and I think that's really important.”