Why the director of UBC's School of Population and Public Health should go back to Harvard

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      For many years, UBC has been importing high-profile academics from the United States to burnish its reputation as a world-class university.

      These U.S. academics often have greater access to research funding than their Canadian counterparts, which makes them appealing hires.

      Americans are also permeating the upper management of UBC.

      And sure enough, UBC has climbed in the world rankings of universities over the years.

      This has occurred even as some academics privately grumble that this pursuit of glory is coming at a considerable cost to any postsecondary institution's greatest mission—helping students become educated, happy, and productive citizens.

      That's because research now trumps classroom instruction at major North American universities.

      But sometimes, filling top positions with Americans comes at a cost.

      They don't always understand the nuances of Canada, at least not at the start, and that can undermine the bonds between the university and the community.

      A case in point is Prof. Peter Berman, the director of UBC's School of Population and Public Health.

      Academics in this school have done some exceptionally important work in Metro Vancouver.

      Berman arrived at UBC in 2019 after a quarter of a century at Harvard University.

      And what did he do over the Christmas period? He jetted off to Hawaii for a vacation, just as public health officials from Dr. Theresa Tam to Dr. Bonnie Henry on down were urging Canadians to avoid nonessential travel.

      Berman has shamed the university. He may have even hurt its fundraising prospects in Canada.

      He clearly didn't understand how offended many Canadians would be over someone in his position flouting the recommendations of Dr. Tam and Dr. Henry.

      Did he feel any guilt as he strapped on his seat belt on the Hawaii-bound aircraft? Or did he feel a smug sense of satisfaction as the plane took off toward its sunny destination?

      Berman has since apologized, but that won't make this stain go away. It was a willful act by someone who should have known better.

      It reeks of elitism—one rule for the chumps (i.e. us) who meet our family members over Zoom during the holidays and a different rule for those making fat salaries and who routinely hop on planes to go around the world.

      A misunderstanding of Canada

      On the whole, Canadians are more likely than Americans to embrace collective behaviour for the greater good.

      It's on display in our public health-care system. It's evident in how we've responded to the pandemic. And it's reflected in our politics.

      We're far from perfect. We can be petty and judgemental in ways that many Americans aren't. We're suspicious of exceptionalism, particularly of the American variety.

      No doubt, Berman's a big name in public health and he can bring lots of research funding to UBC from south of the border.

      But he's broken the trust of British Columbians because he, more than anyone, should understand why public health officials are discouraging discretionary travel.

      He's also embarrassed his colleagues with his behaviour.

      They will no doubt have this thrown in their faces when they engage with some people in this region.

      Perhaps UBC can somehow engineer a trade with Harvard—send Berman back in exchange for another academic who hasn't damaged the university's reputation.

      That's what they do in the sports world when stars make mistakes that hurt their teams and alienate the other players.

      Universities have been in the business of turning their academics into stars for decades—so why shouldn't the same solution apply to them?