The promise, trials and tribulations of a new university that wants to change everything

ERIN MILLAR November 24 2008


The promise, trials and tribulations of a new university that wants to change everything

ERIN MILLAR November 24 2008


The promise, trials and tribulations of a new university that wants to change everything


This is definitely not your typical first-year course. Instead of being packed into a lecture hall along with several hundred strangers, these 20 students are lounging around an oval table in a brandnew classroom and laughing almost hysterically. It’s still September, but their familiarity is already apparent. The room quiets p as a generously bearded, scholarly-looking ^ man introduces today’s topic: the United > Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But 2 instead of lecturing on the finer points of j/> the seminal document himself, David ^ Helfand, a visiting professor from Colum¡¡j bia University, directs the students to pres^ ent their assigned discussion points, inZ tervening from time to time to keep the

conversation moving forward with the occasional question or gentle correction.

The conversation doesn’t need much prodding. Soon the students are jumping in with questions of their own, most of which are surprisingly thoughtful and relevant for a group only three weeks into their academic careers. “What’s the point of all those countries ratifying it if it’s not legally binding?” one young woman asks. Another student: “If we’re all supposedly equal, why give special privileges to disabled or First Nations people?” Another, unembarrassed by her youthful ignorance, admits, “Man, I never even knew what ‘whereas’ meant before yesterday!”

Helfand is a leading astrophysicist and chair of the department of astronomy at Col-

umbia, and yet here he is, teaching a first-year class on human rights at Quest University, a little-known school up a mountain in Squamish, B.C. This class—and everything else at the barely year-old university—is far from ordinary. The student body is tiny. The focus is entirely on undergraduates. Tuition is $24,500 a year. Professors teach exclusively, and do not do research. To emphasize the point, they aren’t even called professors but rather “tutors.” And students don’t take individual courses as at other universities, but instead study in intense, 3 y2-week-long interdisciplinary modules known as “blocks.” Today’s class is part of the year’s first block, focused on the relationship between humans and nature, covering topics as varied as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the philosopher Rousseau and the science of rivers. Although Helfand admits that he was initially skeptical

of the unorthodox approach, he says it’s been a remarkable success. “So far, every subject works just brilliantly. The level of engagement is something I’ve never witnessed in 30 years of teaching university.”

Quest is Canada’s first non-profit, secular, private university—and its approach is arguably the most radical experiment in Canadian higher education since the great university expansion and transformation of the 1960s. And yet despite the promise in evidence in the classroom, this is an experiment that is not going well. Students aren’t flocking to the place. Enrolment is far below expectations. The university’s leadership has been a revolving door, its mission at times confused. The school’s financial health may be shaky. What does such a rocky start for Canada’s most ambitious and publicized higher education revolution say about the state of undergraduate education in Canada?

Quest is the brainchild of David Strangway, one of Canada’s most experienced academic administrators and a former president of the University of British Columbia. When Strangway retired from UBC in 1997, after 12 years at the helm, he had no intention of settling down to a quiet life in his hometown, the retirement haven of Kelowna. Then aged 62, he had bigger plans. He would build a university according to his idea of what undergraduate education should be: it would avoid graduate studies and research, and it would be private. The model would be the liberal arts colleges of the U.S. northeast, such as Vermont’s Middlebury College. In Strangway’s view, most Canadian universities no longer focus on undergraduates, but have instead become graduate research establishments that also teach undergraduate students.

As a university president, Strangway had also spent years struggling with tight provincial budgets, which led him to look for a



new business model. “From the Canadian perspective, there have been almost 20 years of reductions of transfer payments on a perstudent basis,” he said in a recent interview. There have, however, been major funding initiatives from both levels of government for research or research infrastructure. (Strangway was CEO of one of the largest of those research granting agencies—the federal government’s Canada Foundation for Innovation—from 1998 to 2004.) These encourage a kind of mandate creep: small, teachingfocused institutions strive to become large, research-intensive universities in a quest for

money and prestige, and the safety of emulating what others are already doing. But the model, according to Strangway, is not in the best interest of teaching excellence. “Research capacity,” says Strangway, expressing a view that almost every other Canadian university president rejects, “does not directly affect undergraduate students.”

And so, Strangway set out to build his ideal school. By saying no to public funding, and looking to private sources for $120 million in financing, he aimed to be able to have Quest focus exclusively on teaching. However, without a government subsidy, he’d have to charge tuition fees several times that of a public university; the institution would have to be exceptional to lure students from the lower-cost public system.

He figured things would be up and running by 2001 or 2002. Although it didn’t exactly turn out that way, he isn’t the kind of guy to back down from a challenge. The son of African missionaries and a geophysicist by training, Strangway has been, among other things, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor, vice-president and acting president of the University of Toronto, and chief of the geophysics branch of NASA during the Apollo moon missions.

When Strangway first started shopping his idea around in 1997, he inspired enthusiasm but also opposition. He had to battle the province’s New Democratic government, which viewed private education as an anathema akin to two-tier health care. There was skepticism about Quest’s ability to attract quality faculty, given its unproven record and lack of research opportunities, but Strangway says he received hundreds of applications for the handful of “tutor” positions and almost always got his top pick.

Helfand was one of those who wanted to get involved. When he first heard about Quest, he was encouraged rather than deterred by its novelty. Even at Columbia, an Ivy League school, Helfand encountered what he saw as deficiencies in undergraduate education. In 1982, he began pushing to add one science course to the core curriculum taught to all Columbia first-year students. He fought for 22 years before the university agreed. “It was unlikely I was going to have another 22 years to add a second course, because I might not live that long,” he wryly explains. “The idea of starting from scratch and thinking about the way a university should be designed to educate undergraduates for the 21st century was very attractive.”

Strangway also believes that conventional universities require students to declare a major too early, forcing them to overspecialize and causing them to miss out on a chance to achieve broad knowledge across many

disciplines. His ideal, 21st-century-ready graduate is‘T’ shaped: she should have the breadth of knowledge necessary to approach difficult modern problems in an interdisciplinary manner, while also being, to some extent, specialized. “A lot of professional and graduate schools are very interested in this type of person,” he says. Quest aims to produce such graduates with its novel curriculum and the intimate learning environment of an unheard of 10:1 faculty ratio.

Canadian students are for the most part not getting that kind of intimate educational experience. And an annual continent-wide study of undergraduate education at 610 North American universities suggests that Canadian students are learning less as a result. The results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which most major Canadian universities participate in, suggests that students are most engaged and hence learn most at smaller schools that focus on undergraduates. Few Canadian universities do well on NSSE com-


pared to their U.S. peers, and some prestigious institutions do remarkably poorly. (For the full NSSE results, see “Where Are Students Learning the Most?” on page 100.) Only Mount Allison University and Acadia University, both small and undergraduate-focused, consistently exceed the U.S. average.

Canadian universities came off looking particularly weak on the Student-Faculty Interaction benchmark; no school exceeded the U.S. NSSE average for first-year students and only three exceeded the senior-year average. The indicator measures such things as whether students have worked with a professor on activities outside of coursework, talked about career plans with a faculty member, received prompt feedback from faculty on their academic performance and worked with a faculty member on a research project.

Given that Quest’s raison d’etre was to address these problems, the expectation seems to have been that there would be a long lineup of kids banging on Quest’s door. Instead, the inaugural class in September 2007 was half the size Strangway was shooting for—74 students instead of the target 160. (Ten more students joined that class last spring.) This September only 79 students signed up, and nearly one in five members of last year’s first class did not return. At this rate, Quest will be well short of its goal of having 640 students on campus by 2010.

“The growth of the student body has been slower than expected,” Strangway admits. “We did not meet our numerical targets,” though he says that “we did meet our quality targets.” He emphasizes that creating a market for a new type of education at an unknown institution is a daunting task. Quest is asking students and parents to risk a lot of money on an untested product. Strangway believes that the number of applications will grow as current students become ambassadors for the school. However, Quest’s recruitment troubles have been only the beginning of its problems.

One of the earliest developments that hinted at internal turmoil at Quest was Strangway’s sudden departure as president. He

stepped down in October 2007, only a month into the school’s first academic year. The news came as a surprise to outsiders, since Quest was to a large extent built on Strangway’s name and reputation, not to mention a decade’s worth of his effort. It was as if Stephen Harper had resigned weeks after forming his first government. Quest says that Strangway had long made it clear that his resignation was to be expected once the school was on its feet, but the early date apparently surprised even the board of governors. Strangway says he felt the school needed “new blood.” According to Helfand, it was a little abrupt.

But everyone remained friends. Strangway became chancellor, an honorary position required by B.C. law in order to confer degrees, and Quest selected as president Thomas Wood, a veteran academic administrator and a longtime supporter of Quest. In less than a year, that arrangement would also come to an end.

Then this past summer, Quest made a very unusual move for an institution aiming to be the epitome of undergraduate excellence. In August, the university came to an understanding with CIBT Education Group Inc., a publicly traded, for-profit education company that owns private vocational school

Sprott-Shaw College (known in B.C. for its catchy radio jingle) and a network of business and language schools in Canada and China. According to a CIBT press release of Aug. 27, Quest and CIBT had signed a letter of intent according to which CIBT would “manage [Quest’s] administrational and financial functions.” What’s more, according to the press release, “certain academic and administrative expenses will be consolidated with other [Sprott-Shaw] colleges to reduce costs, increase enrolment and ultimately increase efficiency by sharing resources across



the CIBT Group.” The press release also noted, almost as an afterthought, that Quest now had a new president: “Mr. Dean Duperron, president of Sprott-Shaw College, has been appointed interim president of Quest.”

The partnership raised eyebrows. Under Duperron’s leadership, Sprott-Shaw has grown from one campus with 26 students in 1991 to 20 locations across B.C. training over4,500 students every year. CIBT, which took over Sprott-Shaw in 2007, was earlier this year acquiring Chinese business school campuses, from Hangzhou to Huazhong, at a rate of one per week. But Sprott-Shaw’s educational mission bears little relation to Quest’s liberal arts vision. Sprott-Shaw offers diplomas in trades and vocational programs. It was like Giant Tiger taking over Holt Renfrew.

Quest for its part kept the news quiet; no press release announced the change in leadership and into September, the Quest website still listed Wood as president. And the same month that the university signed the letter of intent with CIBT, Strangway stepped down from the board of governors, disqualifying him from holding the position of chancellor. Strangway wouldn’t elaborate on his decision to cut the last of his official ties with the university other than to say, “Obviously I’m still deeply interested. I’m not totally uninvolved.” Helfand, who was also hesitant to comment, having not been on the board at the time, said, “I think it’s fair to assume that he was not a fan of the Sprott-Shaw decision.”

And then, in mid-October, another big change: the day after visiting Helfand’s firstyear class, this reporter got a surprising call from Quest. The Sprott-Shaw deal was off and the board had appointed its fourth president in two years: Dr. David J. Helfand.

(According to Michael Gibbons, the chairman of Quest’s board, the Sprott-Shaw deal was not really off since, he says, it was never “on” in the first place. “Sprott-Shaw were hired on a contractual basis to review our cost structure. This they did with alacrity and dispatch and they have since left the campus,” he wrote in an email to Maclean’s.)

Strangway was thrilled. Speaking a few days later, he gushed about Helfand’s work developing an innovative science curriculum at Columbia, and called him “exactly the right person” to wear the presidential hat. “This gets everything back on track after two months of turmoil,” he says. “The big problem with SprottShaw was that they didn’t get the vision.”

The issue now is whether Canada and Canadian students will.

The financial challenges of setting up a private university were what bred the most skeptics of Strangway’s dream. Universities, even small ones, are very expensive under-

takings. In need of some $120 million and with no public money, Strangway designed Quest’s business model around a real estate scheme, similar to what had been a great success during his UBC days. Strangway set up a development company called U.B.C. Real Estate Corp. to develop a condo project that generated a profit of $85 million for UBC’s endowment fund. One need not look further than the dozen cranes and the new condos built or being built on the University Endowment Lands surrounding UBC to see evidence of the continued execution of Strangway’s initial idea.

This time around, the plan was that Squamish, eager for the financial benefits of a university after a devastating saw mill closure, would grant Quest zoning concessions that would in turn attract development partners to build the campus and develop surrounding property. The presence of a university would raise the value of the adjacent land; the university would benefit from that increase in value. The hope was that the profits would cover half of the school’s price tag and tuition revenue would support operating costs and a mortgage for the rest.

The plan looked promising, but it hardly guaranteed success. A 2001 National Post Business article took a look at the university’s business plan, and found that “even a cursory analysis makes [Quest] look like a long shot.” The article noted that in order to generate the $60 million in profits, around $400 million worth of property would have to be developed. This would be no small feat in a town that on average developed just $26 million a year in the 1990s, before Quest’s entrance.

“Market housing is basically the driver for this whole system,” Strangway acknowledged in a January 2006 interview with Maclean’s. At that time, Squamish had given Quest the right to develop 960 units. The first phase with 200 units had already been sold to a developer and a second 260-unit phase was expected to sell that summer.

Quest declined to provide updated financial information, including whether the sec-

ond parcel of land was sold in the summer of 2006. But the softening housing market can’t be good news for Quest. According to the B.C. Real Estate Association, the average home price in B.C. during September was down 74 per cent over the previous year.

Nevertheless, Strangway says that Quest is set to make it through year two although “there will still be some breath holding.” Given the current softness in the economy and global real estate markets, there are real questions about Quest’s real estate-based business model. The school says it is also in talks with the organizers of the Vancouver Olympics to rent out the campus for the duration of the 2010 Games. That could provide a substantial, one-time cash injection. But absent major sources of outside funding, Quest is likely to be more dependent on tuition dollars to fund its operations. And that makes the task of convincing students that a Quest education is worth the cost and risk even more crucial to the school’s survival.

Back at Quest, three students are waiting outside of Helfand’s first-year class, eager to talk to a reporter about why they chose the university. The two young women have

painted fake beards and mustaches on their faces and the male student is wearing fishnets under an incredibly short miniskirt; in fact, the entire second-year class is dressed up as the opposite sex, a prank to surprise their tutor during the last class of a block about gender and identity.

“My parents wanted me to apply to the University of Toronto or McGill,” says Caroline Hedin, a pretty blond who came to Quest straight from high school in Calgary. But those universities, she says, “just didn’t feel like me. Too big. Too impersonal. Every time I called the recruitment officer here we had a great long conversation.” Isn’t it frustrating to be the inaugural class of a new university that is still finding its bearings? No, says student president Caleb Tomlinson, who tried a couple of other universities before ending up at Quest. “It’s exciting to be part of shaping Quest.” As the conversation ends, Hedin lets out a long, almost fervent, sigh. “I just love this place.”

So why aren’t more students sold on the Quest model? David Marshall, president of Mount Royal College in Calgary, believes that to a large extent they are. The problem, he says, is that the model is to some extent

already available elsewhere in Canada, and at a fraction of the price. He points to small, public universities like Mount Allison, Bishop’s, and Nipissing (where he used to be president), which have long distinguished themselves by focusing on undergraduate education with small classes and populations in the 2,000-student range. Marshall argues that Canada is undergoing a renaissance in teaching-focused institutions, and that while some small undergraduate universities are seduced by “mission creep,” not all are. He cites three of B.C.’s new, undergraduate-focused universities—University of the Fraser Valley, Kwantlen

Polytechnic University, and Vancouver Island University, all formerly known as university colleges—as evidence of this view.

Marshall, of course, includes Mount Royal on the list. It’s one of Quest’s competitors, yet it’s publicly funded. Under Marshall’s leadership, the college has transformed itself into a university in everything but name (and that last part is likely to happen soon). Almost all of this year’s crop of first-year Mount Royal students are enrolled in four-year bachelor’s degree programs rather than college diploma courses or transfer programs. In a recent discussion paper, Marshall writes, “While Canada’s research-focused universities are indeed outstanding institutions from which anyone would be proud to have a degree, Canadian universities are experiencing what

could be called a reputation-quality paradox: the widening gap between a university’s reputation-based primarily on research-related measures—and the quality of students’ undergraduate experience.” Mount Royal, like Quest, aims to step into the gap.

That, too, poses a challenge for Quest: many others within the university system now share Strangway’s sense of crisis about undergraduate education, and even agree with some of his prescriptions. Every large Canadian university now pays at least lip service to improving the undergrad experience and outcomes, with most creating new


senior administrative positions and programs to focus on it. In fact, the most important and promising innovation in undergraduate education may be taking place just down the road from Quest, on Strangway’s old campus. Last year, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman decided that he had had enough of being a physics researcher, uprooted himself from the University of Colorado, and decided to devote himself to remaking the teaching of undergraduate science—at the University of British Columbia. He now heads the Carl Wieman Science Initiative at UBC, whose goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t in science education, and to revamp curriculum and teaching practices accordingly.

Another test will come when Quest seeks membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Membership, for which Quest won’t apply until after graduating its first students, serves as de facto accreditation in Canada in the absence of a national system—and research is central to AUCC’s definition of a university. But Strangway has been clear from the beginning that Quest is not merely about teaching primacy. It is about teaching exclusivity. In a spring 2007 interview with Maclean’s, he said of his faculty, “you’re not coming here to do research. You’re coming here to teach and share your experience with students. We will not be building research facilities. But if you want to do research on your own time, more power to you.” The philosophy reflects Quest’s policy of calling faculty tutors rather than professors, and its lack of tenure. Helfand for his part says that faculty must be “intellectually engaged in scholar-

ship,” but says that this does not necessarily require conducting research.

All of this could pose a challenge for AUCC and Quest. Without that AUCC seal of approval, graduates hoping to pursue further studies in Canada—such as law school, teacher’s college, or a Ph.D.—could find their applications turned down because their university is not fully recognized. When asked about Quest’s eventual status, Christine Tausig Ford, who as AUCC corporate secretary is responsible for membership issues, didn’t rule Quest’s membership out, saying that it is not necessary for every professor to be continually publishing peer-reviewed work. Quest is already an affiliate member of a U.S. accreditation body, the American Academy for Liberal Education.

Regardless of the hurdles, Helfand, Quest’s new president, is determined to succeed. It’s clear from the way he talks that he believes it’s a special place, made so by what he sees as special students. “They are just the most remarkable group. They aren’t the smartest students I’ve ever taught; a few of them are, but the average is not enormously high and their preparation is not always enormously good. But the level of engagement when they land here—we plunge them into it on day one—produces spectacular results.”

Helfand says he has no doubt that Quest has a viable and saleable educational model. He plans to change the recruitment strategy to focus more on the U.S. East Coast, home to the liberal arts tradition. All faculty members will also spend time over the next three months going to high schools and meeting with counsellors. Even parents have stepped up to assist with recruitment. “There are 3,800 colleges or so in North America. When you’re brand new, you have to stand out in that noise,” he says. “The only way to do that is one at a time—not with radio jingles.”

Helfand’s goal is to double enrolment. But he may not get to see the results; he does not intend to be Quest’s permanent president. He’s still a faculty member at Columbia and will be taking a year-long leave of absence, starting in January. He says he’ll stay in the top job at Quest only until the university completes a thorough presidential search.

Despite the daunting task ahead, Helfand, speaking from his New York office, has the same wistful tone in his voice as his student, Caroline Hedin. “When I came back here,” he says, referring to Columbia, where 19,000 applicants vie for 1,000 first-year spots, “I substituted for someone’s 20-student seminar, and I was so depressed by the end of the two hours. They were so unlike the students at Quest.” M