Remarks at the presentations of the President’s Medal, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, June 26 2019
By Gerald Chan
Over the years, I have been fortunate to be honored by various organizations. None has given me more pleasure than being honored by a university. Part of the reason is that since my boyhood, I have always been a nerd. There was not a school I attended that I did not like; there was not a course I took that I did not enjoy. In a broader sense, I have always considered universities as fascinating institutions. A university belongs to no one, having no owners or shareholders, and yet it belongs to everyone, for in one way or another, everyone in society is a stakeholder. It is the most enduring of human institutions. Steadfast in purpose and often steep in traditions, it has largely managed to hold sway over its own pace of change. Through all its metamorphosis, what hasn’t changed is that the university has always been educating the young. It is the one human institution that takes as its unwavering goal the inter-generational public good.
Even though I am in the investment business, my work is intimately tied to what goes on in universities. They supply the raw materials for my business principally in two forms – intellectual property and human capital. It therefore makes perfect sense that I should be a supporter of higher education. Having many touch points across multiple universities, my sense is that universities now face enormous pressure to evolve more rapidly than they have in the past although it is not clear to me what the university will look like as this evolutionary process plays out. By pressure, I don’t mean issues like budget cuts or swelling enrollment demands. What I have in mind is the radically changing role of knowledge in human society, a change so radical that we must now redefined what it means to be an educated person, and with it, how do we go about producing educated persons.
For nearly the entirety of the human past, new knowledge was produced at a glacial speed. Hence, knowledge was static and scarce. Most of our educational systems and practices today were designed and built in that era of scarcity to function in an economy of scarcity. In contrast to that history, we now live in an era of overabundance where the amount of knowledge is exploding and its dissemination virtually unimpeded. We must find resolution to this incompatibility if we are to optimize the benefits that the university can deliver to society, not to say that those universities which fail to adapt will face marginalization, or in some instances even extinction as we are now seeing in America. At this critical juncture, universities need bold leadership that is not afraid to innovate as well as wise leadership that is not afraid to preserve that which is timeless in the pursuit of education.
It is also in the face of change that support for the university must be bolstered. That the university should derive support from the society it serves is an implicit compact that has undergirded higher education throughout its history. The fact that there is a Chan Centre for the Performing Arts here at UBC is a statement that this society, led by the Chan family, unrelated to me, considered performing arts as an important part of the university. The fact that there is a Green College at UBC endowed by Cecil Green is a recognition of the value of a community of scholars from different disciplines living together and learning from each other. Such undertakings, resulting from a bilateral exchange of ideas and resources between the university and society are indispensable if the university were to sustain its vitality, all the more now as it is facing monumental pressure to change.
I first visited UBC in 1964. By then, two of my uncles had studied here. In 1965, my aunt’s family immigrated to Vancouver. Nearly all my Canadian cousins, nephews and nieces were educated at UBC. Even though I never studied here, today you have extended to me the honor of an affiliation. I hold this honor in high regard because the faculty and staff of this university, past and present, have upheld an academic standard that befits a world-class university. It is in their reflected glory that I find myself today. I feel incredibly honored to be included in your company. President Ono, to you, and to the UBC community at large, thank you.